In State v. Terrell M. Chambers (A-35-21/086317) (Decided January 23, 2023), the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed when defendants should be able to access a rape victim’s mental health records. The court ultimately held that a heightened discovery standard should govern a defendant’s motion for pre-incident mental health records from a sexual assault victim and established both a formal and informal process to obtain such records.
Facts of State v. Chambers
Defendant Terrell M. Chambers was indicted and charged with second-degree sexual assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(c)(1), following a victim’s allegation that he performed non-consensual oral sex upon her several times over the course of a night when they drank alcohol at a gathering with friends and family.
In response to the allegations, defendant and several witnesses spoke about the victim’s alleged pre-incident mental illness. Defendant stated that the victim “was in the psychiatric home before, she went crazy before,” implying that she suffered from an illness that impaired her ability to recount the incident, or at a minimum, that she imagined or fabricated the incident. Defendant’s sister stated that the victim “is suicidal” and that “something went wrong with background” when the victim wanted to become a law enforcement officer. The sister’s boyfriend likewise stated that the victim “has been suicidal for a while” and could not become an officer because of “some suicidal things she had on her record.”
Defense counsel filed a motion to compel the State to obtain and produce the victim’s pre-incident mental health records. Alternatively, counsel requested that the State make such records available for an in camera inspection. The State opposed the motion and argued it was not in possession, custody, or control of the records, and that it was without knowledge of their existence.
The judge granted defendant’s motion and ordered the State to obtain and produce, for an in camera inspection, the victim’s mental health records — extending six months before the incident and six months after the incident. The judge accepted defense counsel’s argument that “[t]he possibility of mistaken perception or recollection of an incident presents a legitimate need for the information which outweighs any possible prejudice.” The victim had no notice of the motion and therefore had no opportunity to be heard.
The Appellate Division denied the State’s emergent motion seeking leave to appeal and a stay, noting that the State could renew its motion after the judge “issues an order regarding the use of the victim’s psychiatric records” following the in camera inspection.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Chambers
The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously agreed that a heightened discovery standard governs a defendant’s motion for pre-incident mental health records from a sexual assault victim. The Court went on to establish a new standard applicable to a formally filed motion and also outlined a less formal process through which defendants may make requests for discovery of the pre- incident mental health records of an alleged sexual assault victim by letter to the prosecutor’s office.
In reaching its decision, the court emphasized the importance of balancing the victim’s highly confidential and privileged communications and the defendant’s important right to present a meaningful defense. Under its framework, a defendant is entitled to present a meaningful defense by making a good-faith request for pre-incident mental health records of a sexual assault victim. A defendant can make a motion seeking that information, follow a less formal path exploring access to the records, or both.
If a defendant files a motion seeking access to pre-incident mental health records, a victim is entitled to notice by the county prosecutor’s office and must have an opportunity to be heard, with or without independent counsel. In addition to the notice requirement, a motion for discovery of mental health records must satisfy the following two-stage standard, as described by the court:
First, to be entitled to an in camera inspection of those records, a defendant must preliminarily demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence, (1) a substantial, particularized need for the records; (2) that the alleged mental illness is both relevant and material to a victim’s ability to perceive, recall, or recount the alleged assault, or a proclivity to imagine or fabricate it; and (3) that the information sought cannot be obtained through less intrusive means. Second, if a defendant satisfies that heavy preliminary burden after appropriate notice to the victim as we later describe, the judge must conduct an in camera inspection and determine whether to “pierce” the privilege, redact the records, and produce them under a protective order.
The New Jersey Supreme Court also established a process should a defendant elect to proceed informally. As with a formal motion, a victim is still entitled to notice by the county prosecutor’s office and must have an opportunity to be heard with or without independent counsel. To proceed informally, defense counsel can in good faith seek pre-incident mental health records by sending a letter to an assistant prosecutor. The letter should (1) identify with particularity the kinds of records sought; (2) show substantial need tied directly to the victim’s ability to perceive, recall, or recount the facts of the alleged incident, or to the victim’s likelihood to fabricate or even imagine the incident altogether; and (3) explicitly state that sexual assault victims have a statutory right not to “participate in any investigation of the assault.” Because it established a new procedural and analytical framework, the court vacated the order directing the State to produce the victim’s purported records and remanded the case back to the lower court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.