Confrontation Clause Controversy

December 10, 2009

The United States Supreme Court has created quite a stir with its decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, though for the life of me I can’t figure out why. The court ruled that a state forensic analyst’s lab report that is prepared for use in a criminal prosecution is subject to the demands of the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause. Sounds reasonable, particularly in a narcotics prosecution, where proof of the presence of a drug and its quantity is central to the case.

The decision affects all types of prosecutions where testimonial documents are entered into evidence without giving the accused the right to cross examine the person who prepared the document and performed the testing. It has already been used to challenge weapons possession cases, driving while intoxicated cases as well as narcotics cases.  Read this post to see how it impacts New York drunk driving cases.  There is even talk of arguing the decision in the context of red light camera summonses. See this post,  my prior post, and this article from The

In light of this decision, at least a dozen drug and gun convictions have been overturned in Massachusetts, and prosecutors are not happy. Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said the case poses “a hardship for prosecutors and state-paid forensic scientists.”

I fail to see what all the fuss is about. The Sixth Amendment is crystal clear on the subject: In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to…be confronted by the witnesses against him.”  Lab reports go to the very heart of prosecutions like these; often it is the most powerful evidence offered to prove an accused’s guilt.  Cross examination of the lab technician is the best way to ensure that testing was done appropriately.  The argument that this new burden inconveniences the prosecution is laughable. Sometimes the constitution is inconvenient.

Previous post:

Next post: