The Confrontation Clause: New Meaning for The Twenty-First Century

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 legal limit.

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 the findings.

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 attorney from The Law Offices of Daniel J Miller.