Criminal Defendants Constitutional Right to Confrontation

June 26, 2009

Your constitutional rights.  The United States Supreme Court tells us what they mean. The latest revelation is Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, an appeal from a conviction for drug distribution.

At the defendant’s trial, to prove that the substance which the defendant possessed was, in fact, cocaine, the prosecution had offered into evidence a report from the chemical lab.  According to Massachusetts law, the report was accompanied by affidavits by the chemists who analyzed the substance called “certificates of analysis.”  In one of these certificates, the signatory swore he or she found the stated results.    But the chemist himself or herself did not appear in court to testify.  Defendant’s lawyer objected to the admission of this evidence at the trial without the defendant having the opportunity to “confront” this witness and cross examine him or her, just like any other witness before the jury.

The Massachusetts procedure provided that such forensic analysis was to be admitted into evidence as prima facie evidence of its conclusions.  That is, the report could be contradicted by scientific evidence offered by the defendant, but, if uncontradicted, that would be the only evidence offered as to the chemical character of the substance.

The Supreme Court decided today that this procedure deprived the defendant of his Right to Confrontation under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. “Petitioner was entitled to ‘be confronted with’ the persons giving this testimony at trial, ” the Court held.

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides:

Amendment VI
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Similarly the Oklahoma Constitution provides in Article 2:

§ 20. Rights of accused in criminal cases.
In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the county in which the crime shall have been committed or, where uncertainty exists as to the county in which the crime was committed, the accused may be tried in any county in which the evidence indicates the crime might have been committed. Provided, that the venue may be changed to some other county of the state, on the application of the accused, in such manner as may be prescribed by law. He shall be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him and have a copy thereof, and be confronted with the witnesses against him, and have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his behalf. He shall have the right to be heard by himself and counsel; and in capital cases, at least two days before the case is called for trial, he shall be furnished with a list of the witnesses that will be called in chief, to prove the allegations of the indictment or information, together with their postoffice addresses. (emphasis added)

In 2004, the Supreme Court had ruled that the Confrontation Clause really meant what it said in Crawford v. Washington. In Crawford, the defendant’s conviction had been based in part on evidence at trial of the tape recorded statement of a witness made outside court, but the witness was not presented in open court for cross-examination by the defendant. The Supreme Court reversed that conviction

Massachusetts had argued (and all law enforcement with them) that these chemical reports are not “testimonial,” that the witnesses who perform these chemical tests and complete the accompanying affidavits as their test results are not “accusatory” witnesses like eyewitnesses or arresting police officers, and therefore the “Confrontation” provision should not apply to them.  They should not be required  to appear in court.  These witnesses, the respondent argued in this case, were not like the “notorious” ex parte witnesses used to convict Sir Walter Raleigh of treason in 1603 by reading the written statements of witnesses instead of producing live witnesses, the case said to be the source for our England’s and our system’s belief in the Right of Confrontation.  But Justice Scalia noted that the Sir Walter Raleigh case was not the source of the Right of Confrontation but instead its violation in convicting Raleigh was a scandal to the jurisprudence of England because the Right was already well established.

“It’s just too much trouble for our chemists to have to come to court all the time,” runs one of the arguments.  The Supreme Court said, “The arguments advanced to avoid this rather straightforward application of Crawford are rejected.”

Justice Scalia, writing for the majority of the Supreme Court, noted that the “certificates” in the Massachusetts trial were really “affidavits,” condemned in the earlier Crawford decision. Justice Scalia said of the certificates, “They are incontrovertibly a ‘solemn declaration or affirmation made for the purpose of establishing or proving some fact.’” “The ‘certificates’ are functionally identical to live, in-court testimony, doing ‘precisely what a witness does on direct examination.’”

The Court noted that the cases involving such “affidavits” had arisen in the last 30 years, since the Court’s 1980 decision in Ohio v. Roberts.  The Roberts case had some language to the effect that unconfronted testimony was admissible so long as it bore “indicia of reliability,” and a number of state supreme court decisions had ruled that such affidavits or certificates did not violation the Confrontation Clause.

The Court noted precedents upholding the Confrontation Clause.  It cited Kirby v. United States decided in 1899.  In that case the defendant had been convicted at trial of receiving stolen property, some of the trial evidence of which was records of convictions of three other persons who were found guilty of stealing the property.

The dissent argued that an honest analyst to forensic tests will not alter his testimony when confronted by the defendant, i.e., just because he has to come to court.  “…The same cannot be said of a fraudulent analysis,” Justice Scalia wrote, noting cases where no analysis was done.   “Like the eyewitness who has fabricated his account to the police, analyst who provides false results may, under oath in open court, reconsider his false testimony.”  And, “like expert witnesses generally, an analyst’s lack or proper training or deficiency in judgment may be disclosed in cross-examination.”


