An Important, yet Little Noticed Civil Liberties Case

A friend currently in law school complained to me recently about the lack of public attention and media coverage that has been accorded to the Supreme Court case Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, which he characterized as one of the most important civil libeties cases in recent history. But now at least one columnist has caught on to the significance of the case. The Washington Examiner‘s Barbara Hollingsworth ranks the Melendez-Diaz decision alongside the momentous Heller decision, which overturned the District of Columbia’s gun ban.

In this year’s Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts decision, Justice Antonin Scalia has written another outstanding decision, but one that will make some conservative law-and-order types shudder. But any legitimate fears that some drug dealers and drunk drivers could go free is overshadowed by the constitutional protection it provides against being sent to jail by a piece of paper.

Luis Melendez-Diaz was convicted of selling cocaine after Boston police officers found plastic bags containing white powder in the police cruiser following his arrest. In his appeal, Melendez-Diaz argued that prosecutors violated his Sixth Amendment rights by offering certificates that the powder was cocaine signed by state laboratory analysts instead of their live appearance in court.

The high court agreed. Citing “the deeply rooted common-law tradition of live testimony in court subject to adversarial testing,” Scalia pointed out that the Sixth Amendment clearly grants the accused the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” – no matter how logistically difficult that might be for the prosecution.

The Sixth Amendment, Scalia added, does not create a category of witness that is somehow immune from cross examination. Such courtroom confrontation “is designed to weed out not only the fraudulent analyst, but the incompetent one as well.”

The burden of getting crime lab techs into court has now been placed squarely on the prosecution – where it belongs.

In an era of expanding government power, this is rare welcome news. As my friend rightly noted, the Court affirmed an individual’s right to not be convicted by a piece of paper.

Bureaucrash’s video on the Heller case is below.