Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Reactions to the Bryant argument -- Part 1

I will not make any prediction on the ultimate outcome of Bryant, but here is a first installment of reactions to the argument. More to follow later, but I’m posting this so I don’t have to wait til I’ve written everything.

More than in any previous argument in the Crawford line, in this one the Court was really focusing on the basic questions that go into determining what makes a statement testimonial for purposes of the Confrontation Clause. If the justices write on the case – not inevitable, because there is the possibility of a 4-4 split – they may well resolve some of these issues.

Underpinnings of Crawford; relation of confrontation and hearsay law – Justice Breyer indicated misgivings about how Crawford has developed. He wondered why, if a state treated a matter as within a hearsay exception, the Confrontation Clause should require exclusion.

There was some irony here, because Justice Breyer’s concurrence in Lilly v. Virginia, 527 U.S. 116 (1999), was one of the first opinions to indicate that tying confrontation doctrine to hearsay law might be a mistake. I do hope that Justice Breyer will return to his earlier insight, and will recognize the fundamental nature of the confrontation right as articulated by Crawford.

The right of confrontation is a basic part of our criminal procedure, prescribing how witnesses against an accused must testify – not in a police station, not in their living rooms, not on the pavement of a gas station while talking to police, but in open court (or if necessary another formal procedure), under oath, subject to cross-examination, and in the presence of the accused. I think the key point is this: If a speaker makes an out-of-court statement in given circumstances knowing full well that it is likely to be used against an accused, and the statement is in fact so used, then we have created a system in which speakers can testify against an accused by making statements in those circumstances.

Of course, the confrontation right applies only to statements that are testimonial in nature, not (as Justice Breyer seemed to worry) to the vast majority of hearsay statements. Thus, conspirator statements (an example he cited), even those made to undercover police officers, are not testimonial, because a reasonable person in the position of the speaker would not anticipate prosecutorial use. But where a statement is testimonial, it simply does not do to rely on the hearsay law of the jurisdiction. In formal terms, of course, that is abdicating constitutional responsibility to the rulemakers of the states. In practical terms, it should be recognized that the modern law of hearsay is essentially a sieve – just about anything can get through. Justice Breyer listed a few hearsay exceptions, but the list is long and it is topped off by a residual exception. It would, in my view, be a great misfortune to return to a period in which we hope that courts applying hearsay law will do the work of protecting a fundamental aspect of our criminal procedure.

History – There was a brief allusion to history. I think the history is clear: Neither at the time of the founding nor for many years afterwards — really, I think, nearly two centuries – would a common law court have plausibly admitted the statement at issue in this case. The NACDL amicus brief does an excellent job on this. The res gestae doctrine had not yet developed at the time of the framing. The Brasier case, from 1779, involved a statement made shortly after the crime, with the assailant at large, and the court is very clear in regarding the statement as testimonial and in holding it inadmissible. In the first decades of the development of the res gestae doctrine, the doctrine did not allow narratives of past events. (For example, in the Bedingfield case of 1879, even a statement made seconds after the event was (controversially by then) held inadmissible.) Gradually, courts loosened up – but really, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that a court would have seriously considered admitting a statement like this (putting aside considerations of dying declarations and forfeiture).

It’s also worth emphasizing in this context a point made by Crawford -- putting aside the dying declaration exception and forfeiture, none of the doctrines admitting hearsay that were established at the time of the framing (for example, a develolping doctrine governing business records) were applicable to testimonial statements.

Formality – The state put its primary reliance on a formality test. It appeared to me highly unlikely that a majority of the Court would accept that line of reasoning, and for good reason. As I’ve said (many times) before, a formality test gets things backwards and misses the point of the Confrontation Clause, which was to ensure that testimony be given under proper (formal) conditions; if a statement should otherwise be characterized as testimonial, lack of formality means not that the statement is non-testimonial but rather that it was not given under acceptable conditions. A formality test is also very manipulable – government agents can get around the confrontation clause just by taking testimony under informal conditions. It also distorts incentives – it gives police the incentive to postpone gaining control over a situation until they have taken witness statements made in anticipation of trial. As I have explained before, I believe that if Davis is read as establishing a formality standard – not inevitable, because Davis said merely that it did not deny that formality was essential for a statement to be testimonial – it is best understood as having no independent content beyond the requirement that reasonable person in the position of the speaker would anticipate that the statement would be used for prosecutorial purposes.

Purpose – Justice Alito suggested it makes no sense to ask what the primary purpose of the speaker is. Well, I sure don’t think that test is optimal. I believe the decisive question should be not what the primary purpose of the speaker was but rather what the understanding of a reasonable person in the speaker’s position would be. (And given Davis, I think we have to say that we take the reasonable person in the actual circumstances, acting in the heat of the moment.) Asking about the understanding of a reasonable person avoids the difficult weighing of purposes on which Justice Alito was commenting. It also avoids an inquiry into the subjective frame of mind of the speaker. Even more importantly, it is better justified as a matter of principle: in some circumstances, a witness might not want to create testimony (for example, if it is an unwelcome part of a plea bargain), but if he realizes that in fact he is creating a narrative statement that will be used in prosecution, he is testifying. In this case, I think a reasonable person in Covington’s position clearly would have understood that his statement would be used in prosecuting the assailant.

That's all I can do for now. I'll present comments on the proper perspective - speaker's or interrogtor's -- and on emergency and maybe one or two other issues later on.


Anonymous said...

Seemed to me (reading the transcript) that at least Alito, Breyer, Roberts and Kennedy were at odds with Scalia on this. I think we can assume that Thomas would also part ways with Scalia in light of his separate opinion in Davis (in which he found Amy Hammon's statements to be nontestimonial). That would leave Scalia in a minority of three with Ginsburg and Sotomayor.

Am I wrong?

Richard D. Friedman said...

Time will tell. I don't think there will be five votes to establish an indpeendent formality requirement; I don't think there will be five votes to hold that the statement here was responsive to an emergency; and I don't think there will be five votes to conclude that the testimonial quality of the statement should be determined from the perspective of a police interrogator. But we'll have to wait and see. I'm hoping ot post more comments later today.