Supreme Court Leaves Melendez-Diaz Intact

In June, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Melendez-Diaz, (opinion here) holding that the defense had a right to live testimony of the Government's chemist in a drug trial under the 6th Amendment's right to confront witnesses.

In an unusual action, it decided to rehear oral arguments on the issue in Briscoe v. Virgina. The arguments were held two weeks ago.

Today the Supreme Court vacated the opinion in Briscoe v. Virginia and remanded the case. (Order here.)So Melendez-Diaz remains good law. The issue in Briscoe:

If a state allows a prosecutor to introduce a certificate of a forensic laboratory analysis, without presenting the testimony of the analyst who prepared the certificate, does the state avoid violating the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment by providing that the accused has a right to call the analyst as his own witness?

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    Question (none / 0) (#1)
    by jbindc on Mon Jan 25, 2010 at 01:14:02 PM EST
    The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial (which is usually defined by state statute).  For the non-lawyers, this is to ensure that the state doesn't keep delaying the trial for those defendants who are already incarcerated (pre-trial).  (Most state statutes require that an incarcerated defendant be brought to trial within 6 months to a year).  So, when the prosecution asks for a delay in the proceedings, the clock keeps ticking.  But when the defense asks for a delay, the clock is stopped, and the state is not penalized.

    Here's my question:  How will this ruling  affect the concept of a speedy trial?  For example:  Say a prosecutor has an affadavit of a lab technician that he/she wants to proffer, but the defense wants the prosecution to call the technician. There are only so many hours in a day, so many cases, and so many technicians to work on analyses, so the tech may not be available. Does the clock stop on the speedy trial requirements because the defense is technically asking for the delay, or is the state penalized?

    Like most constitutional rights, (none / 0) (#2)
    by Peter G on Mon Jan 25, 2010 at 02:14:55 PM EST
    ... the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy ("and public") trial provides a minimum baseline.  It is measured from formal accusation to the beginning of the trial.  Only an extreme and unjustified delay, despite defense requests to schedule and/or begin the trial, will constitute a constitutional violation.  The detailed regulation of how many days are allowed before the trial begins when the defendant is (or is not) detained, what counts as excluded time, and how much, and who the delay is charged against, etc., varies tremendously from jurisdiction to jurisdiction (state or federal? what state?) and is governed by that jurisdiction's statutes and rules of procedure.  

    By the way, I don't agree -- nor does the Supreme Court -- that the principal objective of the Speedy Trial Clause is to reduce any period of pretrial detention.  The focus is as much on the defendant's potential loss of access to witnesses or the accuracy of their memories, and the anxiety and other personal costs of waiting for vindication or resolution of the accusation.


    So (none / 0) (#3)
    by jbindc on Mon Jan 25, 2010 at 02:37:23 PM EST
    Do you think there will be future Supreme Court cases by defense attorneys who will argue that their clients' Sixth Amendment rights to a speedy trial were violated because they (the defense attorneys) wanted the state to call lab techs, who may or may not have been available in a timely manner?  Do you think the SC will buy that argument?

    No, and no (none / 0) (#5)
    by Peter G on Mon Jan 25, 2010 at 03:10:49 PM EST
    Subpoena trumps working in the lab. (none / 0) (#6)
    by oculus on Mon Jan 25, 2010 at 03:32:26 PM EST
    Not just working in the lab (none / 0) (#7)
    by jbindc on Mon Jan 25, 2010 at 03:42:34 PM EST
    Those techs could be testifying in other cases around the state.  

    Of course, eventually there will be a huge backlog because no techs will be doing analyzing, but instead will spend all their time testifying.


    In California state court criminal (none / 0) (#8)
    by oculus on Mon Jan 25, 2010 at 03:44:43 PM EST
    cases, proseution cannot stand on affidavit.  Must sub the "expert" who did the lab work.  It seems to work out fine.  Juggle witnesses.

    In California (none / 0) (#9)
    by jbindc on Mon Jan 25, 2010 at 04:20:32 PM EST
    Do the techs come from major police forces?  For example - does LA have its own techs, SF has its own techs, etc?

    Many states (such as Michigan) use the State Police crime lab.  Much harder to juggle when a handful of techs have to testify all over the state, no?


    County usually has crime lab. State (none / 0) (#10)
    by oculus on Mon Jan 25, 2010 at 04:25:21 PM EST
    Dept. of Justice also has crime lab.  I never had a problem having the lab tech present, even for a short trial.  Did have to juggle witnesses.  Sometimes defense would stip. to the report.

    They could be testifying and getting it wrong (none / 0) (#11)
    by Rojas on Tue Jan 26, 2010 at 07:27:52 AM EST
    again and again and again....

    Check their damn homework and I guarantee you'll be surprised. Never assume competence. There is too much at stake. Some lie, some are lazy, others don't know any better.

    My experience with accredited labs is that it's a coin flip. There is no magic. No magic machines, no magic procedures. People are involved and they will misinterpret, fail to calibrate or just go through the motions.

    Get a real expert in there and dig. Put some steel back in the BOR. A competent expert is the only chance we have to audit and the stakes are too damn high.


    Crime Lab techs are the weak link (none / 0) (#4)
    by Ben Masel on Mon Jan 25, 2010 at 03:04:44 PM EST
    in the Drug War machinery. way fewer than Police or Assistant DAs.

    Insist they testify in every case (especially those far from their home base), and they're never in the lab to perform the tests.

    Many of them are actually pretty weak on the science, just following a recipe. Put real chemists on the stand as rebuttal experts and the identifications of controlled substances can often be taken down.