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.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Thoughts on the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation brief in Smith v. Arizona

              I’m hoping to write more in a few days on the Arizona and SG briefs in Smith v. Arizona.  But my old friend Eric Freedman has called to my particular attention the amicus brief of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF), which makes some dramatic assertions, and I want to offer a few thoughts on it.

              As I understand it, the CJLF advocates doing away with the testimonial-non-testimonial distinction, and instead treating the confrontation right as simply a rule of trial procedure – that is, prescribing what rights the accused has with respect to those witnesses whom the prosecution chooses to present at trial, or maybe also with respect to those who testify at very formal proceedings.  As I will explain below, I disagree sharply with this, and I believe it ignores a whole lot of history.  But first let me note that there are some aspects of the brief with which I agree.

              One of these is that the current doctrine is murky and gives too little guidance.  That shouldn’t be a reason to throw out Crawford (and the CJLF brief relies a lot on dissents and the views of Crawford-skeptic judges).  It does mean that current doctrine can be improved on.  I agree with the CJLF that the “primary purpose” test is ahistorical and does not work well. 

              I also agree that Crawford does not account well for the allowance of dying declarations.  I agree with the CJLF that there is a long history of allowing them, and I believe that there would not be much support for a doctrine that did not do so.  Crawford made room for them by suggesting that they constituted a sui generis exception to the general principle that the maker of a testimonial statement presented against an accused must be subject to confrontation, and I agree with the CJLF that this is a patchwork, not a satisfying account.  (A patchwork can be an acceptable second-best solution, though.) As I have often argued, the solution seems rather simple:  Dying declarations should be considered as an aspect of forfeiture doctrine.  The imminence requirement should be considered as marking a boundary of the state’s duty to mitigate by providing an opportunity for confrontation.  I’ve explained this approach in numerous places, including this article.  Adopting this view would mean walking back from Giles v. California, but so far as I am concerned that would be a very good thing.  I’ll also note that the CJLF gives no account of why, even before hearsay law had gelled, courts imposed stringent requirements on dying declarations.

              Now, the CJLF says that nowhere in the early materials do we see anything like the line between testimonial and nontestimonial.  I think this misconceives a few hundred years of history.  Until the late 18th century, there was no well-formed hearsay doctrine, nothing resembling the elaborate doctrine we have today.  But there was an elaborate law governing witnesses.  What do witnesses do?  They testify.  Many sources make clear that it was regarded as one of the glories of the English system that it insisted that witnesses give testimony face to face with the adverse party, in open court if reasonably possible, and not in any other way.  The idea of the Confrontation Clause was not just to say, “Here are the witnesses whom the prosecution has produced at trial; you may face them and cross-examine them.”  Rather, it was to ensure a system in which witnesses would be brought in to trial, or if necessary another formal testimonial proceeding such as a deposition.

              So we have to think in systemic terms:  What are the consequences of allowing, or not allowing, this evidence for how witnesses testify?  What then do we make of Rast’s notes, which the CJLF says are not close to being covered by the Confrontation Clause?  If they are not, then anyone in Rast’s position knows, “If I do not testify at trial (and perhaps even if I do) my notes may be used by a prosecutor against the person who is charged with possessing this substance.”  Then in any realistic sense we have created a system in which a lab analyst can testify against an accused by writing out lab notes.  Without ever taking an oath, or facing the accused, or answering questions under cross-examination, she can knowingly make factual assertions that she understands will be used as evidence to convict a person of a crime.  We could expect that lab analysts would often testify in this way, and other witnesses as well.  This would be not only a clear violation of the confrontation right but a profound alteration of our method of trials.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Comments on the Arizona and SG briefs in Smith v. Arizona, Part 1

Smith v. Arizona, in which I am hoping the Supreme Court will clear up some of the confusion created by its splintered decision in Williams v. Illinois, will be argued on January 10.  As a reminder:  Smith was convicted of drug-related crimes in large part on the basis of the testimony of a lab analyst, Longoni.  But Longoni did not perform the tests on the materials in question, nor write a report on those tests.  Instead, Longoni relied on writings by another lab analyst, Rast, who was no longer with the lab (for unexplained reasons) at the time of trial.  The state court held that this was OK, and that Rast’s findings were not being used for the truth of what they asserted but only in support of Longoni’s opinion.

