District Attorney's Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne

PETITIONER: District Attorney's Office for the Third Judicial District, et al.
RESPONDENT: William G. Osborne
LOCATION: Earthquake Park

DOCKET NO.: 08-6
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 557 US (2009)
GRANTED: Nov 03, 2008
ARGUED: Mar 02, 2009
DECIDED: Jun 18, 2009

ADVOCATES:
Kenneth M. Rosenstein - Assistant Attorney General of Alaska, argued the cause for the petitioners
Neal Kumar Katyal - Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae
Peter Neufeld - argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

In March 1994, William Osborne was convicted of kidnapping, assault, and sexual assault in an Alaska state court. After his conviction, Mr. Osborne sought access to biological evidence that was used to convict him. He intended to use DNA testing that was not available at the time of the trial to prove he was not the source. The District Attorney's Office (D.A.O.) in Anchorage denied access. Mr. Osborne subsequently filed suit in a federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the D.A.O. alleging that his 14th Amendment due process rights had been violated when he was denied post-conviction access to potentially exculpatory evidence.

The district court granted the D.A.O.'s motion to dismiss and Mr. Osborne appealed. The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed and remanded the case. On remand, the district court granted summary judgment for Mr. Osborne. The D.A.O. appealed arguing that Mr. Osborne need show the disclosure of evidence would "affirmatively prove that he is probably innocent" in order to gain access. Further, it argued that an oral confession given by Mr. Osborne after his conviction precluded him from pursuing post-conviction relief.

The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court. It held that Mr. Osborne had a limited due process right of access to the biological evidence for purposes of DNA testing. The court dismissed the D.A.O.'s arguments. It reasoned that Mr. Osborne need merely show that favorable DNA results would afford a "reasonable probability" that he could prevail in an action for post-conviction relief. Further, it found that Mr. Osborne's oral confession did not foreclose his pursuit of post-conviction relief, as exculpating evidence would raise serious questions about the validity of his confession.

Question

1) May 42 U.S.C. § 1983 be used to obtain post-conviction access to evidence when there is no pending claim for which that evidence could be utilized?

2) Does the 14th Amendment's due process clause afford the plaintiff the right to obtain post-conviction access to evidence when plaintiff's intended claim is foreclosed by evidence obtained through confession?

Media for District Attorney's Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 02, 2009 in District Attorney's Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 18, 2009 in District Attorney's Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I have our opinion this morning case 08-6, District Attorney's Office versus Osborne.

The question presented in this case is whether there is a constitutional right to access DNA evidence outside of a state's established procedures for providing it.

The respondent, William Osborne was convicted in Alaska state court of kidnapping, sexual assault, and other crimes.

The appellate courts reviewing his conviction found no errors at the trial.

Years later, Osborne filed this federal lawsuit seeking access to biological evidence from the crime scene so that he could subject it to DNA testing.

After two rounds of litigation, the Court of Appeals held that he had a constitutional right to DNA testing under the Due Process Clause.

We granted certiorari to review that decision.

DNA testing has an unparalleled ability both to exonerate the wrongly convicted and to identify the guilty.

The question is how to harness DNA's power to prove innocence in the established criminal justice system.

Answering that question is a task that belongs primarily to the legislature.

46 states and the Federal Government have already enacted statutes dealing specifically with access to DNA evidence.

These laws recognize the value of DNA testing, but also the need for conditions on accessing the state's evidence.

Alaska is one of the handfuls of states yet to enact specific DNA testing legislation, but Alaska courts are applying existing discovery procedures to this noble technology.

Alaska gives prisoners a right to be released if they make a sufficiently compelling showing that they are actually innocent.

Alaska also provides procedures to vindicate that right.

There is no time limit on bringing an actual innocence claim under Alaska law, and there are procedures for accessing evidence to support an actual innocence claim.

Alaska courts have ruled that these procedures include access to evidence for DNA testing in certain circumstances.

There are some restrictions on access similar to the ones provided by federal law and the laws of other states, but we see nothing inadequate about those procedures.

In addition to challenging the adequacy of the state's procedures, Osborne makes a far more reaching argument that substantive due process requires us to recognize a free standing right to DNA evidence outside of the state criminal justice system.

That is an unprecedented and sweeping approach considering whether to accept that approach largely turns on two different conceptions of the role of the federal judiciary.

Under one view, the federal courts should generally allow Congress and the states to confront new technological problems and they should be hesitant to intervene in short circuit a prompt and considered legislative response.

In contrast, under Osborne's view, the federal judiciary must leap ahead constitutionalizing the issue and taking it away from the democratic process.

We favor the more restrained course. Congress and the states are actively legislating in the area of DNA testing.

46 states and the Federal Government have already passed laws on the subject.

At the end of the day, there is no reason to think that the federal judiciary would handle the issue more wisely as a matter of constitutional law when state courts and legislatures are doing as a matter of policy.

Therefore, under the circumstances of this case, we reject Osborne's substantive due process claim. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with our opinion.

Justice Alito has filed a concurring opinion which Justice Kennedy has joined and which Justice Thomas has joined in part.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion which Justices GInsburg and Breyer have joined and which Justice Souter joined in part.

Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion.