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Luis E. Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts


United States Supreme Court Docket No. 07-591

  • Cert. granted March 17, 2008
  • Argued November 10, 2008


Question Presented

Whether a state forensic analyst’s laboratory report prepared for use in a criminal prosecution is “testimonial” evidence subject to the demands of the Confrontation Clause as set forth in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004).


Factual Summary



The central facts of this case involve a drug transaction among three men, including the petitioner, in November 2001. Police were called by a K-mart loss prevention manager in the Boston area to investigate suspicious activity of an employee. The employee would take periodic rides in same car for about ten minutes each time. When the police responded to the request to investigate they observed the employee get into a car in which the defendant was a passenger. The actual drug transaction was not witnessed, but the police did see the employee lean forward and then back before exiting the car. Police stopped the employee on the way back to the store and discovered four small bags containing white and yellow powder in his pockets. Upon a subsequent search of the car, nineteen bags of a yellow powder, later identified as cocaine by Massachusetts Crime Laboratory, were seized. The three men were arrested and charged with distributing and trafficking in cocaine.

At trial, the forensic reports were entered into evidence as proof that the powder seized was cocaine. Petitioner objected to the admission arguing that under Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), he had a right to cross-examination the analyst who performed the test. The trial judge overruled the objection without explanation and admitted the reports.

Petitioner was found guilty and appealed. The appellate court rejected his contention that using forensic reports in place of live testimony denied his right to confrontation based on the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Verde, 827 N.E.2d 279 (Mass. 2005). The Massachusetts Supreme Court then denied his succeeding appeal without comment.



Argument Summary

Petitioner -- Melendez-Diaz

Petitioner's main argument against allowing the use of affidavits to prove the results of a forensic analysis is that it will result in prosecution by affidavit. Further, unless chain of custody is agreed upon, Petitioner wants the analyst who actually performed the test being introduced into evidence be available to testify about the conclusions certified as true and accurate. If the chain of custody is stipulated, a supervisor may testify about the raw data produced by the machine performing the test, but not someone else's concluding results.

Petitioner supports a bland notice-and-demand rule that would require the prosecution to produce the analyst for trial upon request. Additionally, Petitioner asserts that the right to confront an accuser is a passive right and as such, the defense should not be compelled to assume the burden of calling a state's witness in order to cross-examine him/her. He does not address the constitutionality of notice statutes that require more from defendants.

As to whether a forensic report should be considered testimonial evidence, the historical example of the exclusion of business records from testimonial requirements was used to explain why this type of evidence is distinct. Petitioner claims that the foundation of the business record exception was the assumed reliability and accuracy of the records produced. In contrast, the reliability of forensic reports cannot be assumed due to the interpretation needed to reach the results. Additionally, forensic reports are being used to prove an element essential to conviction and prepared specifically for trial and consequently, are testimonial. Petitioner also argues that even private labs that routinely perform these types of tests for other purposes should still be seen as performing the public functions of a state-run lab because they are working for law enforcement.

The major concern shared by the Justices is that requiring the testimony of forensic analysts based on the mere request of the defense will result in undue burden on the justice system by taxing an already overworked forensic lab system and prolonging trials for procedural rather than substantive reasons. Petitioner responds to this pragmatic concern by saying that in states that already use the rule, with California as the example, it is not an issue because the majority of cases are settled by plea bargains and of those that go to trial, only 10% actually call analysts to testify. Additionally, the lawyers who work on criminal cases are "repeat players" and have a vested interest in not doing things that will unnecessarily antagonize the other side, like requesting a forensic analyst testify when the testimony is not crucial to prove its theory of the case.

Respondent -- State of Massachusetts

Respondent's position is that the admission of forensic reports into evidence should not require the live testimony of the testing analyst because it is akin to the common law exception to public records. Forensic reports are akin to public records because the reports are produced by public officials performing the routine duties of their job. Further, the reports are not testimonial because they are official, objective records of independently verifiable facts that are generated by state established protocol that is not exclusively used for prosecutorial purposes. Respondent also states that even if the report is used to prove an essential element of the crime, it should still not be considered testimonial because the factual basis for the report can be verified at any time before, during and after a trial, unlike a witness statement.

Additionally, Respondent asserts that lab reports, like the drug test at issue here, do not require interpretation like testimonial evidence and thus have independent guarantees of reliability. However, the Justices reject a scheme that would require judges to decide the testimonial nature of a forensic report based on the type of interpretation needed to generate results.

The Justices are particularly concerned with the long list of instances where labs and lab results were found not to be reliable in light of Respondent's claim that these reports are independently reliable. Respondent answers this challenge by stating that Confrontation Clause was not designed or intended to protect against abuses by analysts or prosecutors prior to trial. The Justices strongly disagree with this line of argument and respond that the chain of custody, best established by the analyst who tested the evidence, would reveal this type of misconduct. Respondent claims that the police officer who originally packaged and marked the evidence for testing could provide the same information and that the real issue is criminality of the act not that the white powder is cocaine.

The Justices also asked Respondent why a notice-and-demand statute, which works in more populous states like California and Illinois, would be untenable in Massachusetts. Respondent asserted that the prosecution of misdemeanor drug cases would grind to a halt due to the frequent movement of judges between the two state-level trial courts and the tendency of defense attorneys to vigorously assert all the rights available to their clients.

U.S. as Amicus Curiae for Respondent

Federal government argues that forensic reports are non-testimonial evidence because the results are instrument-generated from a machine and the certification from a human that the report is accurate is merely a foundational requirement to admission, not testimony. The feds want to limit a non-testimonial standard for forensic reports only to instrument-generated reports and not include those that require a lot of interpretation. However, the Justices do not agree with this approach because even routine results produced during drug tests require some interpretation to understand the machine readout.

Argument Transcript


Briefs

Merit briefs

Amicus briefs



Case Below

Lower Court: Appeals Court of Massachusetts, (05-P-1213) July 31, 2007. 870 NE2d 676, 69 Mass. App. Ct. 1114 (table), unreported decision


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