Friday, October 06, 2006

Lab reports and a notice-and-demand statute -- a significant decision from Minnesota

The Minnesota Supreme Court's decision yesterday in State v. Caulfield, 2006 WL 2028676 (Minn. Oct. 5, 2006),is notable and on the whole encouraging.

Noting a conflict among courts but (properly) finding the matter untroubling, the court unanimously held that a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension lab report, offered at trial to prove that a substance seized from the defendant was cocaine, was testimonial. The court correctly rejected the argument by the state "that state crime lab analysts play a nonadversarial role and are removed from the prosecutorial process." Although the underlying standard used by the court is somewhat unclear, the court soundly criticized decisions treating lab reports as non-testimonial, saying that those decisions "wrongly focus on the reliability of such reports."

The court was divided 4-3 in holding unconstitutional Minnesota's notice-and-demand statute, Minn. Stat. sec. 634.15, which allows admission of certain lab reports without testimony of the analyst unless the defendant "request[s], by notifying the prosecuting attorney at least ten days before the trial, that the [analyst] testify in person at the trial on behalf of the state." A critical aspect of this statute is that the defendant may demand that the analyst be called to testify at trial "on behalf of the state." The effect of this provision is that the statute does no more than require early assertion of the confrontation right; this is much more justifiable than provisions (such as one recently upheld in the neighboring state of North Dakota and discussed in another post) that effectively treat the confrontation right as abandoned unless the accused subpoenas the witness and makes her his own witness. In general, I think, statutes that merely require the defendant to assert his confrontation rights at some reasonable time prior to trial do not raise a serious constitutional problem; the state should be allowed to use a report without presenting the live testimony of the analyst if the defendant doesn't object, and long enough ahead of trial to make planning possible the state should be told whether it has to bring the analyst in. A ten-day period in this context does not seem unreasonable, though probably there should be leeway allowing the defendant to invoke the confrontation right later if he can show good reason why he did not earlier but needs to now. The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed that a properly drafted notice-and-demand statute might be constitutional. Nevertheless, the court held this one unconstitutional, declaring:

At a minimum, any statute purporting to admit testimonial reports without the testimony of the preparer must provide adequate notice to the defendant of the contents of the report and the likely consequences of his failure to request the testimony of the preparer.

The first point, that the defendant needs adequate notice of the contents of the report -- and, the court might have said, of the prosecution's intent to offer it -- is a good one, because absent such notice the defendant cannot intelligently decide whether to invoke the confrontation right. (Indeed, while the court refers to sec. 635.14 as a "notice-and-demand" statute, the only notice for which it provides, so far as I can see, is notice of the demand by the defendant that the preparer testify.) This is probably all the court needed to say. The second point, that the defendant needs notice of the likely consequences of failure to demand testimony of the preparer, seems rather odd to me, and this is what generated the dissent: It is pretty obvious from the statute that the report will be admitted and the preparer will not testify at trial unless the defendant demands the testimony. In any event, there is an easy fix: The state just has to draft a good notice provision to deliver to defendants.