Supreme Court Ruling In Suffolk County Cocaine Case Will Benefit Massachusetts Criminal Defense Lawyers

In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U.S. – (June 25, 2009), the United States Supreme Court held that in a prosecution for a drug offense the introduction of certificates of analysis from Massachusetts drug crime laboratories violated a defendant’s constitutional right to confront witnesses against him at a trial. The Supreme Court recognized that the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” The Court has been narrowing the exceptions that state courts have carved from the Constitution to make prosecutions easier and more convenient for the government. Melendez-Diaz relied on the holding in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 51 (2004) in which the Court reaffirmed the basic tenet of the constitution that a defendant has a right to confront those “who ‘bear testimony’” against him. Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 51 (2004).

Melendez-Diaz, affirmed Crawford’s holding that a witness’s testimony against a defendant is thus inadmissible unless the witness appears at trial or, if the witness is unavailable, the defendant had a prior opportunity for cross-examination. In Melendez-Diaz, the Court discussed that the Crawford opinion described the class of testimonial statements covered by the Confrontation Clause as follows: “Various formulations of this core class of testimonial statements exist: ex parte in-court testimony or its functional equivalent—that is, material such as affidavits, custodial examinations, prior testimony that the defendant was unable to cross-examine, or similar pretrial statements that declarants would reasonably expect to be used prosecutorially; extrajudicial statements . . . contained in formalized testimonial materials, such as affidavits, depositions, prior testimony, or confessions; statements that were made under circumstances which would lead an objective witness reasonably to believe that the statement would be available for use at a later trial.” Id., at 51–52. The Court held that relative to a Massachusetts drug “certificate,” which the court concluded was the functional equivalent of an affidavit, there is little doubt that the document fell within the “core class of testimonial statements.”

This landmark decision will have the effect of forcing the government to meet its burden in all Massachusetts drug cases. Based on the language in the opinion, it also appears Massachusetts criminal defense attorneys should object during the prosectuion of gun offenses to the admission of ballistic certificates when the District Attorney moves to introduce them without a live witness. The reasoning in Melendez-Diaz requires the exclusion of the certificate as rank hearsay and a violation of the defendant’s rights to confront witnesses against him or her.

If you are facing a prosecution for any drug offense of firearm offense you must have an experienced Boston criminal defense attorney on your side. Similarly, if you have a case on appeal in which a certificate was introduced in lieu of a live witness, contacting an experienced Essex County defense attorney could result in a reversal of your conviction.