Thursday, June 27, 2024

Smith v. Arizona: Were the statements testimonial?

              In a prior post, I have analyzed the justices’ treatment of the questions presented in the petition in Smith v. Arizona.  Lurking in the case was the issue of whether the statements at issue were testimonial.  Although the state seemed to have conceded the issue, it drew some attention in the briefs, a great deal of attention at argument, and some discussion in the majority opinion and in two concurrences.  So here are a few thoughts.

1. The Court properly declined to resolve the issue; it was not part of the questions presented, and, as the Court noted, it may have been forfeited.  Indeed, the Court need not have said anything at all on the issue, and I think that would have been the better course.  And so does Justice Gorsuch.  In declining to join Part III of the Court’s opinion, the portion that addressed this issue, he emphasized that this issue was a separate one from the main issue of the case and “in no way necessary to the resolution” of the case.  Nevertheless, Justice Kagan, speaking for a bare majority of the Court, offered “a few thoughts . . . about the questions the state court might usefully address if the testimonial issue remains live.”  Oh well.

              2. The Court, not surprisingly but rather casually, once again endorsed the “primary purpose” test.  And so Justice Thomas, also not surprisingly, declined to join in Part III, and instead repeated his frequently stated views on the matter.  This time around, he used both “formality” and “solemnity,” as he has at times in the past; he also repeated the qualification that the Confrontation Clause “reaches the use of technically informal statements when used to evade the formalized process.”  As I have also stated, I wish he would drop the use of “formality”, which I think is unduly limiting and confuses matters; ”solemnity,” properly interpreted, has more promise.  Interestingly, though Justice Kavanaugh asked repeatedly about Justice Thomas’s approach at argument, he said nothing about it here.

3. What was surprising was Justice Gorsuch’s concurrence, because it not only questioned the merits of the “primary purpose” test but seemed to treat it as a new trial balloon – at one point referring to it as “the Court’s proposed ‘primary purpose’ test” – as opposed to doctrine that the Court articulated in 2006 and has applied at least fairly regularly ever since.  (And the potential sources of confusion that he suggests, the question of whose purpose should be decisive and how we determine what purpose is primary, have been much discussed since then.) Well, if in a future case Justice Gorsuch can get the Court to rethink the test, that might be all to the good, especially given that in his view the test “may be a limitation of our own creation on the confrontation right.”  One of the possible tests that he suggests for what is testimonial, a statement that relates a factual assertion or discloses information, strikes me as way too broad.  The other potential approach he offers, treating a witness as any person who gives or furnishes evidence, seems to me to be much closer to the mark, if we modify it by adding the modifier “knowingly.”

              4. The Court noted that (assuming they reach the question of whether testimonial statements are in issue) the Arizona courts will have to resolve which statements are actually in issue.  The state contends that Longoni was relying only on Rast’s notes; Smith contended that he relied on Rast’s report as well as on her notes, and treated them essentially as a unit.  In my view, it should not make a difference, and the Court did not say that it would.  But for reasons I’ll discuss now, it might, and the Court pointed to that possibility.

              5. The Court said that in determining primary purpose, the courts should “consider the range of recordkeeping activities that lab analysts engage in.” Some records, it said, “will not have an evidentiary purpose.” Two such possibilities that it mentioned – “that lab records may come into being primarily to comply with la­boratory accreditation requirements or to facilitate internal review and quality control” – do not seem particularly troublesome (but see below!), at least for now.  But the third does: The Court says that “some analysts’ notes may be written simply as reminders to self.”  And in all these cases, the Court asserts, “the record would not count as testimonial”; for that, it added, “the document’s primary purpose must have ‘a focus on court.’” So a couple of things.

                           a. The “focus on court” language is taken from the oral argument. Eric Feigin, arguing for the U.S. as amicus (which, unusually in criminal cases, did not side with the state) said, “I think something that is created for an investigatory purpose, as opposed to with a focus on court, may well be – not be testimonial.” Such a hesitant, qualified statement at argument is an awfully thin basis on which to rest an assertion of principle.  I also think it’s wrong.  If a statement is made to assist in investigation, with the anticipation that it will help prosecution, that should be enough – especially in an era in which the vast majority of cases never get to trial.

                           b. The idea that the prosecution can avoid the Confrontation Clause by characterizing notes written by a lab analyst, who is knowingly working on a case for prosecution, as “reminders to self” raises considerable difficulties.  So maybe we are about to enter a period in which lab analysts will generate notes that  they will characterize as – and perhaps even title – “reminders to self.” (And perhaps they will not even write formalized reports, because they don’t need them.) If the case goes to trial and the analyst testifies there, she can rely on these notes, and presumably they would be admissible.  And if the author of the notes doesn’t appear at trial, the prosecution would present another analyst, who would offer to testify to similar conclusions on the basis of the notes.  Gee, it would say, these were written for personal use, so they’re not testimonial, but we happen to have them, and nothing in the Confrontation Clause stops the in-court witness from relying on them.  So then what’s left of Melendez-Diaz in effect?

