The Court Gets it Right!

Scales of JusticeIt’s so often that we see dismal decisions out of the Supreme Court that perhaps we should go to some additional effort to highlight good ones.  On June 25th, the Court announced its decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts (No. 07-591).  In this case, the defendant was accused of possession of cocaine, and what was entered into evidence was a certificate from a laboratory indicating what the substance was.  Under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, a defendant has the right to confront his or her accusers, something that is difficult when all that is presented is a certificate. Had the decision gone the other way, the state would in essence be able to write a note, excusing crucial experts from adversarial challenge, while yet admitting their evidence.  And it’s not as if we haven’t seen shoddy work by laboratories in the past.  While there are exceptions to the so-called Confrontation Clause do exist, they are limited to certain business records, and the unavailability of a material witness (e.g., a decedent in a murder trial).

The funny thing is that in the states I’ve lived, anyone with a speeding ticket has had the right to question the guy who’s pulled him over, and that was for an infraction, and not a felony.  I even know of people who have introduced evidence that challenged the validity of radar.

This also goes to our previous discussion about technology changing how the law is applied.  Today we have DNA tests that provide a relatively reliably test that when found indicate a person’s presence – by today’s standards.  Tomorrow’s approaches  may once again upset the apple cart, but only if experts and methods can be challenged with those newer methods.

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4 thoughts on “The Court Gets it Right!”

  1. Indeed: this was a particularly interesting decision in that it turned the usual balance of the court on its head, at least with respect to my opinion.

    I have to disagree with you on the traffic-ticket issue, though: traffic court is a farce. You do get to confront your accuser, yes, but the burden of proof is on YOU, which is backward. As you say, you “know of people who have introduced evidence that challenged the validity of radar.” The police do not have to prove that the radar evidence is reliable; YOU have to prove that it’s not.

    In other cases, such as, say, a claim that you made an illegal turn or ran a stop sign, you have no hope. The officer says you did. You say you didn’t. You’re guilty. The fact is that a police officer who wants to give you a ticket can stop you at any time and claim that you did anything he cares to choose, and if you’re alone in the car you have no chance.

    Of course, I can’t see another way it can work: traffic court would basically shut down if the officer had to show actual evidence, beyond just his word, that you did what he says you did. Still, it would be interesting to see the issue taken to the Supreme Court for a constitutional ruling on it.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Barry. Obviously different states handle this differently, but in California in particular, the cop is just a witness, and while he can provide evidence against you, you can impeach that evidence. If he doesn’t show for a trial, you’re not guilty. As far as radar is concerned, in earlier years it was easier to challenge radar, and I have a good friend who did so regularly and won. According to him, he was practically on a first name basis with the judge. As technology matures, I would suggest that the burden of proof shifts from the state to the defense.

    But now let’s consider this in the context of RFID, which is considerably younger than radar. Supposed it was used in court to demonstrate that you were present at an event (supposing your driver’s license had it). Who would have the burden of proof in that case?

  3. When there’s technological evidence, sure, it can be challenged. Usually, the way it works is that when a technology is new, the authorities must produce expert witnesses attesting to its reliability. Eventually, it becomes mainstream and assumed to be valid, and the defense then has to impeach it. Radar and DNA are clearly in the latter category now; RFID would still be in the former, I think.

    But I’m talking about the situation where there is no physical or technological evidence. There’s just the officer standing there saying, “I saw Mr Lear run a stop sign,” and Eliot standing on the other side saying, “I did not run the stop sign.” Perhaps California is different, but in every east-coast state where I’ve talked to anyone about it, the officer always wins: if she says you did it, the court accepts that. How do you impeach that “evidence”?

  4. In the case where there is a witness (e.g., an officer), you have the option of impeaching the witness. here are some questions:
    – how did you establish the speed of the defendant?
    – did you maintain sight of the vehicle at all times? Common models are
    hard to substantiate identity.
    – did you communicate over the radio or by cell phone while you were following
    the defendant? Do you remember what those calls were about? [You can
    request a copy of any recordings].

    And of course you can call your own witnesses.

    But here’s the thing- the vast majority of people stopped for speeding are caught red handed, which makes a defense awfully difficult.

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