What Is the Discovery Process in a Criminal Case

The discovery process is a vital component of a criminal law case as it allows for the timely provision of all relevant information to the case for the criminal defense attorney and the prosecutor. Criminal lawyers in Utah use the discovery phase to share evidence, seek denial or admissions under oath, and answer questions that are relevant to the case. Many criminal cases are won or lost based on facts, so it is vital for the prosecutor and the criminal defense lawyer to know the facts of the case before the case goes to trial.

What is Criminal Discovery?

In a criminal case, discovery refers to the process of exchanging evidence between the prosecutor and the criminal defense attorney. The discovery phase of a criminal case happens before the case goes to trial, as it is part of the trial preparation. In some cases, the discovery phase starts even before the arraignment and can continue until the trial.

Under the U.S. Constitution Rights, the defendant has the right to a fair trial, and the discovery process is a crucial step to make this possible. If the discovery phase is not completed as required by law, it can lead to serious consequences, including the dismissal of the case.

In the discovery phase, the legal team of both parties provides relevant information and evidence to each other so that both parties can prepare their case. Either side can initiate the criminal discovery request to obtain the evidence or witness testimony that will be presented in court. The type of requests during the discovery phase will depend on the nature of the case and can include copies of the documentary evidence, blood samples, physical evidence, meeting with the witnesses, and review of medical records, police reports, and witness statements.

If any evidence is found in favor of the defendant, the prosecutor is required by law to share this evidence with the defendant’s attorney. This type of evidence is referred to as exculpatory evidence. This sharing of exculpatory evidence is typically done during the discovery phase of a criminal law case.

The goal of the criminal discovery process is to avoid any surprises in court during a trial. It also allows both legal parties to evaluate the strength of their case and determine if a plea bargain or other legal options are the best courses of action. Another benefit of discovery is that both parties can also seek independent analysis of the evidence to challenge the findings of the other party during the trial.

Types of Discovery

Informal Discovery

Informal discovery refers to the gathering of evidence independently, such as obtaining photos of the crime scene, police reports, interviews of witnesses, and other types of evidence that do not need to be obtained from the opposing legal party. There are no standard civil procedures for informal discovery, and it does not need any court supervision or permission. A common starting point for informal discovery is the leads provided by the client.

Formal Discovery

Formal discovery is the legal process of obtaining evidence from the prosecutor or the criminal defense attorney. This could include witness information, exculpatory evidence, record statement, witness background, and physical evidence.

Open-file Discovery

In his type of discovery, the defendant gets complete access to the entire file of the prosecutor. This type of discovery is often allowed in cases to equalize the investigatory disparity between the defense attorney and the prosecutor.

Components of Discovery in a Criminal Case


A deposition is the out-of-court testimony of the witness under oath. It can include the questioning of the witness by the attorney of the opposing party. The answers of the witness, or “deponent,” can be recorded and presented in court during the trial. This is most commonly required if the witness is unable to testify in court. If the witness gives different answers during the trial, the deposition recording or statements can be used to challenge the witness in court.

Request for Evidence

One party can request the other party to provide product evidence related to the case. This is typically done in writing. For documents, such as records or contracts, copies can be shared with the opposing party. In cases of physical evidence, the opposing party can be allowed to inspect the item under the supervision of the authority that holds the physical evidence.

Request for Admission

In a request for admission, one party can seek the denial or admission of the party under oath. This is typically used to verify facts or documents pertaining to the criminal case or to deny or admit the truth of a statement. Request for admission helps establish facts and eliminate misunderstandings so that the scope of the trial is limited to facts in dispute. A legal party is required by law to admit, deny, or explain why the request for admission cannot be admitted or denied.

Limits on discovery

Any information that pertains to the criminal case is shared in the discovery phase, but there are some exceptions to this rule. Any evidence or information that is considered “privileged” or legally protected can be excluded from discovery. Here are some legal limits on discovery:

  • Privacy rights of third parties: There are laws that protect the privacy of third parties that are not directly involved in the case. The courts put limits on how much information or evidence can be shared about third parties.
  • Private matters: There is no specific legal definition of what are considered “private matters”, but courts are willing to recognize that certain aspects of personal life should remain private. This includes health information, sexuality, religious beliefs, etc.
  • Confidential conversations: Conversations between certain types of relationships are confidential and considered “privileged” according to the law. This includes the relationship of husband and wife, doctor and patient, lawyer and client, and religious advisor and advisee.
  • Protecting information from the public: Any information that needs to be protected from public disclosure must be kept confidential. This includes sensitive financial information. A judge can issue a protective order to have all the parties involved keep the shared information confidential.