On June 25 last year, the Supreme Court held in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts that in a drug case the prosecution can’t simply use a sworn lab report to prove the existence of a controlled substance. If the chemist doesn’t testify, it violates the Confrontation Clause. (See our previous post about it here.)
Four days later, on June 29, the Court granted cert. in Briscoe v. Virginia, to decide whether the states can get around this requirement if they permit the defendant to call the lab analyst as a defense witness. Oral arguments are scheduled for next Monday, and we can’t wait to hear how the Commonwealth of Virginia tries to make its case.
It seems to us that there is an obvious burden-shifting problem here. The state, and only the state, has the burden of proving every element of the crime. Since the Winship case in 1970, this has been a due process requirement of the Constitution. Unless he asserts an affirmative defense, the defendant has no burden to prove a thing.
So the prosecution has to prove an element. It needs a forensic test to prove it. It needs the testimony of the analyst to introduce the results of that test. The defense does not have a burden to prove anything, one way or the other, about the test.
But Virginia wants to be able to prove its case using only the lab report, and get around the Confrontation Clause by saying the defense is allowed to call the analyst if they want to confront him.
First, who cares whether the state allows the defense to call the analyst or not? Last time we checked, the defense could call any witness they chose, by subpoena if need be. The defense always has the opportunity to put the analyst on the stand as a defense witness. This “permission” doesn’t actually give the defense permission to do anything it couldn’t already do. All it does is imply wrongly that the defense couldn’t have done so otherwise.
Second, the state cannot impose a burden of proof on the defense like this. Virginia’s scheme essentially precludes the defense from challenging the state’s evidence during the state’s case. It forces the defense to act affirmatively and put on a defense case in order to challenge the state’s evidence. That’s a big due process violation.
Third, the state does not get around the Confrontation Clause by shifting the burden to the defendant to call those witnesses it wishes to confront. In a murder case, it would absurd to let the prosecution introduce an eyewitness’s written account of what happened, and no more, so long as the defendant himself could have called the eyewitness if he wanted to. That’s indistinguishable from what Virginia wants to do.
Lots of prosecutors’ offices are hoping that the Supremes will side with Virginia on this one. Particularly in the more amateurish offices, there is a feeling that the Melendez-Diaz decision imposes too great a cost on the criminal justice system, and imposes unworkable inefficiencies, by requiring chemists to take time off from their busy jobs to testify at trial. An amicus brief filed by half the nation’s attorneys general makes these arguments.
But just look here at New York City, the busiest criminal courts and crime lab in the world. Lab reports are used in the grand jury, where there is no confrontation right, but the chemists themselves must testify at trial. Somehow, this requirement has not bankrupted the city. Getting the chemist to show up is just one more minor hassle that prosecutors have to deal with, no more challenging than getting cops to show up. The requirement is so minor that nobody really thinks about it.
Still, Melendez-Diaz was a 5-4 decision. And one of the five, Justice Souter, has been replaced by former prosecutor Justice Sotomayor. So people are thinking that she’s going to be more pro-prosecution here, and help the Court either reverse or severely limit that decision.
We don’t think so. We’d remind Court observers that Sotomayor came out of the Manhattan DA’s office, not one of the “amateur hour” offices. Her own personal experience is that requiring the chemist to testify at trial is really no big deal.
So we’re looking forward to the oral arguments next week. If Scalia gives as good as he did in last June’s decision, and if we’re right about Sotomayor, then Virginia’s in for a spirited beatdown.