Arizona, the respondent, filed its brief on Dec. 13, and the supporting amicus briefs were filed a week later.  You can find all the briefs in the case through the Supreme Court’s docket sheet, here.

Below, somewhat belatedly, is the first portion of comments on Arizona’s brief and the one submitted on behalf of the United States by the Solicitor General’s Office.  I hope to offer more within a few days. The SG’s brief argues for reversal, but on narrow grounds, without upsetting the supposed distinction between offering a testimonial statement for its truth and offering it in support of an expert’s opinion, even when, as is almost always the case, the statement supports the opinion only if true.

Both Arizona and the SG try to make an argument that the procedure here uses a long-accepted method of proof.  I believe the attempt fails.  Notably, they come up with at most a single case (and that one a civil one) from the founding era or anywhere close of an expert being allowed to testify to an opinion on the basis of facts asserted in a testimonial statement that was not itself admissible evidence.  They do make clear that experts have to rely on general underlying information, to be found in treatises and the like.  (Just as, by the way, ordinary percipient witnesses rely on what they’ve been told about the world by other people.)  And they cite a couple of civil cases from the founding era and a few from well after in which maybe experts were allowed to offer opinions on the basis of otherwise inadmissible statements of case-specific information.  (This is not clear, because the cases do not dwell on whether those statements could have been admitted on their own; and in at least some, e.g., one involving “daily price lists,” they probably could have been.) But they do nothing to undermine the well-established fact, which the drafters of Fed. R. Evid. 703 openly acknowledged, that that Rule, allowing an expert to rely on otherwise inadmissible evidence if it is of the type ordinarily relied on by experts in the field, went against the great weight of the common law.  Note, for example, the discussion and citations in my amicus brief  in this case at 6-7 and 17.

Arizona and the SG contend that Arizona law and the Federal Rules take the position that in situations such as that involved here the out-of-court statement is presented only in support of the expert’s opinion, not for the truth of what it asserts.  But a court, ultimately the Supreme Court, construing and applying the Confrontation Clause must make its own assessment on that point.  And the simple fact is that, assuming that only if the out-of-court statement is true does it support the opinion, then, as five justices recognized in Williams, there is no real distinction between presenting the statement in support of the opinion and presenting it for its truth.  The logic of the jury, assuming it accepts the opinion, has to be: “Predicate Fact F is true, and therefore Opinion O is more likely true.”  There are innumerable other situations in which a predicate fact supports the probative value of other evidence (“The letter was sent to the intended addressee, and therefore it gave notice”) and there is no doubt that the predicate facts is being proven for its truth.  This situation is no different.  Neither Arizona nor the SG suggest any way in which telling the jury in a case like Smith to use the out-of-court statement only in support of the opinion actually alters what the jury can or will do with it.

Arizona and some of the other bottom-side amici suggest that the statements by Rast on which Longoni relied were not testimonial.  The Court should reject this argument as well.  I’ll assume for purposes of argument that Longoni did not rely at all on Rast’s report, but only on her notes.  So let’s understand right off that if those are not deemed testimonial, then a prosecution has a surefire way of never having to present for confrontation the lab technician who performed the test in question and recorded the results:  Simply give those notes to some other lab tech, who can then testify in court to a conclusion based on the facts asserted by the first tech (and which might, as in this case, follow obviously assuming the truth of those facts).  Then we have a system in which a lab witness can testify – creating evidence knowing it will likely be used in prosecution – just by writing lab notes.