Winning the War on Drugs by Quitting

June 22, 2009

The United States has been waging a “war on drugs” for some time.  We even had a cabinet-level “Drug Czar”, who reported directly to the President of the United States.  Reminiscent of the Viet-Nam war, the more we had to win, the less we seemed to win.

The “Drug Czar” has disappeared.  Much of the Republic of Mexico is consumed by open gun fights, kidnaping  and blatant police corruption.   Now the American border states, especially in Arizona, have experienced a spike in kidnaping. All this from the drug trade.

What drives the drug trade?  American consumers, of course.  It’s the American drug user who pays for much of the drugs world-wide, from Afghanistan to Thailand to Columbia, but especially in North and South America.  No matter what our law enforcement seems to do, that demand continues to drive the growing supply.

From time to time, people voice the idea that it’s time to declare victory in the “War on Drugs” and go home – just like in Viet-Nam.  Their point is, there is no “winning” this war, so we should admit the undeniable facts and get on with our lives.

The Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (“LEAP”) is the latest group to call out for this solution.  LEAP claims to have 13,000 members according to Jack Cole, executive director of the national association.  He served in law enforcement as an undercover narcotics officer for 14 years in New Jersey. The group claims 102 members in Oklahoma, including 11 members who have law enforcement experience.  They just put up a billboard on the Broadway Extension in north Oklahoma City that reads, “Drug Abuse is Bad.  The Drug War is Worse.”

LEAP makes the argument so often made comparing the “War on Drugs” with prohibition of alcohol in the 1930’s.  Prohibition spawned the rise of gangsters as the alcohol-seeking public paid for illegal alcohol.  Similarly, LEAP argues that all the crime associated with drugs, most notably all the violence, comes from the illegal character of drugs.  If the drugs were legalized, the market would evaporate overnight, the profit would disappear, and there would be no need for any violence.  Moreover, by legalizing drugs, the use of drugs and drug users could be better regulated and monitored that it can now, when everything is simply illegal.  The idea is that the government could control the quantity, quality, production, price and distribution of all drugs.

The argument is a good one, but the American public is just too afraid to accept drugs, too afraid to accede to addiction-causing drugs, notwithstanding the acceptance of addiction-causing alcohol.  It just seems too big a “leap.”

No surprise that law enforcement types decry LEAP and its arguments. Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs said legalizing and regulating drugs would cause more problems than it would solve.  “It’s frightening and reckless that a group of law enforcement officers would endorse something like that….Look at what happened when we legalized alcohol and prescription drugs.   Now they’re the two most abused substances globally,” Woodward said.

President Obama has called for $14.1 billion to support the “War on Drugs” for the year 2009, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.  There is no let-up in sight.  The war goes on, just like Viet-Nam.  We could never win, but we just could not make ourselves face the fact that we were not winning and – apparently – never could win.


“Drug Arrests” and Your Fictional Constitutional Rights

April 20, 2009

Police search vehicles every day on trumped up excuses and cover their tracks later.  Who cares?  Certainly not the citizens of the United States.  The protections citizens believe they have from the Fourth Amendment concerning unreasonable search and seizure simply do not exist in reality, on the street where the uniformed police always push the envelope in the name of “fighting crime.”

A pastor in Arizona was beaten by Border Patrol agents when they insisted on searching his car at a Border Patrol checkpoint.  The pastor thought he had rights protected by the Constitution.  The Border Patrol knew otherwise because they were more powerful and they could later justify pretty much anything they did because, no matter what they do, they are “fighting crime.”

Steven Anderson, pastor of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona, was stopped by Border Patrol checkpoint 87.5 miles from the Mexican border.  He was well within the United States.  When stopped, he refused to allow a search of his rented vehicle.  He had no drugs and no other occupants in his car.  That did not stop the Border Patrol, who used a drug sniffing dog, which, the Border Patrol claims, made a “hit” on Anderson’s car, thus giving them “probable cause” to search his car for drugs. When Anderson refused to allow a search, the police broke both front  windows, immediately began using a Taser gun on him and continued to so, bashed his head into the broken glass on the car window, dragged him out and shoved him on the ground and stood on his head, regardless that he never physically resisted at all,  As blood streamed over his face, they handcuffed his hands behind his back, put him in their trailer, and the officers came in to laugh at him.  Eventually the police drove him to be given eleven stitches but took as long as possible, with stops to exchange casual chat with some fellow officers along the way, before allowing Anderson to use the rest room.  This is standard procedure, in case you don’t know.  Police officers think it’s funny to degrade arrested suspects by making them wet their pants.

Anderson says the drug dog did not bark or give any other indication, but the Border Patrol insists the dog “alerted” to drugs in the vehicle.  Of course, no drugs were found in the vehicle, and we have only the Border Patrol’s word that the dog ever made any indication.  Some have claimed in the past that police goad  drug dogs to make a sign when the police want them to.  Then, the police can just point to the dog as though the dog is some sort of scientific instrument with objective reliability as the predicate for their actions.  But in many cases, as in this case, no one can say the dog ever made any indication at all.