         And maybe it’s even worse than that.  In response to my prior post, Jacob Berlove says the decision in Smith will not make any difference because a majority of the Court will happily jump on the “quality control” and “laboratory accreditation requirements” evasions.  I am reluctant to disagree with Melech – the King, who has been labeled the best Supreme Court predictor in the world – so I have to acknowledge that this is at least a possibility.  But I suspect the courts will find the “reminders to self” evasion a little easier to use.  As Jacob suggests, the answer is to make the test depend on anticipation of likely use (and I’d say in prosecution, not at trial), and to do away with the primary-purpose test.  Perhaps if we see a flood of cases involving notes that courts admit as evidence while maintaining that they were written for some other purpose, the Court will see that its approach is not working and is just an invitation to a sham.  But we may have to wait a while.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Smith v. Arizona: The Supreme Court decisively rejects the “in support of the opinion” end run


                The Supreme Court decided Smith v. Arizona on Friday.  On the whole, it was a very good decision.  The Court reversed unanimously, with seven justices, all but the Chief Justice and Justice Alito, signing on to the principal parts of Justice Kagan’s opinion for the majority.  On the principal question presented, whether the prosecution can avoid the Confrontation Clause on the ground that a statement is offered in support of an expert opinion, even though the statement supports the opinion only if it is true, that opinion was emphatic and clear: The answer is no.

This post will analyze the justices’ treatment of that question; I will later put up another post addressing their treatment of another question that was not presented by the petition but that gained a great deal of attention at argument, whether the statements in question were testimonial.  Throughout this post I’ll assume that they were indeed testimonial (as I believe they were).

(An aside:  I say “principal question” because the petition also raised the question of whether Smith’s failure to subpoena Rast made any difference for Confrontation Clause analysis.  The petition presented this question because the Arizona appellate court noted that Smith “could have called [Rast] to the stand and questioned her, but he chose not to do so.”  But the Court devoted only one footnote to this question because, as it noted, the state rightly did not defend this rationale.  Melendez-Diaz v.Massachusetts made clear that the defendant’s right to subpoena a witness does not satisfy the confrontation right.)

                Smith was accused of drug-possession crimes.  To prove that the substances in question were illicit drugs, the prosecution relied on the testimony of a lab analyst, Longoni.  But Longoni did not do any testing himself; instead, he based his opinion on statements made by another lab analyst, Rast.  For reasons that were never explained, Rast was no longer employed by the lab at the time of trial, and the state did not attempt to secure her live testimony.  The state argued that, to the extent Rast’s statements were presented to the jury, they were not presented for the truth of matters they asserted, but rather in support of Longoni’s “independent” opinion.  The Arizona courts accepted this argument, even though Rast’s statements would provide no support for Longoni’s opinion unless they were true. But five justices had rejected that theory in Williams v. Illinois; that did not fully resolve the matter, though, because four of those five were in the minority, Justice Thomas joining the other four in concluding (on different grounds from those four) that the lab report there was not testimonial.  So the principal question on which the Smith Court granted cert was whether that was a valid argument. 

                We can assume that, strictly as a matter of modern rules of evidence, Longoni’s testimony would be admissible, under FRE 703 or its state counterparts, or at least would be given a proper foundation. (Arizona has a rule substantively identical to FRE 703.)  But, Justice Kagan noted, “Evidentiary rules . . . do not control the inquiry into whether a statement is admitted for its truth,” because that inquiry “marks the scope of a federal constitutional right.”   (Of course, the same inquiry also is crucial in implementing hearsay law, but she was focusing on the confrontation right.) And “federal constitutional rights are not typically defined . . . by reference to non-constitutional bodies of law like evidence rules.” The “not typically,” she explained in a footnote, was to take into account one qualification: “If an evidentiary rule reflects a long-established understanding, then it might shed light on the meaning of the Confrontation Clause.” But that could not be so here, because Rule 703 “is a product of the late 20th-century, and was understood from the start to depart from past practice.” (This done with a citation to my amicus brief, which only encourages me to keep on submitting them.)

                So, were Rast’s statements presented for their truth?  Justice Kagan – properly, I think – found this a very easy question:

If an expert for the prosecution conveys an out-of-court statement in support of his opinion, and the statement supports that opinion only if true, then the statement has been offered for the truth of what it asserts. How could it be otherwise?

Put another way, she said, the truth of the basis testimony (here Rast’s statements, the basis for Longoni’s opinions) is what makes it useful to the prosecution, because “that is what supplies the predicate for – and thus gives value to – the state expert’s opinion.”  And looked at from another perspective, if the jurors believe the basis evidence to be true, that will lead them to give more credit to the in-court expert’s opinion, and if they believe it false, it will do the opposite.  Thus – a critical passage quoting Justice Thomas’s separate opinion in Williams – “'[t]here is no meaningful distinction between disclosing an out-of-court statement’ to ‘explain an expert’s opinion’ and ‘disclosing that statement for its truth.’” Whatever “label” the state uses,  “in all respects the two purposes merge.”

                The Court then took some of the facts of the case as an “almost-too-perfect illustration” of the general principles it had articulated. Longoni’s entire testimony was predicated on Rast’s findings. If those findings were false, Longoni’s opinion “would have counted for nothing.” Longoni was effectively “Rast’s mouthpiece.” 

