1/7/2011

By Anna Driggers 

The Supreme Court has granted cert in Bullcoming v. New Mexico to decide whether the testimony of a laboratory supervisor, who did not personally observe a test, can satisfy the Confrontation Clause when a laboratory test is admitted as evidence and the analyst who conducted the test is unavailable to testify.

In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, the Supreme Court ruled that forensic laboratory reports are testimonial evidence and the prosecution violates the Confrontation Clause when it introduces such reports without giving the defendant an opportunity to be confronted with laboratory analysts at trial.  A footnote in that opinion stated that all people in the chain of custody for a test were not required to testify and that gaps in the chain of custody would go to the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility.  This footnote left open the question of whether the analyst who conducted the actual test would be a critical witness necessary to satisfy the Confrontation Clause.

Bullcoming v. New Mexico will resolve an important issue in criminal cases involving forensic laboratory reports.  The resolution of this question will have a substantial impact on criminal prosecutions as forensic laboratory reports are frequently used. Prosecutions for drug-related crimes and driving under the influence use this evidence to prove the composition of substances and blood content.  If the testimony of a forensic laboratory supervisor cannot satisfy the Confrontation Clause, valuable evidence that has substantial indicia of reliability will be lost.  However, if the laboratory analyst who conducted the test is unavailable, the defendant will not have the opportunity to conduct a cross-examination and uncover potential flaws in the administration of the test, which could be a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights.