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Crime Victims R.S. v. Thompson

Court of Appeals of Arizona, First Division

November 21, 2019

CRIME VICTIMS R.S. and S.E., Petitioners,
v.
THE HONORABLE PETER A. THOMPSON, Judge of the SUPERIOR COURT OF THE STATE OF ARIZONA, in and for the County of MARICOPA, Respondent Judge, TEDDY CARL VANDERS, Real Party in Interest.

          Petition for Special Action from the Superior Court in Maricopa County No. CR2017-132367-001 The Honorable Peter A. Thompson, Judge.

          Jamie Balson Attorney at Law, Sun City By Jamie Balson Counsel for Petitioners

          Maricopa County Office of the Legal Advocate, Phoenix By Elyse Anne Fune, James P. Leonard Counsel for Real Party in Interest

          Chief Judge Peter B. Swann delivered the opinion of the court, in which Presiding Judge James B. Morse Jr. and Judge Kenton D. Jones joined.

          OPINION

          SWANN, CHIEF JUDGE.

         ¶1 In this case, we hold that the physician-patient privilege does not yield to the request of a criminal defendant for information merely because that information may be helpful to his defense.

         ¶2 Teddy Carl Vanders is charged with second-degree murder. On his request, the superior court ordered a hospital to disclose the deceased victim's privileged mental health records for an in camera review. Siblings of the victim petition for special action relief from that order.

         ¶3 Vanders's argument is that his constitutional rights overcome a statutory privilege. While it is true that the privilege cannot withstand a direct conflict with a constitutional right, a defendant's due process right to a fair trial does not create a right to discovery any greater than those rights created by Ariz. R. Crim. P. ("Rule") 15.1 and Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). We hold that to be entitled to an in camera review of privileged records as a matter of due process, the defendant must establish a substantial probability that the protected records contain information critical to an element of the charge or defense or that their unavailability would result in a fundamentally unfair trial. Because Vanders did not establish such a probability, the court erred by granting an in camera review of the victim's privileged records. We therefore accept jurisdiction and grant relief.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶4 On July 13, 2017, Vanders called 9-1-1 and told the operator that he had just shot and killed his long-term girlfriend, M.S., during a domestic dispute. He described the incident to the operator, saying "[M.S.] was acting evil and possessive. She was crawling around. It was insane and not normal." He also said that M.S. had abused him throughout their relationship, and that he had "been threatened for many years." He told the operator that M.S. had been to a mental hospital and that he thought she had been diagnosed with a mental illness.

         ¶5 Before trial, Vanders requested that the court compel "Magellan Hospital/ Urgent Psychiatric Care Center" to disclose for an in camera review M.S.'s privileged mental health records from a visit six years before her death. Vanders claimed that "the nature of the requested records are essential to his listed [justification] defenses and to his ability to effectively examine witnesses." In support of his motion, Vanders cited his statements to the 9-1-1 operator and two police reports from 2009 and 2011, both of which listed him as the victim of domestic assault. In the 2009 incident, M.S. was taken into custody after she admitted to hitting Vanders while both were intoxicated. In the 2011 incident, while the couple were intoxicated, M.S. broke open the couple's gun safe to get a gun to kill herself, and Vanders physically restrained her. According to the report, M.S. was "hysterical and kept saying she wanted to kill herself," and, once in custody, asked for an officer's gun so she could kill herself. The police took her to Magellan Hospital "due to [her] current mental state," where she voluntarily checked herself in and told staff that "she did need help and wanted to talk to them about suicide."

         ¶6 Relying on State ex rel. Romley v. Superior Court (Roper), 172 Ariz. 232 (App. 1992), the superior court found that Vanders's due process rights required disclosure of M.S.'s privileged records for an in camera review. The court granted Vanders's motion, and M.S.'s siblings, as victims under Arizona's Victims' Bill of Rights ("VBR"), brought this special action challenging the ruling. See A.R.S. §§ 13-4401(19), -4437(A).

         JURISDICTION

         ¶7 Special action jurisdiction is appropriate when there is no equally plain, speedy, and adequate remedy by appeal, Ariz. R.P. Spec. Act. 1(a), and when the case presents a purely legal issue of statewide importance and first impression, Gilbert Prosecutor's Office v. Foster, 245 Ariz. 15, 17, ¶ 5 (App. 2018). We accept jurisdiction because there is no adequate remedy by appeal when a party challenges an order to produce privileged documents, see Roman Catholic Diocese of Phx. v. Superior Court (State), 204 Ariz. 225, 227, ΒΆ 2 (App. 2003), and this ...


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