506.1Discovery in Juvenile Court

Last Updated: 12/01/23

Key Concepts

  • Juveniles have a fundamental right to receive any exculpatory evidence in the possession of the state, and a statutory right to request certain other types of discoverable material from the state.
  • The state is always entitled to know the identity of any witnesses the juvenile intends to call; if the juvenile has requested discovery from the state, then the state is also entitled to receive several additional types of information from the juvenile.
  • Discovery obligations imposed upon both parties are ongoing, so any discoverable material that comes into the party’s possession later must be promptly disclosed.
  • Upon motion, the court may enter a protective order to limit, modify, delay or deny discovery, if appropriate.

General Duties and Disclosures

Discovery in juvenile cases is regulated by statute. See G.S. 7B-2300 (Disclosure of evidence by petitioner); G.S. 7B-2301 (Disclosure of evidence by juvenile); G.S. 7B-2302 (Regulation of discovery; protective orders); G.S. 7B-2303 (Continuing duty to disclose). There were substantial amendments made to other parts of the Juvenile Code in 2017, but the statutory discovery provisions have not been amended in recent years, so they are somewhat more limited than the discovery provisions that apply in criminal cases against adult defendants. In some districts these statutory discovery provisions may be supplemented by local rules, and prosecutors should familiarize themselves with those rules if they exist.

In addition to the juvenile discovery statutes, some aspects of discovery in a juvenile case are governed by the same general principles that apply in any other criminal case. For example, the state always has a duty to disclose exculpatory and material evidence as required by Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). Additionally, Rule 3.8(d) of the Rules of Professional Conduct requires that the prosecutor disclose evidence in any case that “tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense,” or information that might mitigate sentencing. For more information on the state’s general discovery obligations under these and similar principles, see the related entry on Defendant’s Discovery Rights.

Practice Pointer

The juvenile discovery statutes use the term “petitioner” throughout, which is defined in G.S. 7B-101(16) as the “individual” who files a petition and initiates the juvenile court action. But in the discovery context, this term should probably be understood as referring to “the state” in general, rather than just the individual law enforcement officer or victim who filed the petition.

Juvenile’s Statutory Right to Discovery

The state is always free to make voluntary disclosures to the juvenile “in the interest of justice.” See G.S. 7B-2300(f). The juvenile does not have a right to open file discovery, however, and must proceed by motion to obtain anything that the state does not choose to disclose voluntarily. On motion of the juvenile, the court is required to order the state, to the extent the materials or objects are in its possession, custody, or control, to:

  1. Allow the juvenile to inspect and copy written or recorded statements made by the juvenile;
  1. Disclose the substance of any oral statement made by the juvenile; 
  1. Provide the names of persons the state plans to call as witnesses (if a witness is under age 16, on motion of the juvenile the state must provide a copy of the witness’s juvenile record, if any, if it is accessible to the state); 
  1. Allow the juvenile to inspect and copy books, papers, documents, photographs, motion pictures, mechanical or electronic recordings, or tangible objects that are: (i) material to preparation of the defense, (ii) are intended for use by the state as evidence, or (iii) were obtained from or belong to the juvenile;
  1. Allow the juvenile to inspect and copy results of physical or mental examinations or of tests, measurements, or experiments made in connection with the case;
  1. Allow the juvenile to inspect, examine, and test physical evidence the state intends to introduce into evidence.

See G.S. 7B-2300. Except as specifically listed above, the statute does not require the state to produce any other “reports, memoranda, or other internal documents made by the petitioner, law enforcement officers, or other persons acting on behalf of the petitioner in connection with the investigation or prosecution of the case or of statements made by witnesses or the petitioner to anyone acting on behalf of the petitioner.” G.S. 7B-2300(e). This provision also means the prosecutor should not have to turn over materials in discovery that would qualify as work product, such as the prosecutor’s own research, memos, or notes.

However, G.S. 7B-3001(b) gives the juvenile the right to “examine and obtain […] all law enforcement records and files concerning a juvenile” without a court order. Significantly, this statute is found in Article 30 (Records), and not in Article 23 (Discovery), but nevertheless it might be interpreted by some courts to mean that materials in law enforcement files that would not otherwise be subject to mandatory disclosure under G.S. 7B-2300 (e.g., an officer’s handwritten notes or prior case reports about the juvenile) are subject to disclosure under this alternate statute if they are part of any law enforcement file “concerning the juvenile.” If complying with this statute would result in the disclosure of sensitive information (such as the identity of a confidential informant), the prosecutor may want to consider seeking a protective order against disclosure, as described in Section D below.

Practice Pointer

When is discovery due? 
The juvenile discovery statutes do not set a deadline by which the defense must request discovery, nor do they prescribe a time limit within which the state must comply. But prosecutors should keep in mind that other legal principles may dictate the timeliness of their response. For example, under Brady, exculpatory evidence must be disclosed sufficiently in advance that the defense can make effective use of it at trial, and unwarranted delays in making routine discovery disclosures may subject the state to reversal on appeal. See, e.g., In re A.M., 220 N.C. App. 136 (2012) (reversed for state’s failure to provide juvenile with adequate notice of an anticipated witness). Therefore, the best practice is to provide all discoverable material as promptly as possible after it is requested.

Discovery by the State

On motion of the state, the court must order the juvenile to furnish the names of persons the juvenile plans to call as witnesses. See G.S. 7B-2301(a). Other than the names of witnesses, the state is only entitled to receive discovery from the juvenile if the juvenile has requested (and been granted) discovery from the state. But if that has occurred, then upon motion of the state under G.S. 7B-2301, the court must order the juvenile to do or provide the following:

  1. Allow the state to inspect and copy books, papers, documents, photographs, motion pictures, mechanical or electronic recordings, and tangible objects that are in the juvenile’s possession, custody, or control, and that the juvenile intends to introduce into evidence;
  1. Allow the state to inspect and copy results of physical or mental examinations or of tests, measurements, or experiments made in connection with the case, if they are in the juvenile’s possession and control and:
    1. the juvenile intends to introduce them into evidence, or
    2. they were prepared by a witness the juvenile intends to call if the results relate to that witness's testimony;
  1. Allow the state to inspect, examine, and test physical evidence the juvenile intends to offer into evidence, or tests or experiments made in connection with the evidence in the case. 

Protective Order

At any time in the course of a proceeding, on motion of a party and a finding of good cause, the court may order that discovery or inspection be denied, restricted, or deferred. See G.S. 7B-2302(a). The court may order the parties seeking a protective order to submit supporting affidavits for in camera review; if the protective order is granted, the material submitted in camera must be available to the appellate court in the event of an appeal. See G.S. 7B-2302(b).

Continuing Duty to Disclose

If a party subject to an order to disclose discovers additional evidence, or decides to use additional evidence, and if the evidence is or may be subject to discovery or inspection under the discovery statute, the party is required to promptly notify the other party of the existence of the additional evidence or the name of each additional witness. G.S. 7B-2303.

Portions of this entry were excerpted from the 2017 North Carolina Juvenile Defender Manual, Chapter 10, by David W. Andrews and John Rubin.