February 28, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Michigan v. Bryant

On February 28, 2011, the Supreme Court decided Michigan v. Bryant, No. 09-150.

Detroit police were called to the scene of a shooting.  They found the victim, Anthony Covington, lying on the ground.  The police asked Covington what happened; he responded that "Rick" had shot him, and he identified the defendant, Richard Bryant, as "Rick."  The police searched defendant's house and found evidence consistent with Covington's account of what happened.  Covington died from his injuries, and the state charged Bryant with second-degree murder. 

At trial, the state offered evidence of Covington's statements to the police identifying Bryant as his assailant and describing Bryant.  The trial court admitted the evidence, and the jury convicted Bryant.  The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, but the Supreme Court of Michigan reversed, holding that two intervening cases from the U.S. Supreme Court, Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), and Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813 (2006), rendered Covington's statements inadmissible under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment because the primary purpose of the police questioning of Covington was to establish the facts surrounding his shooting, not to enable them to meet an ongoing emergency. 

The Supreme Court vacated the Supreme Court of Michigan's decision, holding that the Confrontation Clause did not bar admission of Covington's statements, but the Court remanded the case for the Michigan courts to determine whether the statements were admissible under state hearsay rules.  The Court began with the proposition that the Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause applies only to "testimonial" statements.  The Court then observed that under Crawford and Davis, to determine whether an out-of-court statement is "testimonial," a court must analyze the "primary purpose" of the statement.  If the primary purpose of the statement is to "establish or prove past events potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution," the statement is "testimonial" and therefore covered by the Sixth Amendment.  If, by contrast, the primary purpose of the statement is "to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency," the statement is not testimonial and therefore not covered by the Sixth Amendment.

The Court held that the Supreme Court of Michigan erred in putting Covington's statement into the "testimonial category."  The Court held that the "primary purpose" determination is objective and depends on the circumstances in which the statement occurred and the actions of the parties involved.  The Court also held that the presence of an "ongoing emergency" is simply one factor in determining the "primary purpose" of a police interrogation of a witness.  The Court held the "ongoing emergency" that makes the Sixth Amendment inapplicable need not be an emergency involving the initial victim of the crime, but can extend to a potential threat to the responding police and the public at large.  The Court held that in context and under the circumstances, Covington's statements about Bryant were more about assisting the police in dealing with the threat of a gunman on the loose than about investigating and prosecuting the crime against Bryant.  Thus, the statements were not "testimonial" and therefore not barred by the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment.  The Court held that the Michigan courts would still have to decide whether the statements were admissible under the state's hearsay rules, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, and Alito joined.  Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion.  Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined.  Justice Kagan did not participate.

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