US Supreme Court Confirms Confrontation Right in Radar, DUI Cases

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
us supreme court confirms confrontation right in radar dui cases

In a decision that has wide-ranging implications for photo enforcement, speeding tickets and driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) charges, the US Supreme Court yesterday reconfirmed the Sixth Amendment right to confront one’s accuser applies to analysts who claim to have certified evidence from a machine. The 5-4 decision concluded that “stand-in” expert witnesses are not a substitute for the individuals who actually conducted the tests. The decision broadens the applicability of the landmark Melendez-Diaz ruling from 2009, which has already led to appellate division cases in four California counties to throw out red light camera evidence.

The high court examined the case of Donald Bullcoming whose vehicle rear-ended a truck belonging to Dennis Jackson in Farmington, New Mexico on August 14, 2005. Jackson went to exchange insurance information with Bullcoming and noticed that the man smelled of alcohol. Bullcoming fled the scene on foot before police arrived, but Officer Marty Snowbarger caught up to him and arrested him for DUI. After a breath test was refused, Snowbarger obtained a warrant to take Bullcoming’s blood. Forensic analyst Curtis Caylor’s test of this sample showed a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.21, a result that served as the primary evidence against Bullcoming at trial.

The blood testing process is performed by a gas chromatograph machine but remains subject to human error. The court noted a “fairly complex” Colorado lab mistake systematically produced high BAC readings for 206 defendants. Caylor did not testify at trial because he had been put on unpaid leave from his job for an unspecified reason. Instead, Gerasimos Razatos testified regarding the results which he had neither observed nor reviewed.

The high court examined the question of whether a lab report could be introduced as evidence by an “expert” who did not actually conduct the tests in question. The prosecution argued that the gas chromatograph machine was the accuser in the case and that Caylor simply wrote down the result without exercising independent judgment. For that reason, Razatos was an equivalent substitute. The court disagreed.

“Suppose a police report recorded an objective fact — Bullcoming’s counsel posited the address above the front door of a house or the read-out of a radar gun,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority. “Could an officer other than the one who saw the number on the house or gun present the information in court — so long as that officer was equipped to testify about any technology the observing officer deployed and the police department’s standard operating procedures? As our precedent makes plain, the answer is emphatically ‘No.'”

The court majority noted that using a surrogate witness would conceal any lapses or lies on the part of the certifying analyst. It also noted that the burden on the prosecution from the requirement of live testimony could have been cured by having Razatos retest the blood sample, which was preserved in accordance with New Mexico law.

“As a rule, 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,” Ginsburg concluded.

The decision represented a rare coalition of the most liberal and most conservative members of the court. Ginsburg and President Obama’s nominees to the court, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, were joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

A copy of the decision is available in a 275k PDF file at the source link below.

Bullcoming v. New Mexico (US Supreme Court, 6/23/2011)

[Courtesy: Thenewspaper.com]

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  • Mdensch Mdensch on Jun 24, 2011

    As interesting as the legal argument and precedent is that the two extremes of the court formed the majority opinion. As a good friend of mine often notes, the political spectrum is actually a mobius strip.

  • FreedMike FreedMike on Jun 24, 2011

    The net effect of this will be that the red light camera thieves...whoops, I mean the dedicated enforcement personnel keeping us all from dying suddenly...will have a more difficult time proving these cases. They'll have to show up and testify. Guess what that means? It'll cost more. Good...that'll cut these companies' profits, meaning they'll raise prices...and the municipalities will raise the penalties, increasing public resistance to these abominable devices. A good piece of news.

    • R H R H on Jun 24, 2011

      I'm not so sure about that FreedMike. We recently had elections here a few months ago. There were 2 independents and 3 in the "abolishtheredlightcamera" party. voter turnout was 14%. The 2 independents finished 1 & 2. The anti-red-light-camera people finished 3-5. I really wanted to cry when I saw that...

  • MelanieRichardson GOOD
  • El scotto @jwee; Sir, a great many of us believe that Musk is somewhere (pretty high) on the spectrum and move on.I work on the fringes of IT. Most of my presentations get picked over extensively and intensely at meetings. I'm smart enough to know I'm not that smart and willingly take advice from the IT crew. I bring them Duck Doughnuts too. We also keep a box of Crayolas in the meeting room.At one meeting an IT guy got way into the details of my presentation, the meeting went long as we discussed my target audience. Same IT guy insisted it was a disaster and would fail miserable and that I was stupid. Yeah, F-boms get dropped at our meetings. I finally had enough and asked if he was such an expert, did he want to stand up in front of 30 senior executives and give the presentation? His response was a flat "NO". He got the box of Crayolas. For you non-military types that means shut up and color. Musk is the same as that IT guy, lots of gyrations but not much on follow-through. Someone just needs to hand him a box of Crayolas.
  • FreedMike The FJ Cruiser would be a better comeback candidate. The gang back at Toyota HQ must be looking at all those Broncos flying off Ford lots and kicking themselves.
  • Tassos 2015 was only 7 years ago. $58k is still a whole lot of $ to pay for a vehicle. FOrtunately one can buy a flagship vehicle with great active and passive safety for half this amount, if one does the SMART thing and buys a pre-owned luxury flagship vehicle. they have historically been SCREAMING BARGAINS. A breadvan on stilts SUV, wether the more compact Macan or the more bloated Cayenne will never pass as a Flagship Vehicle. No matter how well it drives or how reliable it suprisingly is. It still is a breadvan on stilts.
  • Sean Ohsee Bring back the 100 series and its I6 diesel.
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