Confronting Science: Melendez-Diaz and the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment

Article excerpt

In an interesting turn of its docket this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case with an almost identical issue as a controversial decision from its last term. (1) That second bite at the apple, however, did not bear fruit, with this year's Court issuing a one-sentence opinion and sending it back down to the Virginia Supreme Court, merely instructing its members to make their ruling consistent with last year's Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts. (2) The Melendez-Diaz decision addressed the practice of using evidence affidavits in lieu of in-person testimony by forensic examiners, holding that the practice violates the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This article explores this decision and its implications for prosecutors relying on such examinations. (3)

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Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts

In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, the Court expounded on its previous ruling in the landmark case Crawford v. Washington, where it interpreted and explored the application of the constitutional provision found in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution known as the Confrontation Clause. The Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause provides that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to be confronted with the witnesses against him." (4) This bedrock procedural guarantee applies to both federal and state prosecutions. (5) In the procedural history of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, the Massachusetts courts admitted into evidence affidavits reporting the results of forensic analysis, which showed that material seized by the police and connected to the defendant was cocaine. The case hinges on the issue of whether those affidavits are testimonial, rendering the affiants witnesses subject to the defendant's right of confrontation under the Sixth Amendment. (6)

In 2001, after receiving information on a drug transaction, Boston police officers arrested three men, among them Luis Melendez-Diaz. The officers had witnessed what appeared to be plastic bags containing drugs passed between the men. Once arrested, the three men were put in a police cruiser and transported to the station. After depositing the men at the station, the officers searched the police cruiser and found a plastic bag containing 19 smaller plastic bags hidden in the partition behind the front seat. They submitted the seized evidence to a state laboratory required by law to conduct chemical analysis upon police request. (7)

Melendez-Diaz was charged with distributing cocaine and with trafficking in cocaine in an amount between 14 and 28 grams. (8) At trial, the prosecution placed into evidence the bags seized from the police cruiser. It also submitted three certificates of analysis showing the results of the forensic examination performed on the seized substances.

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  The certificates reported the weight of the seized bags and stated
  that the bags "have been examined with the following results: The
  substance was found to contain: Cocaine." (9) The certificates were
  sworn to before a notary public by analysts at the State Laboratory
  Institute of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, as
  required under Massachusetts law. (10)

Melendez-Diaz objected to the admission of the certificates. He argued that the Confrontation Clause decision in Crawford v. Washington (11) required the analysts to testify in person. The trial court admitted the certificates, as was usual practice and pursuant to state law, as "prima facie evidence of the composition, quality, and the net weight of the narcotic ... analyzed." (12) Melendez-Diaz was found guilty. He appealed, contending, among other things, that admission of the certificates violated his Sixth Amendment right to be confronted with the witnesses against him. (13)

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a majority of the Court, found that this rather common practice in many courts was, in fact, a violation of the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him. …