Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Thoughts on Melendez-Diaz: Certificates of Authenticity

At the Melendez-Diaz argument, Justice Breyer posed one of the most interesting issues that is suggested by the case though not directly presented by it. Suppose that it is critical for the prosecution to introduce Joe Jones’s birth certificate (to use Justice Breyer’s example), or information contained in it. The birth certificate itself is not a testimonial statement. But the copy was produced for the particular prosecution, and is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity. Does the Confrontation Clause require the prosecution to present the custodian of records to authenticate the certificate?

I think the answer is no, and this case is clearly distinguishable from Melendez-Diaz, on several grounds.

(1) The certificate of authenticity is probably not testimonial. True, the prosecution agent who procured the copy of the birth certificate and the accompanying certificate of authenticity knew, by hypothesis, that they were to be used in a prosecution. But it is the anticipation of the declarant – in this case, the one who made the certificate of authenticity – that should count in determining whether a statement is testimonial, not the intended use by the one who procures the statement. (This is an argument I have made many times before, on this blog and in other writing.) Records clerks make many assertions that documents are authentic, and most of those are not anticipated for litigation use. Presumably the prosecution agent in a given case does not say to the records clerk, “Please give me a copy of Joe Jones’s birth certificate, with a certificate of authenticity, so that I can use it in a prosecution.” But even if the agent does add those gratuitous words at the end, or if they seem implicit in the request given the source, the certificate of authenticity is the same type of statement that the clerk routinely makes in non-litigation contexts, and presumably the same type of statement the clerk would make about this certificate even if she did not know about the intended use.

The report in Melendez-Diaz stands in sharp contrast to a certificate of authenticity, of course; it was clearly prepared for prosecution use. Similarly, a certificate showing that there is no record of permission given to a particular alien to re-enter the country after deportation should be considered testimonial; such certificates are presumably prepared only for purposes of assisting in prosecutions for re-entry without permission after deportation. (But I think Congress could easily eliminate that problem. I assume that very few deported aliens are given permission to re-enter; the statute could be reframed so that the crime is re-entry after deportation, and permission to re-enter is an affirmative defense. Poof!)

(2) The certificate of authenticity resembles the old official seal; indeed, it is likely to come in the form of a seal directly affixed to the underlying birth certificate, rather than in a separate document. Certain documents under seal have long (since well before adoption of the Sixth Amendment) been admissible. I believe that understanding the historical use of the seal is a fertile area for academic research. One view might be that the seal is not so much an assertion as an official act that effectively makes the copy the equivalent of the original. It may also be that the seal can only be used when, in accordance with the reasoning in point (1) above, it should not be considered testimonial in nature. In any event, the impact of the seal is limited to demonstrating that a given document is an accurate copy of an original official document. That would do the prosecution no good at all in a case like Melendez-Diaz.

(3) Finally, so far as the Confrontation Clause or any other part of the Constitution is concerned, there is no need for the prosecution to present any authenticating evidence at all. If a piece of evidence appears on its face – without the aid of testimonial statements – to be what the proponent claims it to be, then without any additional evidence about it the jury could infer that this is what it is. If a piece of paper says it is Joe Jones’s birth certificate, then the jury does not, as a logical or constitutional matter, need more evidence to prove that it is indeed Joe Jones’s birth certificate. (Note how a certificate of a lab report is different in this respect – the only way we know what that is from the face of it is by virtue of the fact that it says it is a particular lab report, and that statement was made for prosecutorial purposes.)

There is nothing unusual about this idea. Fed. R. Evid. 902 contains a long list of categories of self-authenticating evidence – that is, evidentiary items that do not need “[e]xtrinsic evidence of authenticity as a condition precedent to admissibility.” Some of these, including government records, require certifications of authenticity; in other words, though the proponent does not need to present admissible evidence supporting the authenticity, the document does have th be accompanied by some sort of certification that it is authentic. But others are truly self-authenticating – if the thing appears to be what its proponent claims, then nothing more is needed to satisfy an authentication requirement. These include the following:
(5) Official publications. Books, pamphlets, or other publications purporting to be issued by public authority.

