In a fractured en banc decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently dismissed a $2.3 million civil judgment won by a former prison inmate declared actually innocent after the city of Brownsville failed to turn over potentially exculpatory video evidence in his case.
The decision, in Alvarez v. City of Brownsville, involves the 2005 detention of George Alvarez, a 17-year-old special-education student who had been arrested by Brownsville police for public intoxication and burglary of a motor vehicle.
According to the court, a scuffle broke out between Alvarez and jail officer Jesus Arias, in which Arias eventually forced Alvarez to the ground, an event which was captured on video.
The Brownsville Police Department used the video as part of an internal administrative investigation in which it ultimately determined that Arias didn’t violate the department’s use-of-force policy.
Alvarez has contended that the video is exculpatory to him, though prosecutors dispute that.
Alvarez was later charged with assault on a public servant, pleaded guilty to the charge in 2006, and was given a suspended sentence of eight years, which he began serving later that year after his probation was revoked for failure to complete a treatment program.
He spent four years in prison before videos of the incident surfaced during the discovery in another, unrelated civil rights case. After discovery of the videos, Alvarez filed a writ of habeas corpus in a state court, claiming that the Brownsville Police Department had withheld the exculpatory videos in violation of Brady v. Maryland. And in 2010, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that Alvarez was “actually innocent,” a decision that set aside Alvarez’s conviction. All charges against Alvarez were later dismissed.
In 2011, Alvarez sued Brownsville in federal court for civil rights violations, including the nondisclosure of exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady. After Alvarez won $2 million in compensatory damages from a jury, and another $300,000 in attorney fees, a Fifth Circuit panel reversed that win in a 2017 decision, finding that Brownsville should not be subjected to municipal liability because of Alvarez’s claim and that Alvarez had no right to Brady material before entering a guilty plea.
That ruling received amici attention from numerous criminal justice advocacy groups, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project, who wanted the full court to reverse a decision they believe would allow prosecutors to withhold proof of innocence while a defendant pleads guilty.
In a majority en banc decision by Fifth Circuit Chief Judge Carl Stewart, the court rejected Alvarez’s argument that Brownsville had an unwritten policy through its police department of not disclosing exculpatory evidence obtained in the course of internal administrative investigations.
“The general policy of non-disclosure was not a direct cause of Alvarez’s injury,” Stewart wrote. “Second, this general policy of non-disclosure was not implemented with ‘deliberate indifference.’”
Stewart also noted that before the Fifth Circuit granting en banc review to Alvarez’s appeal, it was settled precedent in the circuit that there was no constitutional right to Brady material before a guilty plea.
“In sum, case law from the Supreme Court, this circuit, and other circuits does not affirmatively establish that a constitutional violation occurs when Brady material is not shared during the plea bargaining process,” Stewart wrote. “The en banc court will not disturb this circuit’s settled precedent and abstains from expanding the Brady right to the pretrial plea bargaining context for Alvarez.”
The court’s majority holding in the case sparked three dissents, including one from Judge James Dennis, who said the en banc court should have recognized the federal constitutional right of a defendant to exculpatory evidence at the plea-bargaining stage; one from Judge James Graves, who concluded that Brownville’s nondisclosure policy was implemented with deliberate indifference; and one from Judge Gregg Costa, who was troubled by the majority’s Brady analysis.
“Judicial opinions often extol liberty. As well they should when applying a Constitution that begins with to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity’ and prohibits both federal and state governments from depriving a person of that liberty without due process of law,” Costa wrote.
“It is difficult to think of greater deprivations of that liberty than the government’s allowing someone to be held in prison without telling him that there is evidence that might exonerate him,” Costa wrote. “That tragic situation offends the ‘twofold aim’ of our justice system ‘which is that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer. Due process requires more than we afforded the accused today.”
Ray Vaida, an attorney from The Woodlands who represents Brownsville on appeal, is pleased with the decision.
“The result of the case was a just one and it was also a principled one on both grounds,” Vaida said. “The city was not deliberately indifferent in delivering [the videos] as the Supreme Court has defined deliberate indifference.”
“And the city would not be made insurers whenever an alleged wrongful imprisonment on the basis of nondisclosure of evidence when a guy cops a plea and the guy’s lawyer hasn’t investigated whether something has fallen through the cracks at the police department,” Vaida added.
Eddie Lucio, a Brownsville attorney who represents Alvarez on appeal, said he plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, noting that other circuits have required law enforcement to turn over exculpatory evidence before defendants plead guilty.
“We obviously think this law needs to change,” Lucio said. “It seems like every circuit in the country is in the process of changing it except the Fifth Circuit.”