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COA: lawyer-client privilege protects information

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A defendant's belief that his right to seek exculpatory evidence trumps the attorney-client privilege is incorrect, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today.

In Rusty R. Skinner v. State of Indiana, No. 55A01-0811-CR-543, Rusty Skinner sought to compel his prior attorney to provide information that would allegedly impeach witness Jason Wingler's testimony. Wingler was expected to testify that Skinner told him information that would be contrary to Skinner's self-defense claim. Skinner faced charges of attempted murder, robbery, carjacking, and operating a vehicle while intoxicated for attacking a man and taking his property and car.

Skinner's attorney previously had represented Wingler, so he knew of information materially adverse to Wingler. Skinner's attorney filed a motion to withdraw upon learning Wingler was called to testify, which the court granted.

Skinner, through his new attorney, filed a motion to compel his previous attorney to provide the alleged evidence that would impeach Wingler's credibility. The trial court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals accepted Skinner's interlocutory appeal.

For information sought in a criminal case to be properly discoverable, the factors of particularity, relevance, and paramount interest in nondisclosure must be balanced. In this case, the paramount interest is the attorney-client privilege. Attorneys aren't required to testify regarding confidential communications made to them during the course of their professional business unless the testimony would meet one of the six exceptions under the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct.

The information sought by Skinner doesn't fall under any of those exceptions, wrote Judge L. Mark Bailey. In addition, Skinner has access to other information that could help him impeach Wingler, such as Wingler's criminal history of crimes of dishonesty and that Wingler is asking for a guaranteed sentence modification in exchange for his testimony.

"Based on the relevance of the material, its availability from other sources, and the nature and importance of any interests invaded, we conclude that the information sought is not discoverable due to the protection provided by the attorney-client privilege," the judge wrote.

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