(6) Newspapers and periodicals. Printed materials purporting to be newspapers or periodicals.

(7) Trade inscriptions and the like. Inscriptions, signs, tags, or labels purporting to have been affixed in the course of business and indicating ownership, control, or origin.
There is no reason that a jurisdiction could not add to this list papers purporting – without reliance on testimonial statements – to be within certain categories of official records.

If a jurisdiction does adopt this approach, and the prosecution does not present supporting evidence to demonstrate that the document is the birth certificate it purports to be, it is, of course, open to the defense to challenge the authenticity of the document. And if the state does choose to present supporting evidence, that would have to be in admissible form.

In sum, holding for Melendez-Diaz would not commit the Supreme Court to holding that a certificate of authenticity can never be admitted unless the author of the certificate testifies subject to confrontation. The Court need not reach that issue at all in Melendez-Diaz.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thoughts on Melendez-Diaz: The Product of Machines

One of the issues addressed by some of the cases dealing with lab reports, and in the Melendez-Diaz argument, is the status for Confrontation Clause purposes of the output of the machines that do the testing.

As some courts have noted, the output of a machine is not in itself an assertion that can come within the scope of the confrontation right, or of the hearsay rule. Nor are the raw data. But raw data – the numbers themselves – are meaningless without being linked to the case.

Let’s say Officer A brings to the lab a sample labeled “Melendez.” Lab technician B takes the sample, puts it into a machine, and runs a test to determine whether it contains cocaine. When the test is completed, the machine spits out a piece of paper bearing only test results that an expert can testify indicate the presence of cocaine, without any identification of the sample tested.

Now suppose that the prosecution wants to prove its case based only the testimony of Officer A, the printout, and the testimony of an expert that the numbers on the printout reflect the presence of cocaine. This is plainly inadequate: We have sufficient proof that a sample linked to the defendant was brought to a lab, and a piece of paper bearing numbers that, the expert’s testimony indicates, would, assuming they are the results of a test, demonstrate the presence of cocaine in the tested sample. But we don’t have proof that any test was actually performed on the sample linked to the defendant or that the printout reflects the results of that test.

So let’s say technician B wrote an affidavit stating, “I took the sample Officer A gave me, put it into our machine, and performed a prescribed test for determining the presence of cocaine.” I will call this the input proposition. B’s statement of the input proposition seems plainly testimonial; it is made with the understanding that it will very likely be used in prosecution of a crime. The affidavit should not be admitted unless B testifies to the input proposition subject to confrontation, at trial if she is then available and otherwise in some other setting such as a deposition.

Even with B’s live testimony that she performed the test, the prosecution’s case is incomplete absent proof that the particular piece of paper presented is in fact the printout of the machine after performing the test on the sample in question. I will call this the output proposition. Proof of the output proposition could be supplied by B’s testimony asserting it – but an affidavit stating the proposition is testimonial and should not be admitted absent confrontation.

Now suppose that instead of writing an affidavit asserting the input and output propositions, B types into the testing machine an identification, such as “Melendez,” and when the machine spits out the test results it includes that identifier at the head of the page. Doing so does not render the printout admissible. In context, typing the name amounts to an assertion of the input proposition. It also amounts to an assertion of an altered form of the output proposition – altered because the printout does not exist at the time the assertion is made, so the assertion is that the printout that the machine will produce will be a product of the test on the sample in question. So the fact that the printout generated by the machine bears the name of Melendez does not obviate the need for B to testify. I do believe that incorporating the identifying information on the printout does relieve the prosecution of one potential burden. Suppose B does not stand continuously by the machine during the entire interval between the time she puts the sample in the machine and the time the machine generates the printout. Then absent an identifying mark on the printout she could not say that the printout is the one generated by the test on the sample in question. But if she types in the name, and the name is on the printout, then even if she did not see the printout being generated, I believe she has can testify that this printout is the one for the sample in question: Given the way the machine works, she has effectively tagged the printout by typing the name in.

