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U.S. Supreme Court Rules Technicians Must Testify About Lab Results

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Legal experts and prosecutors have expressed concerns over the results of a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court requiring that lab analysts appear in court to testify about their tests. The court’s ruling says that lab sheets identifying a substance as a narcotic or breath-test printouts describing someone’s blood-alcohol level are not sufficient evidence and require someone in court to talk about the results.

While prosecutors and judges may not be satisfied with the opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, defense attorneys are happy that the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, which grants defendants the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” is not satisfied by a piece of paper.

Since the ruling, four DUI cases in Fairfax and at least one in Prince William County have been thrown out by judges after defense attorneys used the new ruling to challenge the prosecution’s evidence.

States and counties each handle evidence differently, so potential issues created by the ruling vary widely. However, one of the major complaints about the ruling is similar in many jurisdictions: Crime labs face huge backlogs, which many believe will grow with workers being taken out of labs to appear in court.

Each year, more than 1.5 million samples are analyzed by state and local labs in drug cases, resulting in more than 350,000 felony convictions, according to national statistics.

The percentage of cases going to trial each year could increase if defense attorneys believe bringing lab analysts to court will aid their cases. If the analyst is unable to be there, attorneys could also go to trial in hopes of a dismissal.

The court has agreed to hear a case in Alexandria that could give prosecutors an “escape hatch” from being required to bring lab analysts to court. The court will rule on whether or not Virginia law requires defendants to provide advance notice when they wish for lab analysts to testify is constitutional. However, that ruling will likely not come until 2010, and many attorneys believe Virginia’s law is deficient.

The Supreme Court ruling came about because of a case in which Luis E. Melendez-Diaz allegedly hid cocaine in a Boston police car while he was under arrest. The certificate of analysis, which determined the substance found in the vehicle was cocaine, was entered without the testimony of a technician and with only minor objection.

The ruling was 5-4, and the dissent written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy predicted disaster. He said that it will disrupt forensic investigations across the U.S. and result in guilty defendants going free.

In the majority of DUI cases in Fairfax, breath-test technicians stationed in the jail are used to perform blood-alcohol tests rather than the arresting officers so that the entire force, made up of more than 1,300 officers, does not have to be trained on the machines. However, there are only a few dozen technicians in Fairfax processing about 4,000 cases each year.

Bob Battle
100% of my practice is devoted to serious traffic defense and criminal litigation in state and federal courts
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