                Further, if the practice in this case were approved, it would “allow for easy evasion of the Confrontation Clause,” making Melendez-Diaz and Bullcoming v. New Mexico “a dead letter”: “[E]very testimonial lab report could come into evidence through any trained surrogate, however remote from the case.”

                The Court noted that its decision did not deny experts like Longoni any useful role at trial.  They could testify in general about forensic guidelines and techniques.  If the expert worked in the particular lab, as Longoni did, they could testify from personal knowledge about how that lab operates, including how it maintains chains of custody.  And the expert could be asked hypothetical questions, as to what conclusions followed assuming a given predicate.  Justice Alito jumped on this last possibility, as discussed below.  I believe the Court’s catalog of possibilities, which it did not contend was necessarily exclusive, was completely accurate.  But note – what presumably set Justice Alito off – none of the possibilities appear to allow the prosecution to prove lab results in a particular case without presenting testimony subject to confrontation of an analyst who observed the key case-specific facts.  And that is as it should be.

                So that was clear and straightforward and really excellent.  I’ll raise one sort-of nit.  The Court refers a couple of times (as it has before) to “testimonial hearsay” as being at the core of the Confrontation Clause.  I wish the Court would avoid that phrase, because it tends to minimize the separation between the confrontation right and hearsay doctrine, and that separation was crucial to Crawford.  (Justice Alito’s opinion says that the majority opinion takes the view that “basis testimony is always hearsay,” and that he would remand because Longoni’s testimony “is hearsay under any mainstream conception.”) I understand the temptation – for there to be a Confrontation Clause violation, there has to be a statement that was made out of court and that is offered for the truth of a matter that it asserts, and that’s the basic definition of hearsay.  But that just suggests that the two doctrines have an overlapping area of concern.  If there is a Confrontation Clause violation, it is not because the statement would be deemed to be hearsay – and if a statement avoids exclusion under the hearsay rule, that says nothing about its standing under the Confrontation Clause.

                And now let’s consider Justice Alito’s opinion.  He begins by saying that “the Court inflicts a needless, unwarranted, and crippling wound on modern evidence law.”  Wow! What is that wound?  Well, at considerable length he shows that the presentation of expert testimony in traditional common law was largely dependent on hypothetical questions, and these created significant problems.  So along came Rule 703, and it “replaced” hypotheticals.  And now the Court has “disinterred that procedural monstrosity,” in an “assault on modern evidence law.”

                OK, let’s first bear in mind that it’s just one rule, not all of modern evidence law that’s affected.  And it’s only the implementation of that rule with respect to some prosecution evidence that’s affected:  Evidence in civil trials, or evidence presented by a criminal defendant, has nothing to do with this case, and even with respect to prosecution evidence this decision will have no effect at all if the statement at issue is not testimonial. (Think of a routine blood test taken without any indication that it is for evidentiary purposes, perhaps even before the crime is committed.  And also note that if the in-court expert’s opinion doesn’t depend on the truth of the statement, neither Rule 703 nor the Confrontation Clause comes into play.)  And Rule 703 did not do away with hypotheticals; indeed, the Advisory Committee Note explicitly refers to hypothetical as continuing to be one way of presenting expert evidence.  Putting aside the Confrontation Clause for the moment, it did not even do away in all circumstances with the need to ask a hypothetical question, because the predicate for operation of Rule 703, that experts in the field would rely on the particular type of facts or data in forming an opinion on the subject, will not always be satisfied.  (Note also the Advisory Committee Note to Rule 705, which says that the instances in which counsel is required to make prior disclosure of the facts or data underlying an opinion “are reduced.” 

                What Smith holds is that if (1) a prosecutor seeks to introduce an in-court witness’s opinion, and (2) that witness did not observe the facts supporting the opinion, and (3) the factual basis supporting the opinion is contained in an out-of-court testimonial statement, and (4) that statement supports the opinion only if it is true, and (5) the in-court witness testifies to the substance of that statement but (6) the author of the statement does not testify in court, then there is a Confrontation Clause violation (absent forfeiture, we might add).  That is hardly an assault on modern evidence law.  Nor does it constitute a “trashing” of Rule 703, as Justice Alito suggested at oral argument.  Now, it is true that if there were no Confrontation Clause, Rule 703 would presumably allow the evidence even in this situation.  But so what?  Rule 703 is not only a latter-day creation; it was written at a time when there was no clear conception of what the Confrontation Clause meant, so it is not surprising that it did not take the Clause into account.  And as the Court indicates, and Justice Alito does not deny, the Constitution trumps evidentiary rules, not the other way around.

                But then, eager though Justice Alito is to protect application of Rule 703, how did he get around the Confrontation Clause?  Well, he says, under Rule 703, the evidence is admissible only to support the opinion, and on request the trial judge must instruct the jury to consider it only for that purpose, not for the truth.  So there’s no Confrontation Clause violation; we presume jurors will follow instructions.

