129 S.Ct. 1257
Decided: June 23, 2011
Issue: Confrontation Clause
Holding: The United States Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment gives a defendant the right to confront the forensic analyst who tested the defendant’s blood sample to determine the sample’s blood-alcohol concentration (BAC).
The defendant was convicted of aggravated drunk driving in New Mexico. Bullcoming v. New Mexico, 131 S.Ct. 2705, 2709 (2011). In the process of defendant’s appeal, the Supreme Court decided Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 668 U.S. ____, 129 S.Ct. 1257 (2009), which held that a forensic laboratory report constituted testimony for purposes of the Confrontation Clause, requiring a live witness to testify to the truth of the report’s statements. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case to consider the following question:
“whether the Confrontation Clause permits the prosecution to introduce a forensic laboratory report containing a testimonial certification—made for the purpose of proving a particular fact—through the in-court testimony of a scientist who did not sign the certification or perform or observe the test reported in the certification. Bullcoming, 131 S.Ct. at 2709.
A majority of the court held that “[t]he accused’s right is to be confronted with the analyst who made the certification, unless that analyst is unavailable at trial, and the accused had an opportunity, pretrial, to cross-examine that particular scientist.” Id.
The defendant was arrested for drunk driving in 2005, following a crash in which he rear-ended another vehicle. Id. After failing a field sobriety test and refusing a breath test, blood was drawn pursuant to a police warrant. A forensic analyst conducted a gas chromatograph analysis and determined the defendant’s BAC was 0.21 grams per hundred milliliters. Id. The state then charged the defendant with an aggravated drunk driving charge based on this BAC. Id.
At trial, the State did not call the analyst who conducted the gas chromatograph test on the defendant’s blood, but called another analyst who did the same work at the same lab. Id. at 2711-2712. The State said the original analyst was not necessarily unavailable, but was on unpaid leave for an undisclosed reason. Id.
In support of the majority holding, the Court relies on its previous decision in Melendez-Diaz, which held affidavits reporting results of forensic tests are testimonial and are therefore subject to the defendant’s right of confrontation under the Sixth Amendment. Id. at 2712-2713. Applying Melendez-Diaz to this case, the court explained: “if an out-of-court statement is testimonial in nature, it may not be introduced against the accused at trial unless the witness who made the statement is unavailable and the accused has had a prior opportunity to confront that witness.” Id. at 2713.
The Court rejected several arguments advanced by the State that surrogate testimony should suffice. First, the State argued the testimony of another analyst should be sufficient because the original analyst was only a transcriber of an automated process. Id. at 2708. The Court disagreed because the test and report contained human actions and observations of factual conditions, not a mere automated process. Id. Furthermore, the court stated the Sixth Amendment “does not tolerate dispensing with confrontation simply because the court believes that questioning one witness about another’s testimonial statements provides a fair enough opportunity for cross-examination.” Id.
Second, the State argued the BAC analysis report is non-testimonial, and does not invoke the Sixth Amendment. Id. at 2716. The Court cited Melendez-Diaz in support that the report is testimonial, because “the formalities attending the ‘report of blood alcohol analysis’ are more than adequate to qualify [the analysts] assertions as testimonial.” Id. at 2717.
Finally, the State argued the cost of requiring forensic analyst testimony is too great to require the testimony. Id. at 2717-2718. The Court stated this constitutional requirement cannot be disregarded for the sake of convenience, and cost-effective remedies exist such as retesting a blood sample by different analysts. Id. at 2718.
Justice Sotomayor authored a concurrence to articulate limitations on the majority holding. She explained that the decision did not necessarily extend Melendez-Diaz to include medical treatment reports, prevent testimony of a supervisor, exclude independent expert testimony, or exclude raw data from a forensic test. Id. at 2719.
Justice Kennedy authored a dissenting opinion, joined by two justices. Justice Kennedy emphasized the automated nature of the gas chromatograph test, and described requiring the lab technician to testify as a “hollow formality.” Id. at 2724. Kennedy also accuses the court of using “the reliability of evidence as a reason to exclude it,” and concludes by professing that “[i]t is time to return to solid ground. A proper place to begin that return is to decline to extend Melendez-Diaz to bar the reliable, commonsense evidentiary framework the State sought to follow in this case.” Id. at 2725.