In a ruling affecting a wide variety of criminal law cases in Massachusetts, especially drug crimes, the U.S Supreme Court has ruled that lab reports offered as evidence by prosecutors will henceforth require the in-person testimony of lab technicians at trial.
The landmark ruling had its origins in a routine Suffolk Superior Court drug prosecution taking place in 2002, and made its way all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In that Suffolk Superior Court trial, prosecutors sought to introduce lab certificates accompanying two batches of drugs recovered by police in the case. The defendant’s defense attorney objected, citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that these types of reports fall within the “Confrontation Clause” of the U.S. Constitution. The Confrontation Clause requires the appearance of live witnesses against a defendant in a criminal prosecution, as the Court ruled in the 2004 case Crawford v. Washington.
The judge hearing the case at that time, then-Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Rouse, overruled the defense objection, and allowed the lab certificates to be admitted into evidence pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 111, Sections 12 and 13, which requires the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to “make … a chemical analysis of any narcotic drug … when submitted to it by police authorities … provided, that it is satisfied that the analysis is to be used for the enforcement of law.” Section 13 states that the “presentation of such certificate to the court by any police officer … shall be prima facie evidence that all the requirements [of section 12] have been complied with.”
At trial, prosecutors introduced the lab reports asserting that the substance inside the bags that were recovered by police was cocaine. The lab technicians who wrote the report did not appear as witnesses at trial. Without success, the defendant’s lawyer objected to the reports being allowed as evidence, arguing that the unavailability of the laboratory technicians who wrote the lab reports, for cross-examination, violated the defendant’s rights under the Confrontation Clause. No luck: The defendant was convicted and sentenced to a three-year to three-year-plus-one-day state prison term.
In an unpublished decision, the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed the Superior Court Judge’s ruling, and later the Supreme Judicial Court denied review without comment. The defendant then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for review, and the case was accepted for review (very, very few cases are accepted by the court for review.) In a 5-4 ruling authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court reversed the conviction.
Scalia wrote, “Under our decision in Crawford v. Washington, the (laboratory) analysts’ affidavits were testimonial statements, and the analysts were ‘witnesses’ for purposes of the Sixth Amendment. Absent a showing that the analysts were unavailable to testify at trial and that [the defendant] had a prior opportunity to cross-examine them, [the defendant] was entitled to ‘be confronted with’ the analysts at trial.” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the dissenting opinion, was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who personally argued the case, said she was “very disappointed” with the decision. “It is particularly disappointing that the majority failed to appreciate that its ruling today will significantly burden our ability to prosecute countless drug cases in the Commonwealth’s courts,” she said. Although we are still reviewing the implications of today’s decision, our office is prepared to work with other law enforcement officials in the Commonwealth to adjust our practices to comply with this new constitutional rule while still holding accountable those who violate our drug laws.”
As a Massachusetts drug crimes defense lawyer, I believe this U.S. Supreme Court ruling to be the fair and correct one. I acknowledge that producing laboratory technicians, in-person, for every criminal trial where they are needed, will be cumbersome and at times difficult. But it is a superior option to trumping the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.