The Volokh Conspiracy
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Today the Utah Supreme Court handed down an important victory for crime victims, holding that crime victims can become "limited-purpose parties" in criminal prosecutions when their rights are at issue. The Court ruled that a child sexual assault victim was entitled to be heard regarding any release of her confidential mental health counseling records to a criminal defendant. The decision is an important one for crime victims' rights here in Utah and even nationally, as it recognizes that crime victims can formally intervene in criminal cases to protect their interests.
The case involves defendant David M. Chadwick, who was charged with sexually abusing F.L. when she was a child. Chadwick requested that the trial court conduct an in camera review of F.L.'s therapy records and release certain information arguably relevant to his defense. The trial court granted Chadwick's request and conducted the review, after which it issued several orders quoting relevant excerpts from the records. The trial court then sealed the remaining records. Chadwick proceeded to trial and was convicted of sexual abusing F.L. while she was a child.
Chadwick then appealed to the court of appeals and challenged the adequacy of the trial court's in camera review. On its own motion, the court of appeals unsealed F.L.'s counseling records, allowing Chadwick's attorney to use those records in his opening appellate brief. In response, F.L. filed a motion asking the court of appeals to reseal her records and strike all references to the confidential materials in Chadwick's brief. The court granted F.L.'s request, instructing Chadwick to file a revised brief without references to the records.
Chadwick filed the revised brief as instructed but also challenged the court of appeals' decision to reseal F.L.'s therapy records. Chadwick asked that the court to release those records to his attorney or, in the alternative, conduct a new in camera review of the records.
The Utah Crime Victim's Legal Clinic and I then filed a motion for F.L., asking that she be allowed to intervene in Chadwick's appeal as a limited-purpose party to protect her privacy interests. F.L. sought to assert her privacy right stemming from the Utah Constitution's Victims' Rights Amendment, which guarantees crime victims that they will be treated with "fairness, dignity, and respect." Utah Const., art. I, sec. 28. F.L. also sought to assert her privilege under Utah Rule of Evidence 506(b), which creates a privilege in mental health counseling records.
Rather than grant her motion to intervene, the court of appeals construed F.L.'s motion as seeking merely to file an amicus brief. We then filed a petition for an extraordinary writ in the Utah Supreme Court, asking it to direct the court of appeals to allow F.L. to intervene in the criminal proceedings concerning release of her records.
Following an oral argument in April, today the Supreme Court granted our petition for extraordinary relief. The Court agreed with our argument that the court of appeals erred by restricting F.L. "merely to kibitz from the sidelines about what is happening to her records." Instead. F.L. (like other privilege holders) was entitled to be heard immediately in court proceedings regarding her confidential records―and she was entitled to immediate protection of her rights by the Supreme Court. If F.L. were required to wait until after a final decision to appeal the denial of her motion to intervene, her confidential records might be released to Chadwick without her being able to assert her privacy interests. The Court explained that "in the extraordinary writ context, compelling a party to turn over what is alleged to constitute privileged information has the potential to result in irreparable injury, and appellate courts cannot always unring the bell once the information has been released."
More broadly, the Utah Supreme Court explained the circumstances in which crime victims can participate in criminal proceedings. The Court noted that, although a crime victim is not entitled to participate in all stages of criminal proceedings or for all purposes, that conclusion "does not eliminate the possibility that a victim may qualify as 'a limited-purpose party'" with standing to assert specific rights. The Supreme Court held that, as a general matter, "if the law gives crime victims the ability to proactively assert a right or seek a remedy, then they may enforce those specific rights as limited-purpose parties in criminal proceedings." Accordingly, the Court reversed the court of appeals decision declining to allow F.L. to intervene and remanded with instructions that the F.L. be allowed to participate in Chadwick's appeal on issues regarding the release of her records.
The Utah Supreme Court's decision is an important one for crime victims' rights here in Utah and has broader implications. By recognizing that crime victims have the right be heard in criminal proceedings affecting their rights, the Court has ensured that victims will have a voice in the the criminal justice process. As crime victims rights continue to expand here in Utah and nationally, this recognition will help ensure that crime victims' enactments are not merely hortatory but instead are enforceable.
Crime victims may not be parties to criminal cases. But they can have important rights at stake in those cases―and should be heard in defense of those rights.