Sunday, July 31, 2011


There is an interesting case decided by the Supreme Court in 2009.  Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts 129S.Ct. (2009) is a Confrontation Clause case.  The Sixth Amendment says:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Following a 2001 arrest in which police found four bags of cocaine in a car occupied by Luis Melendez-Diaz, he and two other persons were taken to jail in a squad car.  Police noticed that the arrested men were fidgeting in the back seat of the car.  After booking the men officers searched the squad car and found nineteen bags of cocaine.  

All the cocaine was sent to a state laboratory for analysis. The lab reported the substances were cocaine.  Under Massachusetts law the lab submitted an affidavit to prosecutors so that their findings could be admitted as evidence in the trial against Melendez-Diaz.

At trial Melendez-Diaz objected to admission of the lab report because he had no opportunity to confront the laboratory personnel in court.  The objection was overruled,  Melendez-Diaz was convicted.  He appealed on the Sixth Amendment claim.  The Massachusetts Court of Appeals sustained the trial court.  The state Supreme Court refused to hear Melendez-Diaz's case.  On a writ of certiorari the case went to the United States Supreme Court.

That wild liberal Nino Scalia wrote the opinion that said the laboratory report is a testimonial statement as described in the Court's prior opinion in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U. S. 36 (2004).  The Sixth Amendment applies and Melendez-Diaz was entitled to confront the laboratory personnel testifying against him.

Melendez-Diaz was upheld in a case decided this June.  In Bullcoming v. New Mexico Justice Ginsburg reasserted the stare decisis of Crawford and Melendez-Diaz.  The Bullcoming case questioned whether the report of a blood alcohol machine was testimonial under the Crawford and Melendez-Diaz line of cases.

The wrinkle here is that Melendez-Diaz got himself arrested again on a nearly identical offense.  In 2004 police arrested Melendez-Diaz after they engaged him in a "controlled buy" of cocaine.  Melendez-Diaz's "vehicle was towed to a police department lot. A careful examination of the interior of the automobile led to the discovery of a secret compartment above the glove compartment in which was found the $630 in buy money, a number of small bags containing a white powdery substance, and a Tylenol bottle holding small bags containing a black tar-like substance as well as small bags containing a whitish beige rock substance." See, Commonwealth  v. Melendez-Diaz,SJC-10857 (2011).

Before the Court ruled in Melendez-Diaz, Melendez-Diaz faced another criminal  trial in which an affidavit from a state laboratory was used against him.  Melendez-Diaz did not object.  He was convicted.  Now Melendez-Diaz wants to use the rule announced in Melendez-Diaz to have his conviction reversed in a habeas corpus proceeding.

A proceeding in habeas is what's known as a collateral attack.  The convicted person wants another bite of the apple and must demonstrate that the proceedings were fundamentally unfair, violated a principle of law the Supreme Court, or other controlling authority, put in place before the underlying conviction became final.  Collateral relief will only set aside the conviction. The state generally retries the case in a manner to cure the defect in the original proceedings.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has refused to apply the holding in Melendez-Diaz in the collateral attack by Melendez-Diaz of his conviction following the 2004 conviction.  The rule announced in Melendez-Diaz was not in force when Melendez-Diaz's second conviction occurred, so there was no ground for collateral relief.

Raising a claim of Constitutional dimension in habeas permits the issue to be appealed in an appeal to the federal courts.  As this second Melendez-Diaz case goes forward seeking relief from the federal courts we should expect Melendez-Diaz 's legal counsel to argue that the rule enunciated in Melendez-Diaz was not a new or novel rule.  The rule was established in Crawford. Melendez-Diaz only clarified the holding in Crawford.

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