In the actual Melendez-Diaz case, it was not a machine printout at all that the prosecution offered, but a certificate based on the machine readings. I think it is very clear that this certificate, obviously prepared for prosecutorial use, is testimonial, and the fact that it reports machine readings does not diminish this fact. Even more clearly than the printout bearing an identifying marker, the certificate is a human assertion prepared for prosecutorial use. Obviously, it asserts the input proposition – that the sample in question was submitted to the given test. And it asserts a broader form of the output proposition – not that a machine-generated printout bears the results of the test, but that numbers as described by the writer are the results of the test. The certificate cannot be admitted consistently with the Confrontation Clause unless a witness with personal knowledge – presumably but not necessarily the author of the certificate – testifies to both propositions.

A recent opinion usefully summarizing the decisions on this matter, and coming to the proper result, is United States v. Crockett, 2008 WL 4937029 (E.D. Mi. Nov. 14, 2008). The opinion does not go into as much detail as I have here, but I think its analysis is consistent with that presented here.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Eye contact between defendant and witness

This blog focuses mainly on what might be called the hearsay aspect of the confrontation right — that is, on the question of when the confrontation right precludes the use of out-of-court statements against the accused; that is the aspect of the right that was transformed by Crawford, and so the aspect in which there has been the most dramatic recent development But of course another critical aspect of the Confrontation Clause is the question of what the right of confrontation means if the witness does actually come to court to testify. The case discussed here, and another one that I hope to discuss soon in another posting, deal with different questions related to that aspect – one on the physical nature of confrontation and the other on impeachment for bias.

My former student Craig Chosiad has called to my attention the rather bizarre case of United States v. Kaufman, 2008 WL 4868480 involving a therapist who allegedly kept mentally ill patients essentially as prisoners on a farm and compelled them to engage in extensive activities, some of them sexual, in the nude. At the trial of Kaufman and his wife, the court ordered that the defendants not maintain eye contact with the patient-witnesses. Defense counsel did not object, so the question on appeal was whether this was plain error. The Tenth Circuit properly recognized that it might be. Let’s assume that Maryland v. Craig, 497 U.S. 836 (1990), remains good law after Crawford – an interesting question that will have to be resolved by the Supreme Court. And assume also that Craig applies to unusually vulnerable adults as well as to children – a pretty good assumption. Then the court can in a proper case take steps to protect a witness from the rigors of being face to face with the accused during cross-examination. But Craig makes clear that such unusual steps are permissible only upon an individualized determination that the witness will likely be traumatized by being brought face to face with the accused. In this case, the trial court made no such individualized finding. It merely issued a blanket ruling that eye contact – no matter how unthreatening it might be, no matter whether it might awaken the conscience of a witness inclined to perjure herself or be sloppy with the facts – was not permitted for any of the patient-witnesses.

The reason the appellate court did not go the full distance of holding that the order was plain error was that ultimately it determined that any error was harmless. I think this part of the decision was probably wrong. I’ll suppose that the court was correct as a matter of fact in concluding that it was very unlikely that eye contact would have altered the outcome of the trial. But it appears to me that this was a determination that the court should not have made. As Coy v. Iowa, 487 U.S. 1012 (1988), made clear, when confrontation of a witness is denied, the court may not speculate as to what the impact on the witness would have been, and so on what the witness’s testimony would have been in the end, if confrontation had been permitted. Instead, the court must treat the case as if the witness had not testified. Now of course that involves a certain amount of speculation as well – what would a jury have done with this lesser body of evidence? – but in that case at least we don’t have to speculate what the body of evidence before the jury would be. The Tenth Circuit attempted to distinguish Coy, but the grounds struck me spurious.