Jun 26, 2009

Melendez-Diaz Raises the 6th Amendment's Price Tag

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Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 25, 2009, is the latest salvo in the Sixth Amendment Wars.  Since 2004, one of the most divisive issues the Court has faced has concerned the meaning of the 6th Amendment's "Confrontation Clause."  So far, the Scalia-led majority insisted that the prosecution produce live witnesses instead of hearsay, and Scalia carried the day again in Melendez-Diaz.

The case involved the admissibility of certificates prepared by government lab technicians and stating under oath that the powder that police officers had seized was cocaine.  The prosecutor offered the certificates into evidence in lieu of calling the lab technician who had performed the test, and the Court ruled that doing so violated the 6th Amendment and invalidated the conviction.

The decision has the potential to make drug prosecutions too costly to pursue.  Many testing labs are already hard-pressed to keep up with the demands for test results.  If the technicians who carry out the testing also have to sit around courthouses waiting to testify, the backlogs will grow longer. The costs of the decision may be prohibitively high in rural states, where only one or two labs run tests for the entire state.  And when substances are sent to the FBI in Washington, D.C. for testing, Melendez-Diaz requires technicians to travel all over the country to testify regarding test results that they probably can't recall -- other than by looking at their certificate, anyway. 

A spokesperson for a national DIstrict Attorneys organization calls the decision a "train wreck" for prosecutors, and he may be right.  However, Justice Scalia has the mind-set of a junkyard dog when it comes to the protection of his 2004 Crawford decision To paraphrase an old homily, Scalia seems to believe that it is better that 99 defendants go free than one bit of hearsay escapes the 6th Amendment.