                The problem, which he ignores altogether, is that such an instruction makes no sense at all, for a reason indicated by the majority’s quotation from Justice Thomas’s Williams opinion – if the statement supports the opinion only if true, there is “no meaningful distinction” between admitting the statement for its truth and admitting it in support of the opinion.  (Justice Alito overstates the case when he says that “the Court seems to think that all basis testimony is necessarily offered for its truth.”)  This is not a matter of distrusting the jury; it’s a matter of simple logic.  If we instructed the jurors to stand with both feet on the ground while one foot is in the air, it would not be incompetence of the jurors that would prevent them from complying.

                But after all that, Justice Alito still concluded that the trial court erred.  He equates the requirements of the Confrontation Clause in this area (apart from the question of whether the statement in question is testimonial) with those of the Federal Rules of Evidence – a false conjunction, as I have indicated – and says that Longoni could have disclosed the information in Rast’s statements, if, under Rule 703, the court found that the probative value of that information substantially outweighed its prejudicial potential.  “But,” he then said,

he could not testify that any of the information in the report was correct—for instance, that Rast actually performed the tests she recorded or that she did so correctly. Nor could he testify that the items she tested were the ones seized from Smith. Longoni did not have personal knowledge of any of these facts, and it is unclear what “reliable” scientific “methods” could lead him to intuit their truth from Rast’s records. Fed. Rule Evid. 702(c) (defining a permissible expert opinion).

And in this case, Justice Alito says, he agrees with the Court that Longoni “stepped over the line and at times testified to the truth of the matter asserted,” because at times he asserted as true various assertions made by Rast, such as the methods as procedures she followed, the tests she performed, and the results she got.   

Wow again.  First, let’s not slide over what strikes me as a rather large irony.  I have always thought – and I hope readers will correct me if they think I’m wrong – that given certain findings (that the in-court expert is making the type of reasonable reliance on an outside statement that experts in the field make, and that the probative value of the statement outweighs the prejudicial effect) Rule 703 does in fact allow the in-court witness to testify to the truth of that statement, the hearsay rule notwithstanding.  That is why the Rule says that if the reasonable-reliance predicate is satisfied, the underlying facts or data “need not be admissible,” and why Rule 703 is sometimes thought of as an extra hearsay exception.  I suppose one could say that the witness would be allowed to testify, “I relied on this statement, but I’m not saying it is true.”  But what sense does that make?  Unless it’s believed to be true, it provides no support for the opinion.  So is that the type of testimony Justice Alito wants experts to give under Rule 703?  And if so, who is undercutting the usefulness of that Rule, not only when prosecutors attempt to use it to get in testimonial evidence, but across the board?

Second, how far apart in the end is Justice Alito from the majority?  He says that Longoni’s testimony was improper, because in trying to support his opinion he really was testifying to the truth of statements made by the absent Rast.  Gee, sounds a fair amount like the majority.  So I wonder just what is it he thinks Longoni should have been able to do that the majority doesn’t?  Perhaps readers can enlighten me.

A related question:  What if, as Rules 703 and 705 allow, Longoni just testifies to an opinion, without disclosing the underlying statements.  Would the Confrontation Clause tolerate that?  I think it’s clear that under Rules 703 and 705 the defense should be allowed to ask what the basis for the testimony is – and that as soon as the witness discloses the basis we are back in the same position.

In the end, I wonder to what extent Justice Alito and for that matter the Chief Justice too, were motivated by the fact that they appear to have lost this part of the battle.  They were part of a foursome in Melendez-Diaz, Bullcoming, and Williams, and by picking up Justice Thomas’s vote in Williams they were able to get the result they wanted.  But four members of the Court have since left, two from the Melendez-Diaz majority and two from the minority, and all four junior justices joined the Smith majority (on the Melendez-Diaz majority side, Justice Gorsuch for Justice Scalia and Justice Barrett for Justice Ginsburg, and on the minority side Justice Kavanaugh for Justice Kennedy and Justice Jackson for Justice Breyer).  So Justice Alito can snarl all he wants, but on this issue at least he now speaks for only two justices.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Smith argument and the meaning of "testimonial"

     I believe that the Supreme Court will decide Smith v. Arizona on the assumption, made in the Question Presented in the petition for certiorari, that Rast’s statements were testimonial.  (And I believe they clearly were testimonial.) The state did not challenge that proposition in the Arizona courts, at least not more than very inferentially, and it was not argued there.  I believe the oral argument revealed no disposition on the part of the Court to use this case, at least at this point, to do anything substantive with respect to the question of what statements are testimonial.  But it wouldn’t be surprising if a remand invited the Arizona courts to take another look; the Court sure was interested in the question at argument.  So I’ll offer some comments here. 

     Justice Kavanaugh repeatedly raised the question of whether the Court should adopt Justice Thomas’s view of what is testimonial, dependent on formality or solemnity.  Eric Feigin for the SG and Alex Samuels for the state were hospitable to the idea; Hari Santhanam said, accurately in my view, that the test is too narrow and would not apply to many statements that fit within the core of what is testimonial.  At least that is true, I believe, given how Thomas applied the test in Williams v. Illinois.  But I think that if the Court were to adopt a test based on solemnity and if – very big if – it would apply such a test appropriately, then it might get to a better place.

