United States v. Bagley

Decision Date02 July 1985
Docket NumberNo. 84-48,84-48
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. Hughes Anderson BAGLEY
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondent was indicted on charges of violating federal narcotics and firearms statutes. Before trial, he filed a discovery motion requesting, inter alia, "any deals, promises or inducements made to [Government] witnesses in exchange for their testimony." The Government's response did not disclose that any "deals, promises or inducements" had been made to its two principal witnesses, who had assisted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in conducting an undercover investigation of respondent. But the Government did produce signed affidavits by these witnesses recounting their undercover dealing with respondent and concluding with the statement that the affidavits were made without any threats or rewards or promises of reward. Respondent waived his right to a jury trial and was tried before the District Court. The two principal Government witnesses testified about both the firearms and narcotics charges, and the court found respondent guilty on the narcotics charges but not guilty on the firearms charges. Subsequently, in response to requests made pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act, respondent received copies of ATF contracts signed by the principal Government witnesses during the undercover investigation and stating that the Government would pay money to the witnesses commensurate with the information furnished. Respondent then moved to vacate his sentence, alleging that the Government's failure in response to the discovery motion to disclose these contracts, which he could have used to impeach the witnesses, violated his right to due process under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215, which held that the prosecution's suppression of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or punishment. The District Court denied the motion, finding beyond a reasonable doubt that had the existence of the ATF contracts been disclosed to it during trial, the disclosure would not have affected the outcome, because the principal Government witnesses' testimony was primarily devoted to the firearms charges on which respondent was acquitted, and was exculpatory on the narcotics charges. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Government's failure to disclose the requested impeachment evidence that respondent could have used to conduct an effective cross-examination of the Government's prin- cipal witnesses required automatic reversal. The Court of Appeals also stated that it "disagree[d]" with the District Court's conclusion that the nondisclosure was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, noting that the witnesses' testimony was in fact inculpatory on the narcotics charges.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

719 F.2d 1462 (CA9 1983) reversed and remanded.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and II, concluding that the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the prosecutor's failure to disclose evidence that could have been used effectively to impeach important Government witnesses requires automatic reversal. Such nondisclosure constitutes constitutional error and requires reversal of the conviction only if the evidence is material in the sense that its suppression might have affected the outcome of the trial. Pp. 674-678.

Justice BLACKMUN, joined by Justice O'CONNOR, delivered an opinion with respect to Part III, concluding that the nondisclosed evidence at issue is material only if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A "reasonable probability" is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome. This standard of materiality is sufficiently flexible to cover cases of prosecutorial failure to disclose evidence favorable to the defense regardless of whether the defense makes no request, a general request, or a specific request. Although the prosecutor's failure to respond fully to a specific request may impair the adversary process by having the effect of representing to the defense that certain evidence does not exist, this possibility of impairment does not necessitate a different standard of materiality. Under the standard stated above, the reviewing court may consider directly any adverse effect that the prosecutor's failure to respond might have had on the preparation or presentation of the defendant's case. Pp. 678-684.

Justice WHITE, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Justice REHNQUIST, being of the view that there is no reason to elaborate on the relevance of the specificity of the defense's request for disclosure, either generally or with respect to this case, concluded that reversal was mandated simply because the Court of Appeals failed to apply the "reasonable probability" standard of materiality to the nondisclosed evidence in question. P. 685.

David A. Strauss, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Thomas W. Hillier, II, Seattle, Wash., for respondent.

Justice BLACKMUN announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion of the Court except as to Part III.

In Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 1196, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963), this Court held that "the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or punishment." The issue in the present case concerns the standard of materiality to be applied in determining whether a conviction should be reversed because the prosecutor failed to disclose requested evidence that could have been used to impeach Government witnesses.

I

In October 1977, respondent Hughes Anderson Bagley was indicted in the Western District of Washington on 15 charges of violating federal narcotics and firearms statutes. On November 18, 24 days before trial, respondent filed a discovery motion. The sixth paragraph of that motion requested:

"The names and addresses of witnesses that the government intends to call at trial. Also the prior criminal records of witnesses, and any deals, promises or induce- ments made to witnesses in exchange for their testimony." App. 18.1

The Government's two principal witnesses at the trial were James F. O'Connor and Donald E. Mitchell. O'Connor and Mitchell were state law-enforcement officers employed by the Milwaukee Railroad as private security guards. Between April and June 1977, they assisted the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in conducting an undercover investigation of respondent.

The Government's response to the discovery motion did not disclose that any "deals, promises or inducements" had been made to O'Connor or Mitchell. In apparent reply to a request in the motion's ninth paragraph for "[c]opies of all Jencks Act material," 2 the Government produced a series of affidavits that O'Connor and Mitchell had signed between April 12 and May 4, 1977, while the undercover investigation was in progress. These affidavits recounted in detail the undercover dealings that O'Connor and Mitchell were having at the time with respondent. Each affidavit concluded with the statement, "I made this statement freely and voluntarily without any threats or rewards, or promises of reward having been made to me in return for it." 3

Respondent waived his right to a jury trial and was tried before the court in December 1977. At the trial, O'Connor and Mitchell testified about both the firearms and the narcotics charges. On December 23, the court found respondent guilty on the narcotics charges, but not guilty on the firearms charges.

In mid-1980, respondent filed requests for information pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act and to the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. §§ 552 and 552a. He received in response copies of ATF form contracts that O'Connor and Mitchell had signed on May 3, 1977. Each form was entitled "Contract for Purchase of Information and Payment of Lump Sum Therefor." The printed portion of the form stated that the vendor "will provide" information to ATF and that "upon receipt of such information by the Regional Director, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or his representative, and upon the accomplishment of the objective sought to be obtained by the use of such information to the satisfaction of said Regional Director, the United States will pay to said vendor a sum commensurate with services and information rendered." App. 22 and 23. Each form contained the following typewritten description of services:

"That he will provide information regarding T-I and other violations committed by Hughes A. Bagley, Jr.; that he will purchase evidence for ATF; that he will cut [sic ] in an undercover capacity for ATF; that he will assist ATF in gathering of evidence and testify against the violator in federal court." Ibid.

The figure "$300.00" was handwritten in each form on a line entitled "Sum to Be Paid to Vendor."

Because these contracts had not been disclosed to respondent in response to his pretrial discovery motion,4 respondent moved under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his sentence. He alleged that the Government's failure to disclose the contracts, which he could have used to impeach O'Connor and Mitchell, violated his right to due process under Brady v. Maryland, supra.

The motion came before the same District Judge who had presided at respondent's bench trial. An evidentiary hearing was held before a Magistrate. The Magistrate found that the printed form contracts were blank when O'Connor and Mitchell signed them and were not signed by an ATF representative until after the trial. He also found that on January 4, 1978, following the trial and decision in respondent's case, ATF made payments of $300 to both O'Connor and Mitchell...

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