June 25, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts

On June 25, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, No. 07-591.

At the trial of Luis E. Melendez-Diaz for distributing and trafficking in cocaine, the prosecution offered bags containing a white powder, along with three "certificates of analysis" showing the results of the forensic analysis performed on the powder. The certificates stated that the bags had "been examined with the following results: The substance was found to contain: Cocaine." The analysts who performed the tests were not called as witnesses. Melendez-Diaz argued that the admission of the certificates violated the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

The Supreme Court agreed. In Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), the Court held that the Sixth Amendment applies to a "core class of testimonial statements," including "affidavits . . . or similar pretrial statements that declarants would reasonably expect to be used prosecutorially." The forensic certificates fall directly within the class of statements identified in Crawford.

The Court rejected "a potpourri of analytic arguments" offered by respondent and the dissent "in an effort to avoid this rather straightforward application of our holding in Crawford." That the testimony of the forensic analyst was not itself sufficient to convict did not excuse it from the Confrontation Clause. That there are other ways—and in some cases better ways—to challenge the results of a forensic test does not authorize the Court to suspend the Confrontation Clause. That the certificates are "akin to" business records does not exempt them from the Confrontation Clause, because they were prepared for the purpose of producing evidence for use at trial. That the defendant could subpoena the analyst does not excuse the prosecution from complying with its duty to present the witness. That complying with the Confrontation Clause can be burdensome does not entitle the Court to ignore it.

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

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