Today’s Washington Post looks at the recent Supreme Court decision that says defendants have the right to confront the lab analysts who accuse them.
The predictions are dire. In New York, murderers could walk free. In Fairfax County, drunken driving cases could be dismissed. And nationwide, thousands of drug cases might have to be thrown out of court annually.
Legal experts and prosecutors are concerned about the results of last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires lab analysts to be in court to testify about their tests. Lab sheets that identify a substance as a narcotic or breath-test printouts describing a suspect’s blood-alcohol level are no longer sufficient evidence, the court ruled. A person must be in court to talk about the test results.
The opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, has prosecutors and judges shaking their heads in disgust and defense lawyers nodding with satisfaction at the notion that the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantee that defendants “shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him” is not satisfied by a sheet of paper.
Of course prosecutors are scared by this ruling. It makes their job harder and it also means that more drug cases might go to trial in the hope that they could get a dismissal if the prosecutor can’t produce the analyst. The only way prosecutors manage the huge load of drug cases is to see to it that only 5% go to trial (through piling on charges to make the plea deal attractive in comparison to the alternative). If more drug cases go to trial, the whole system falls apart, particularly in a time when more money for courts is unlikely to be found.
And the system is corrupt. This Supreme Court ruling merely states that the prosecutors and judges must do their job as specified in the Constitution. If they can’t handle it, then maybe we’ll finally take a look at why we’re prosecuting so many people.