Lab Results and the Confrontation ClauseSeptember 19, 2010
Sometimes in criminal law we get confused. We all understand the “confrontation clause.” The idea is that you have the right to confront your accuser. This concept pre-dates our system of law and government back to the Magna Carta. If you are accused of committing a crime, you should have the right to confront that person to see if they are telling the truth and have a judge or jury decide whether that accuser is telling the truth. Everyone agrees that this is a good system. The confusion exists with lab results and the confrontation clause.
Today, the confrontation clause is applied through cross examination in our courts. The defendant hires a lawyer to fight their case and during trial the lawyer gets to confront and cross examine all of the witnesses against the defendant.
In our modern approach the courts have come up with rules for courtrooms and rules for how evidence comes into the courtroom. Sometimes the rules of evidence conflict with the confrontation clause. Legislatures and courts around our country have created rules of evidence that dictate what is allowed in court and what is not allowed. A major rule of evidence is hearsay. Hearsay is an out of court statement, offered for the truth of the matter asserted in court, by a witness other than the person who originally made the statement. Many hearsay exceptions exist that allow lawyers to get in statements that are hearsay, yet meet an exception to the hearsay rules.
For many years, in domestic violence cases, if a victim did not appear in court, but the police officer took a statement from victim, the police officer was allowed to repeat in court what the victim had told the officer so long as the district attorney could show that the statement was taken at a time when the victim was excited or when the victim simply blurted out the statement because he or she presently had the impression of what just occurred on their mind. The officer was allowed to testify as to what the victim said even though the statement was hearsay because the statement fit an exception of hearsay rules as either and excited utterance or a present sense impression.
Whether these exceptions to hearsay violated the confrontation clause was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States in a case called Crawford V. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004). In Crawford, the Supreme Court ruled that the confrontation clause trumps the rules of evidence and the witness must appear if the statement being sought to be entered by the district attorney is testimonial. How we define testimonial is a difficult question, but I think it means that if the testimony sought goes to the central issue of guilty or innocence, the witness must appear in court because we have the right to confront them. However, the actual definition is whether the statement or document was produced for the purpose of trial.
Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States took this concept one step further. In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 129 S.Ct. 2527 (2009),the Court held that in a narcotics case the lab report showing whether the substance is actually narcotics is a testimonial statement, thereby, if the defendant wants to cross examine the author of the report, the court must allow them to confront that witness and force the DA to produce that witness in court.
Our own Superior Court has recently applied the Melendez-Diaz statement to DUI (Driving Under the Influence) cases in Commonwealth v. Barton-Martin, 2010 PA Super 163. In Barton-Martin, the Superior Court held that in a DUI case, you have the right to confront and cross examine the lab analyst who made the lab results report to show that you were under the influence. The Commonwealth can no longer move the blood report into evidence as a business record exception to hearsay. The rationale is that the blood report in a DUI is central to the DA’s case, so it is testimonial in nature and the right to confront trumps the hearsay exception.
Barton-Martin will certainly help clients who are charged with DUI, where blood was taken and the numbers are borderline whether the person was under the influence where the conclusion section states that no conclusion can be made if the person was unfit to operate a motor vehicle safely absent other evidence. You should now be allowed to question on lab conditions, methodology of testing, training of the lab tech, error margin of the testing procedures to show that the lab results create a reasonable doubt.