High court sets standards for release of sex assault victims’ mental health records

Saying a victim is ‘crazy’ doesn’t justify access to health records, court says

By: - January 23, 2023 2:33 pm

The decision is Justice Douglas Fasciale's first opinion since he joined the court in October. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

The New Jersey Supreme Court has set new guidelines for defendants seeking details about victims’ mental state before alleged assaults.

The court laid out the new framework in a unanimous decision Monday intended to balance a defendant’s constitutional right to a meaningful defense with a victim’s right to the confidentiality of their health records.

Justice Douglas Fasciale, writing his first decision since he joined the state’s highest court in October, vacated lower court rulings in an Essex County case that required prosecutors to produce a victim’s mental health records for the six months before and after the alleged incident.

A generalized statement that a victim is “crazy” doesn’t justify access to her health records, especially when those records are about something as private as mental health, Fasciale said.

“The greater the intrusion into one’s privacy, the higher the burden a defendant must show for the information sought,” Fasciale wrote. “For example, a heightened standard of substantial need is imposed when a defendant requests an alleged victim undergo a psychiatric or gynecological examination because psychiatric and physical examinations are extraordinary intrusions into an alleged victim’s mind and body.”

Attorney Alexander Shalom, who filed a brief in the case, is director of Supreme Court advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. He celebrated the ruling as a rejection of “the old hackneyed idea that any consumer of mental health resources is somehow crazy and unreliable.”

“Mental health records are deeply private, and victims need to feel like they can access the courts without having to parade before the court and the public their entire mental health history,” Shalom said.

Monday’s ruling, though, also recognizes that in rare cases, mental health conditions can raise questions about a victim’s ability to recall or relate what happened, making judicial review of their health records relevant, Shalom said.

The case in question involved a man accused of second-degree sexual assault for allegedly performing oral sex on his cousin repeatedly against her will after an October 2018 party when both were drunk, according to the decision.

Terrell M. Chambers denied he assaulted the woman, telling authorities that she fabricated the incident and had a history of mental illness, psychiatric institutionalization, and suicidal tendencies, according to the ruling.

Other relatives backed up Chambers’ claims, and defense attorneys petitioned the court for her mental health records leading up to that night.

But prosecutors fought the request because DNA tests showed the man’s saliva was present on the woman’s underwear, and Chambers admitted the assault in a subsequent call with the victim that detectives secretly recorded, according to the ruling.

Despite that evidence, Chambers maintained his innocence. He told detectives he lied on the phone call because he was scared, according to the ruling. His attorneys discounted the DNA evidence, saying Chambers cried on his cousin’s shoulder earlier that night and she might have wiped that fluid on her underwear to frame him, or otherwise imagined the assault, according to the ruling.

The judge ordered prosecutors to turn over the woman’s mental health records, and an appellate panel denied their subsequent motion for reconsideration.

Fasciale, in vacating both orders, said defense attorneys who want records must prove the relevance of a victim’s mental health history by showing it impacted the victim’s “ability to perceive, recall, or recount the alleged assault, or a proclivity to imagine or fabricate it.”

Even if they do so, the judge must privately review the records and only allow disclosure if they meet that standard, Fasciale wrote. Victims also must be notified and be given a chance to be heard, he wrote.

Monday’s decision was the second time in two months the Supreme Court settled a dispute between defendants’ and victims’ rights in sex assault cases, four years after state legislators heightened protections for sex assault victims because of their increased risks of emotional trauma.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.