As a Massachusetts OUI Attorney, the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court has importance consequences in defending drunk driving case involving blood and breath test evidence. The Williams v. Illinois decision is noteworthy as to how divided the court was in its reasoning finding that the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights were not violated. The decision was a 5-4 decision that could impact the admissibility of blood and breath test results for individuals charged with DUI in Massachusetts.
In Williams v. Illinois, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision on the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause that makes the Court’s interpretation of this Constitutional provision unclear and confuses this area of law for criminal defense lawyers, prosecutors and trial judges. In this 5-4 decision, 4 justices in what is referred to as the Plurality joined the decision of Justice Alito and Justice Thomas concurred separately in the judgment.
In the Williams case, the State called an expert witness who testified that a DNA profile produced by an outside laboratory, matched a profile produced by the state police lab using a sample of the defendant’s blood. The defendant contended that the expert’s testimony violated the defendant’s right of confrontation when the expert testified that the DNA profile provided by the laboratory was produced from semen found on the victim’s vaginal swab.
The Plurality opinion held that the statement did not violate the Confrontation Clause for a number of different reasons. First, the Justices concluded that the statement of the expert did not go to the truth of the matter asserted. The Court noted that expert witnesses can rely on facts to which they do not have first hand knowledge.
Further, the Court stated that the report even if it had been admitted would not have violated the Confrontation Clause because it was produced before any suspect had been identified; the court reasoned that the report did not inherently incriminate the defendant, but could have been exculpatory. The 4 Justice found that the testimony regarding a match between the DNA profile found in the semen of the victim was not admitted for the truth of the matter asserted, but was a premise of the question that the expert assumed to be true. The Court then held that the argument of the dissent would have had more force in a jury trial and that it was unlikely the judge would have accepted the testimony for the truth of the matter asserted.
As a final reason for affirming the conviction, the Plurality held that even if the testimony was admitted for its truth, it would not violate the confrontation clause because it was nontestimonial and did not have as its primary purpose to accuse the petitioner or create evidence for use at a criminal trial.
The Williams decision was noteworthy for the concurring opinion of Justice Thomas which was not joined by any other member of the Court. Justice Thomas concurred in judgment and held that he agreed with the dissent’s view, but concluded that the report lacked the requisite formality and solemnity to be considered testimonial.
Justice Thomas rejected the State’s argument that the facts which an expert relies are not admitted for their truth; Justice Thomas held that he would not let the Rules of Evidence so easily trump a defendant’s right of confrontation. Justice Thomas wrote that he rejects a “primary purpose test” because it bring more statements than intended into the scope of the confrontation clause.
Justice Thomas concluded that the primary purpose test gives no principled way to decide what is more important to end an emergency or to accuse someone of a crime. Justice Thomas claims that the solemnity requirement is true to the history of the Constitution and does not have practical difficulties in application because a statement to end an emergency is unlikely to bear the requirements of formality and solemnity required for confrontation in his view.
Justice Thomas criticized the majority’s reformulation of the primary purpose test to exclude statements from the confrontation requirement if made before the accused has been identified. Justice Thomas held that a witness against the defendant can occur before the defendant has been identified.
Justice Kagan filed a dissenting opinion which was joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Scalia and Justice Sotomayor. The dissent viewed the case as a straight application of Melendez-Diaz and Bullcoming and would have found that the defendant was deprived of his right of confrontation. The Williams decision was noteworthy for several respects as was point out in the Confrontation Blog on the case.
First, it reveals that 4 Justice insist on attempting to overturn Melendez-Diaz. The decision may not have significant impact on the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause doctrine as there was no majority.
As a Massachusetts OUI lawyer, I found the position of Justice Sotomayor joining the dissent as significant since her concurrence in Bullcoming suggested she may have more narrow view of Confrontation Rights. The dissent of Justice Kagan revealed a very strong interpretation of the right of confrontation that was articulated in Crawford and Melendez-Diaz.