Any person accused of a crime in the United States has the right "to
be confronted with the witnesses against him." It is one of the fundamental
protections of the U.S. Constitution, written into the Confrontation Clause
of the Sixth Amendment and guaranteed since the Bill of Rights took effect
in 1791. However, our understanding of this right has evolved with time.
Last year in the case of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme
Court considered the protections of the Confrontation Clause with regard
to the introduction of forensic evidence in a trial.
Prior to this case, it had become routine practice for crime labs to submit
forensic reports for use in criminal trials without the testimony of those
who prepared the reports. For example, prosecutors would use lab reports
to assert that a white powdery substance was actually cocaine or that
a driver arrested for DUI had a Blood Alcohol Content level above the
In Melendez-Diaz, the defendant challenged this practice. Melendez-Diaz
was accused of distribution and drug trafficking of cocaine. When the
prosecutor sought to admit three Certificates of Analysis confirming that
the substance police found was cocaine, Melendez-Diaz argued that these
certificates could not be admitted without the testimony of the person
who prepared them. He argued that admitting these certificates violated
his rights under the Confrontation Clause.
The Supreme Court agreed.
The Court held that the certificates could only be admitted if the person
responsible for the certificates appeared at trial or if the defendant
had another opportunity to cross-examine the witness. In this case, Melendez-Diaz
had not been allowed to cross-examine the forensic analyst who determined
that the substance was cocaine, and therefore the admission of the certificates
violated his right of confrontation.
The Consequences of Melendez-Diaz
For those accused of many crimes, this ruling has significant implications.
Many types of cases rely on scientific evidence to prove an element of
the crime. For example, when someone is stopped for DUI, a machine may
indicate that the driver was legally intoxicated. DNA evidence may be
used to link a sexual assault victim to the person allegedly responsible
for the attack.
Fundamentally the ruling increases the burden of prosecuting crimes involving
scientific evidence. If a forensic analyst must be available to testify
for every trial involving DUI or drug charges, pursuing the charges becomes
more burdensome for the state. Every hour a state forensics analyst spends
in a courtroom is an hour the analyst is away from his or her lab work.
Accordingly, prosecutors have added incentives to avoid full-blown trials,
which may benefit those accused of crimes.
On a more abstract level, though, the ruling serves as recognition that
laboratory work is not infallible and that the results presented in a
lab report are not just a restatement of objective facts. People responsible
for handling forensic evidence can and do make mistakes; this ruling acknowledges
this, and gives a person accused of a crime greater opportunity to challenge
Thus far this ruling has had the most obvious effects for
drug charges and
DUI allegations. However, the ruling is still relatively recent from a legal standpoint,
meaning that the full implications are not yet known. Quite likely the
requirement that testimony accompany lab reports and scientific evidence
will have even more wide-ranging effects than can possibly be known at
this point, affecting many types of criminal allegations.
To reach this point, though,
Virginia Beach criminal defense attorneys must be willing to push the boundaries of these arguments. It is easy
to accept the well-trodden path, but to help define the full contours
of the protections afforded by the confrontation clause, it is important
that defense lawyers reach beyond the obvious arguments.
For more information about the protections afforded by the confrontation clause,
speak with a knowledgeable Virginia Beach criminal defense attorney from The Law Offices of Daniel J Miller.