      I’ve often written on this subject, and I'll do so again, rather briefly, now.  Let’s focus on formality.  Formality is not what makes a statement testimonial; it’s what makes testimony acceptable.  The oath, presence of the accused, and cross-examinations may all be considered incidents of formality, and they are all essential for prosecution testimony to satisfy the standards of our system.  But that does not mean that a statement given informally is not testimonial.  Suppose a police officer says to someone who has witnessed a crime, “I’d like you to tell me what happened.  You can tell me very informally.  You don’t have to take an oath.  I won’t record it, and I won’t take notes.  That way, you won’t have to come to court.  I’ll remember what you say, and I’ll tell the jury.”  That has to be testimonial; if it isn’t, then we have a system in which a witness can knowingly create evidence for use in prosecution by having such an informal conversation and not take an oath, confront the accused, or be subject to cross-examination.  That’s pretty much unthinkable in our system.  Now, I suppose you could say well, that’s really sufficiently formal to be considered testimonial because the witness expected prosecutorial use of the statement – it was “made in contemplation of legal proceedings,” as Justice Thomas put it in his concurring opinion in White v. Illinois (1992).  That would be OK by me, and I think it would get close to a good definition of testimonial, but it seems clear to me that the word formality here is misplaced and is not really doing the work; it’s the expectation of evidentiary use that is.

     If we take a narrower view of formality, in which some set of hoops must be jumped through for the statement to be deemed formal, then we will have virtually nullified the Confrontation Clause, because any witness wanting to create evidence for use at trial, or any investigator seeking to generate such evidence, can simply avoid the hoops.  Is an oath or certification a prerequisite for a statement to be deemed formal, as Justice Thomas suggested in Williams v. Illinois?  Then just avoid oath and certification.  Frankly, I am still mystified by Justice Thomas’s characterization of the lab report in Williams as not testimonial because insufficiently formal.  You can find the report here.  Notice that it’s on letterhead stationery, identified as a report of a laboratory examination, addressed to a forensic science center, and signed by two reviewers, and signed by two reviewers, one of whom is identified as the director of the forensics laboratory and the other as director of the identity laboratory.  In addition, it bears a case number and refers to the materials tested as exhibits and as evidence.  If the Court were to adopt the view that this is not enough to render a lab report testimonial, then it would be a simple matter for labs always to avoid the rule of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts (2009):  Just avoid saying sworn or certified, and you never have to come to court.

     Now let’s talk about solemnity.  It’s not entirely clear what Justice Thomas means when he uses this word.  If he means it as a synonym for formality, then the same concerns apply.  But another, more useful, view of solemnity is possible.  If one takes solemnity to mean appreciation of the gravity of the consequences of making the statement, then it seems to me that gets at the essence of what testimonial means.  That is, if the speaker understands that her statement will likely be used in prosecution, and that it might help convict a person and lead to punishment, then it ought to be deemed to be testimonial.  More on this below, but it seems far preferable to an inherently ambiguous “primary purpose” test.

     Apart from the question of whether the Court should move in the direction of adopting a test based on formality or solemnity, the Court was interested in the question of whether the statements at issue in Smith itself were testimonial.  Justice Barrett particularly pressed the point:  What if a police officer jots down notes only for her own use to help think about the case, without intending them to be incorporated into a report?  (Samuels argued that in fact the in-court expert, Longoni, relied only on the notes of the absent analyst, Rast, rather than on her report; Hari Santhanam, for Smith,  without conceding that point, argued that the two were closely interconnected.)  Justice Kagan said it must depend on the facts of the case; some notes would be testimonial and some not.

     I would take a more categorical approach.  Yes, I think that if a lab tech, understanding that a sample is being tested for possible prosecution, jots down notes before writing a report, or if a police officer jots down notes about a crime scene to help her think about the case, it should be deemed testimonial.  No, such notes might not be formal, in the narrow sense of the word, but that shouldn’t matter.  But they are written in contemplation of being used in prosecution.  And if they are held admissible in favor of a prosecutor, and admitted, then we have a system in which a lab tech or police officer can create evidence for use in court by writing down such notes, and everybody would understand that this is what can be done.  In any realistic sense, the lab tech or officer is testifying by marking down the notes.  Eric Feigin, arguing for the United States as amicus, appeared to acknowledge this point when he said that there is a “chicken-and-egg problem,” because expert opinions will be aware of the Court’s decisions.  In other words, if the Court says that such notes are not testimonial, and that therefore the Confrontation Clause does not restrain their admissibility, then presumably they will be admitted as a regular matter, and they will be created with the expectation – and indeed the purpose – of being used as evidence at trial.

    This points to a complication.  If we are trying to determine the expectation, or the purpose, with which a statement is made by one involved in the criminal justice process, then whether or not the statement would be admissible at trial is a critical factor.   But notice the apparent paradox: If the maker knows the statement would be deemed testimonial, and so not admissible, then it could not be made with the anticipation, or purpose, of being used as evidence at trial.  So wouldn’t that mean that it is not testimonial?  And if the maker knows that the statement would not be deemed testimonial, and so would be admissible, then it likely would be made with the anticipation of purpose of being used as evidence at trial.  So wouldn’t that mean that it is testimonial?  I think there are two plausible approaches that would avoid this paradox.

