April 29, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Kansas v. Ventris

On April 29, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Kansas v. Ventris, No. 07-1356.

While Ventris was awaiting trial for a murder committed in the course of a robbery, an informant planted in his cell heard him admit to shooting and robbing the victims. At trial, however, Ventris claimed that a co-defendant had committed the crimes. The state offered the testimony of the informant, which it admitted had been obtained in violation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, to impeach Ventris's trial testimony. The trial court received the testimony in evidence, and Ventris was convicted of aggravated burglary and robbery. The Kansas Supreme Court reversed the conviction, holding that the informant's statement was inadmissible for all purposes, including impeachment.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the statement was admissible to impeach Ventris's testimony. It noted that, unlike the Fifth Amendment, which is violated only when a defendant's self-incriminatory statement is used at trial, the Sixth Amendment is violated when the defendant is interrogated without the assistance of counsel; the subsequent use of evidence obtained by the interrogation is irrelevant to the violation itself. The rule excluding evidence obtained in violation of the Sixth Amendment therefore is not constitutionally compelled but is merely a prophylactic rule to deter police misconduct. If the evidence is offered to impeach the defendant's testimony, however, the interests safeguarded by the exclusionary rule are "outweighed by the need to prevent perjury and to assure the integrity of the trial process." The Court noted that it had previously held that evidence obtained in violation of other constitutional rights is admissible for impeachment, and it saw no reason for a different rule here.

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Breyer and Alito joined. Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Ginsburg joined.

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