 But, Arizona argues, the notes are not formal and they are not solemn.  Though sometimes the Supreme Court has spoken of formality as a requirement for a statement to be testimonial, I think that is potentially misleading.  Suppose a  statement is given very informally, but in full knowledge, and even with the purpose, that it will be used as evidence in prosecution.  Then it seems clear that it ought to be deemed testimonial.  Formality, as I have often said, is not a requirement for a statement to be testimonial.  Rather, certain formalities, if you want to call them that – the oath, subjection to confrontation, presence at a formal testimonial event – are necessary for testimony to be acceptable.  As for solemnity, I think that gets closer to the mark, if properly conceived.  I think solemnity in this context means appreciation of the gravity of the consequences of the statement (which is why we ask witnesses to “solemnly swear.”)  And notes can have this solemnity; if they can be used as prosecutorial evidence, and the writer of them understands that – which would of course be true if Rast’s notes are deemed admissible – then the writer understands that her notes may be a critical factor in convicting a person of crime.  That’s enough for the statement to be considered testimonial.

More later.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Smith v. Arizona -- top-side briefs filed

Petitioner filed his brief in Smith v. Arizona last week, and today a bunch of amici, most in support of Petitioner, filed theirs.  You can get to them all by going to the Supreme Court's docket sheet.  Among the briefs are one by the United States, in support of neither party, disputing some of Petitioner's arguments  but contending that the case should be remanded, are rather unusual position for the U.S. in a criminal case.  Among those in support of the Petitioner are one on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, with Jeff Fisher on the brief, and (to the surprise of nobody who has been reading this blog) one by me, on behalf of myself.  I hope to offer further comments on the U.S.'s brief over the next few weeks.  The State's brief is due December 13, the remaining amicus briefs December 20, and argument will be January 10.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Smith v. Arizona -- cert grant in a case that might clear up the Williams mess

 Yesterday, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Smith v. Arizona, No. 22-899, a case that might help provide some clarity much needed since the Court's decision in Williams v. Illinois.  Here are some preliminary thoughts.

Williams involved a DNA report in a cold-hit case.  Five justices concluded that the report was not testimonial, but no rationale leading to that proposition gained the support of a majority.  Four of those five justices also concluded that the prosecution did not use the report for the truth of a matter asserted in it.  The primary reason that they cited in favor of that conclusion was that the prosecution used the report in support of the opinion offered by an expert who testified at trial; this, they believed, was not using it for the truth of what it asserted.  Although five justices rejected this analysis, some courts have adhered to it -- and one of those is the Arizona Court of Appeals in the Smith case.  Smith was tried on various drug charges.  A forensic analyst from a state lab testified to what the substances were, but the factual predicates of his testimony were drawn from the report of another analyst, who (for reasons apparently not explained) no longer worked for the lab.  Not a problem, thought the court; the testifying analyst was giving his "independent opinion" and the report was only used in support of this opinion.

I have written several times previously on this blog about the theory that presenting (whether by formal admission or otherwise) a lab report in support of an expert's opinion is not presenting it for the truth.  If the report supports the opinion only if it is true, then, as I have said, I think it is a sham to say it is not being presented for the truth.  This is what I have called the expertise end run, one example of the not-for-the-truth end run.  I thought it should have been disposed of nearly 18 years ago once the New York Court of Appeals issued its very fine opinion in People v. Goldstein. (Among my other posts on the topic are this one and this one.) Smith provides an opportunity to put the issue finally to rest.

By the way, the report in Smith was not formally introduced into evidence.  In the context of a case like this, in which the substance of the report is clearly conveyed to the jury and is a predicate for the testifying expert's opinion, that should not matter.  See especially this post and also this one

Another issue raised by the Smith petition is that the Arizona court said, as the four justices did in Williams, that if the accused wanted to examine the absent analyst he could have called the analyst himself.  That idea should have been completely disposed of by Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, which proclaimed that "the Confrontation Clause imposes a burden on the prosecution to present its witnesses, not on the defendant to bring those adverse witnesses into court." The two are not close to equivalent; for a full elaboration of this argument, see my brief for the petitioners in Briscoe v. Virginia. It appears the dissenters in Melendez-Diaz took another shot at the issue by granting certiorari in Briscoe , but the Court slapped that attempt down by remanding the case for reconsideration in light of Melendez-Diaz.  We can hope this issue as well will finally be resolved, though I'm not sure how the Court can be much clearer than it already has been.