    One is to ask not about potential use as evidence at trial but only about potential use in the prosecutorial process.  Even if the statement is testimonial, the maker could well anticipate that it would be used as part of that process.  I think that should be enough to render the statement testimonial. If a person makes a statement knowing that it will be used in the criminal justice process, then I believe it is enough to say that the person is acting as a witness as part of the case, by contributing to its resolution, whether or not the statement is formally introduced at a formal trial.

      The other is to assume hypothetically that evidentiary or procedural rules would not prevent the statement from being admitted at trial and ask whether a person in the position of the maker of the statement would reasonably anticipate use at trial. If the answer is affirmative, the statement should be deemed testimonial; the combination of an affirmative answer and admissibility would mean that in our adjudicative system a person could make a statement knowing that it would be used as prosecution evidence at trial and never confront the accused or be subjected to cross-examination.

      I have spoken about purpose as well as anticipation because the Supreme Court has phrased its test in terms of "primary purpose."  But I think that is an unfortunate choice, and if the Court ultimately takes a hard look at the question it should  do away with that test.  Trying to pick one purpose as primary is, as Justice Thomas suggested in Davis v. Washington (2006), a fool's errand.   But more fundamentally,  I believe any test should be expressed in terms of anticipation rather than of purpose.  I gave reasons for this long ago in an article titled Grappling with the Meaning of "Testimonial", 71 Brooklyn L. Rev. 241, 251-53 (2005), which you can see here, and I won't add more now.  

Monday, May 27, 2024

The argument in Smith v. Arizona: The Question Presented


     I put up a short post on the argument in Smith v. Arizona  right after the case was decided, and intended to present a fuller account soon after that.  Time has gotten away from me, but better late than never.  (And by the way, there were some interesting comments to that short post from a forensic scientist; I just noticed those while preparing this post.  I’ll respond to those on the prior thread.)

     Perhaps the most notable aspect of the argument was how interested the Court was in the question of whether the statements at issue were testimonial, rather than in the question actually presented, whether the statements satisfy the Confrontation Clause because they were introduced in support of the testifying expert’s opinion.  In the end, I doubt that the Court will use this case to revise the standard for what is testimonial, or even that it will determine that the statements at issue here were not testimonial.  And I think it is highly likely that Smith will get a reversal, with the Court holding that the statements should be deemed for Confrontation Clause purposes to have been presented for the truth of what they asserted.  But it is possible that a remand will leave it open for the Arizona courts to consider whether the statements were in fact testimonial.  I’ll comment in this post on the issue actually before the Court.  I’ll then present another post on the question of whether the statements were testimonial and the standards that should be used in determining that.

     The essence of the case is that one lab analyst, Rast, performed tests on certain items and wrote notes and a report stating her findings, but a second witness, Longoni, who had nothing to do with the testing or report, testified to an opinion, on the basis of the facts reported by Rast, that the items contained controlled substances.  The state courts held that the references to Rast’s findings should be deemed to be presented in support of Longoni’s “independent opinion,” and not for the truth of what they asserted, and that therefore there was not a Confrontation Clause problem.

     The problem, though, is that in this case Rast’s statements supported Longoni’s opinion only if they were true.  When a statement is offered to prove the truth of what it asserts, that proposition is most often an intermediate point on the way to some other conclusion, and this is no different; here, the other conclusion (itself an intermediate point on the way to the conclusion of guilt) is Longoni’s opinion.  I think it was quite clear that most of the Court understood this to be so; Justice Jackson was particularly vigorous in pushing the point.  I’m not sure that I could point to a single justice who thought otherwise.

        Justice Alito did say that Hari Santhanam, Smith’s counsel, was going out of his way to “trash” Rule of Evidence 703.  (Federal and Arizona Rule 703 are substantively the same; I’ll just refer generically to Rule 703.) And Alex Samuels, arguing for the state, suggested that a holding in favor of Smith would undermine Rule 703 beyond criminal cases.  These concerns seem to me entirely unfounded.  Rule 703 is very useful in its sphere.  It allows an expert to form an opinion on the basis of otherwise inadmissible information, if it is of a type on which experts in the field reasonably rely, and sometimes it allows the expert to testify to that information.  That’s good.  A holding for Smith would not have any impact on the operation of the rule in civil cases, or in favor of an accused – nor even in favor of a prosecutor so long as it did not result in a testimonial statement being used for the truth of what it asserts.  (For example, an expert could form an opinion as to public attitudes on a given issue on the basis of statements by people in a survey, whether or not those statements would otherwise be admissible.)  But Rule 703, a relatively recent creation, has to be subsidiary to the Confrontation Clause:  It can’t allow a testimonial statement to be presented against an accused for the truth of what it asserts.  And if the statement supports the opinion only if the statement is true, that’s just what is happening.

        Samuels repeatedly emphasized the possibility of giving a limiting instruction, telling the jury not to use the statement for its truth but only in support of the opinion, and the fact that the defense in this case never asked for one.  But a limiting instruction in this context is meaningless:  If the jury is told to use the statement in support of the opinion but not for the truth of what it asserts, then it is being told it may do something that is in fact logically impossible.  Santhanam addressed this point on rebuttal when he said that a limiting instruction is appropriate only when there is a valid use of the evidence, and here there was none.