After arresting him, the police told the bloodied Anderson this would never have happened if he had just answered their questions when they stopped him.  Anderson called them on their story switch and said “I thought you said you searched my car because the drug dog hit on it.”

The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2000, in Indianapolis vs. Edmond that police cannot set up roadblocks with drug dogs to randomly search vehicles for drugs.   However, an earlier exception had been made for the Border Patrol.  The Court in 1976 decided United States vs. Martinez-Fuerte, there is an exception to this rule which allows Border Patrol the unique power to establish checkpoints for seeking illegal immigrants, allowing a secondary purpose of finding drugs.  Therefore, while ordinary police cannot set up a checkpoint with a drug-detecting dog within the Fourth Amendment, the Border Patrol is allowed to do so, and the Border Patrol is not required to have “probable cause” before using their drug-detecting dog on a vehicle.  Moreover, the Border Patrol is allowed to establish checkpoints up to 100 miles inside the United States.

There is another exception allowed for checkpoints that applies to ordinary police.  That is the checkpoints set up to find drunk drivers, which was allowed by Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990.

Anderson was pulled from his car by officers of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, tasered and bloodied by the glass the police broke.  He was then jailed overnight.  Certainly he is startled that the rights he thought he had, the rights talked about on television and in classrooms are trumped by the reality of armed uniformed police who are on a mission to stamp out crime, and who are given more and more leeway by the courts.

Who cares?  No one, apparently.  The United States Supreme Court has continued over the years to chisel away at the rights of citizens so as to make things easier for police to act with impunity.  The Supreme Court has even mused about eliminating the exclusionary rule, the “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” doctrine, which requires suppression of evidence illegally obtained by the police.  You can imagine how illegal activity by police will flourish if that action is taken. The Congress has never given any indication it believes its citizens are at risk from police increasing intrusion.  It, like the press and most Americans, believes that American citizens are at risk from “crime,” not from the crime chasers.

Only the Bill of Rights limits the use of government power.  Police naturally push the boundaries of the permitted use of government power- always.  They think they are doing their jobs by impinging on the right of citizens whenever a criminal case might be made.  Once in a while police officers are caught red-handed lying, trumping up evidence or the like, just to make a case against a suspect the police “believes” really has it coming.  This corruption in the system is inherent where the word of police is taken and rarely can be challenged factually.  The more slack leash the United States Supreme Court gives them, the police will be able to make a few more criminal cases stick, of course, but the more diminished will be the rights of the American citizen.  The Bill of Rights becomes just a wall ornament.


DUI and Drug Possession Arrest for Lindsay Lohan Brings Up Questions About Monitoring Device

August 7, 2007

Too much time is spent by television cameras and their audiences concerning themselves with the lives of movie stars. But a recent incident with Lindsay Lohan raised an issue that can affect my clients. She had a bracelet attached to her leg that is supposed to signal any alcohol in her body. Yet she was reported to be leaving alcohol rehab and returning directly to her party routine and got arrested again for Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol in Santa Monica, California. No mention, no repercussions are apparent from this on her alcohol bracelet. And that could be a problem.

The SCRAM (Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor) alcohol-monitoring device is scientifically designed to signal alcohol in a person’s body. It will signal at approximately the level of 0.02% BAC. This wonderful instrument is sometimes, rarely, accepted by the prosecution instead of jail time. Therefore, we want this instrument to work. We want this science to succeed, because the alternative is time behind bars. We do not want incidents of the bracelet not working or apparently not working.

Why did the SCRAM not signal Lindsay Lohan’s recent [reported] use of alcohol? It may have worked after all. It depends on who received the signal, if any, that Lindsay Lohan was drinking alcohol. Ordinarily, the SCRAM bracelet is set up to signal law enforcement or probationary authorities that the subject is signally positive for alcohol. But in this case, Lindsay Lohan put on the bracelet voluntarily, so she could have set the signal for any alcohol detection to be transmitted to her lawyer, her boyfriend, or to a vacant lot.

The SCRAM makers claim that 40,000 Americans have used it since it was released on the market in 2003. The ankle bracelet is designed to take an air sample at least every hour, to collect the data, and then to transmit the data over a hard wire telephone line for analysis. The manufacturer claims it is the same technology as the Breathalyzer.

Since the bracelet is designed to read the person’s sweat for alcohol, some people claim to have out-smarted the bracelet by putting it under water or putting a piece of baloney between the bracelet and the person’s ankle. The manufacturers of the SCRAM respond that they will eventually catch anyone who tries to cheat the device.

Considering the present overflowing jail population as well as the dubious long-term value of incarceration in many kinds of cases, an option like this ankle bracelet is a valuable contribution to the arsenal of alternatives available to a criminal defense lawyer and his clients. More choices are better, more choices that the courts and prosecution will accept are better.