        A related matter: Samuels said that Arizona law is clear in this situation that Rast’s statements are not admissible for the truth of what they assert.  But remember Lincoln’s line about how many legs a dog has if you call a tail a leg.  Four; calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.  The state saying that the statement is not being presented for its truth doesn’t make that fact so if that’s the only use the jury could have made of it.  A court protecting the Confrontation Clause cannot be controlled by state pronouncements of this sort.  Santhanam gave a similar, and effective response to a question posed by Justice Alito as to what the result would be if a judge said, “I’m not going to use this for the truth, only in support of the expert’s opinion.”  The judge saying that’s so can’t make it so. 

        Justice Alito also seemed to suggest at one point that Smith’s argument would invalidate hypothetical questions posed to prosecution expert witnesses.  It’s possible that I misunderstood him, but in any event there is no cause for concern with that.  An expert can give testimony of the form, “If factual predicate X is true, then my opinion is Y.”  It is then up to the prosecution to present valid evidence of predicate X.

        As for the state’s repeated characterization of Longoni’s opinion as independent:  It is only independent in the sense that Longoni presumably drew his own conclusions from the facts reported by Rast.  But those facts were essential for the opinion.  I believe that Justice Jackson was driving at much the same point when she asked a long hypothetical – she is a former Breyer clerk, and his successor in more ways than one – that seemed aimed at presenting a situation in which the opinion of the expert testifying live was clearly dependent  on facts provided by the absent expert, but not on the absent expert’s opinion.  Samuels said the result would depend on whether the live expert was adding anything.  But I think that’s plainly wrong.  The question is whether a testimonial statement of the absent expert is being used for the truth of what it asserts, whether as a predicate for the live expert’s opinion or for any other reason.  Also, as I pointed out in my amicus brief, in this case given the facts asserted by Rast the conclusion to which Longoni testified followed pretty much immediately.  I think all the talk of an independent opinion is really a sham.  (I do not mean to be critical at all of Samuels, who I thought did a very good, professional job with a weak case.) 

        Eric Feigin of the Solicitor General’s Office, arguing for the United States as amicus, sought to strike a middle position.  (The fact that the United States was coming in on neither side, rather than in support of the state, as it usually does, was itself noteworthy, as Justice Kagan, a former SG pointedly remarked.)  He strongly intimated, without quite saying, that Smith was entitled to a reversal because Longoni explicitly endorsed statements by Rast.  But he argued that Longoni could have testified to the usual practice, and to the fact that he had no reason to believe anything different was done in this case.  He would then be exposed to cross-examination to emphasize that he knew nothing about the particular case from personal knowledge.  That seems right to me  – the jury can infer that something was done on a particular occasion from the fact that this is how the organization usually does it – but a couple of points.  First, the Chief Justice asked why that type of cross wasn’t sufficient in this case.  I think the answer is that in this case the state presented more – it presented the testimonial statements of an out-of-court witness and effectively asked the jury to believe the truth of those statements. So the fact that Longoni could be cross-examined on what he did or didn’t know is neither here nor there.  Second, if we take the SG’s suggestion, it still does not get the prosecution all the way home.  If the prosecution wants to present machine-generated data and graphs, which presumably are not testimonial in themselves, it would still have to satisfy a chain-of-custody problem.  And this usual-practice approach would not help getting Rast’s statements in.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

People v Washington: pending Michigan case with multiple interesting issues

 I have previously posted about a Michigan case, People v. Washington.  It is now in the state supreme court, and will be argued in March; I have filed an amicus brief and hope to argue as amicus as well.  The case is an interesting one on several points (and good fodder for exams!).

You can find papers in the case here.

Washington blew past a toll at a border crossing between the US and Canada.  Some time later, Canadian officers brought him back.  None of them testified at trial.  But the American officer in charge, Paul Stockwell, testified that he had communications with the lead Canadian officer, Matthew Lavers, and that as a result he took custody of Washington and body armor that the Canadian officers brought along with him.  Washington was charged with possession of body armor by a person who has been convicted of a violent felony.  (He also made statements to his mother acknowledging that he had had the body armor; the admissibility of those is in question on other grounds.) 

The court of appeals held that the evidence concerning the Lavers-Stockwell exchange violated the Confrontation Clause, and the State has appealed.  There are several issues related to the Clause.

First, nothing Lavers said was formally introduced, but in context, the evidence made clear that Lavers told Stockwell that Lavers had been found in possession of body armor.  So, as indicated in my prior post, I think the court of appeals was correct in treating the evidence as tantamount to admission of Lavers’s statement.  The dissent in the court of appeals and the State have confused matters by speaking of this case as involving an “implied assertion.”  I never find that term useful, and it is particularly misleading here.  It is usually used to refer to the conduct of an out-of-court person who does not assert a material proposition but acts in a way arguably reflecting belief in that proposition – think of the classic example of the sea captain embarking on a voyage with his family after inspecting a ship, offered to prove that the ship was seaworthy.  But here, it is clear that Lavers asserted that Washington was in position of the body armor.  (Indeed, other evidence in the record, not admitted at trial, is explicit on the point.)  What is left to implication is not the connection between his conduct and the material proposition, but the connection between the in-court testimony and his assertion.  Here, the implication is very clear.

Second, was Lavers’s statement testimonial?  The State argues that the Canadian officers had no reason to believe that Washington’s possession of the body armor was a crime.  But Washington had sped past a toll barrier and got into an altercation with the Canadian officers.  They returned him in force – half a dozen officers or more in three vehicles.  They plainly regarded this as more than a simple case of toll jumping, and they must have known that the body armor would be at least relevant information in any potential prosecution of Washington.

Third, was Lavers’s statement presented for the truth of what it asserts?  The State, as prosecutors often do, contends that the statement was used to show Stockwell’s subsequent conduct (though in another part of its brief it says that “Stockwell did not processor criminally charge Defendant based on the information provided by Lavers.”).  This is a move that is often rejected by courts, but too often accepted.  (Note, for example, just from yesterday, State v. Glavic, 2024 WL 229787 (Ohio Ct of Apps Jan 22 2024).)  In most cases, as here, the prosecution really has no need to explain the officer’s subsequent conduct – and here it is clear that the jury would take the evidence for its most obvious use, as proof that Washington had been found in possession of the body armor.

Finally, the State argues that the circumstantial evidence – Washington being brought back, with the body armor in the car – is enough to prove possession.  Two responses: First, whether or not that is so, that is not all the prosecution presented concerning the handoff; it also presented the evidence about Lavers’s communication with Stockwell, which taken together with proof that Stockwell took custody of Washington and the armor amounted to proving that Washington had been found in possession of the armor.  Second, the circumstantial evidence argument cannot be correct.  That would be something like proving that a defendant committed a crime because shortly after a police officer who had been there was leading him off in handcuffs.  

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Argument in Smith v. Arizona; a preliminary report

 The Supreme Court heard argument this morning in Smith v. Arizona.  It's going to be a couple of days until I can give a fuller report, but for now:  I think it is highly likely that Smith will get a reversal.  I don't think more than one or two justices, if that, will adopt the principle that admission of a testimonial statement in support of an opinion is not admission for the truth of what the statement asserts, when the statement supports the opinion only if it is true.  The Court seemed more interested in the enduring question of what are the bounds of the category of testimonial statements.  And Justice Kavanaugh asked each of the three advocates what they thought of Justice Thomas's formality-solemnity test.  But the Court seemed strongly disposed to conclude that the question of whether the statements here are testimonial had not been preserved for review; the Court might be prepared to take another case to reconsider thee "primary purpose" test, but I don't believe it will be here.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Comments on the Arizona and SG briefs in Smith v. Arizona, Part 2

 Arizona and the SG, and some of the other supporting amici as well, raise once more the supposed multi-witness problem – i.e., the idea that if the Confrontation Clause is deemed to require that an analyst in the position of Rast testify subject to confrontation then there will often have to be a parade of lab witnesses.  I have often (most recently in my amicus brief in this case at 24-26) responded to this supposed concern, which I believe is raised largely as a scare tactic.  A few quick points. 

First, there’s no data presented suggesting that this is a problem in reality.  On the contrary, I’ve presented data indicating that it isn’t.  Part of the reason is that very often defendants have no interest in having a lab witness testify live. 

Second, only those who make testimonial statements that the prosecution chooses to present need testify subject to confrontation.   See Melendez-Diaz, 557 U.S. at 311 n. 1.  Yes, there may be a question of whether the prosecution has left such large gaps in its proof that there isn’t enough to support a conviction, but that is not in itself a confrontation problem. 

Third, most lab tests are performed by a single lab analyst – and if a lab is worried about multiple analysts having to testify, it can organize itself in a vertically integrated way, even for DNA tests.  (Note the case of the army lab, highlighted in my brief.) 

Fourth, in most cases (not all, as the SG points out, but most), retesting is a possibility, so that if in fact a lab witness has to testify and one who otherwise would do so is unavailable, or multiple witnesses would have to testify, it’s a simple matter to have an available witness retest and testify. 

Fifth, the state can reduce any burden by various means.  Notice-and-demand statutes help.  If a lab is far away from where many trials are conducted then – even assuming it is not practical to locate a lab closer – a lab tech who must testify in several cases can do so on one trip by giving depositions.  Courts can be flexible about scheduling.

Finally, even assuming there is some extra expense, that has no constitutional significance.  We have to remember that all times that lab witnesses are witnesses like any other, and they are providing testimony that may be crucial in convicting a person, perhaps leading to a multi-year sentence.  It is not asking too much to require them occasionally to testify in front of the person whose future they may be affecting so gravely.

One other, somewhat related point:  The SG says that in many cases the jury would not even understand what the lab tech reports.  So what?  If a witness testifies in a foreign language, most jurors will not understand the testimony without translation.  We still require confrontation by the witness.  Here, the lab tech is providing crucial information; maybe she can translate it herself, maybe another witness can, but in any event the accused has a right to examine her about how she came to make the assertions she did.