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Supreme Court Requires Lab Analysts to Testify about Drug-Test Results

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that crime-lab reports can no longer be used against defendants at trial unless the analyst who created the report testifies in court and is available for cross-examination, the New York Times reported June 26.

The ruling came in the case of Luis E. Melendez-Diaz, who was convicted on cocaine-trafficking charges. One of the pieces of evidence used by prosecutors was a lab report stating that bags of white powder said to belong to Melendez contained cocaine. The report was submitted with only an analyst's certificate, not live courtroom testimony.

The 5-to-4 decision further expands the Sixth Amendment's confrontation clause, which grants criminal defendants the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said the court could not ignore a constitutional command just because some see it as inconvenient.

“The confrontation clause may make the prosecution of criminals more burdensome, but that is equally true of the right to trial by jury and the privilege against self-incrimination,” he wrote.

The dissenting judges said the decision would overburden the criminal-justice system and lead to guilty defendants going free on technical grounds. Under the new ruling, for example, Philadelphia's 18 drug analysts will now have to testify in more than 60 trials in 2010, and Cleveland's six drug analysts will be required to testify in 117 trials each, wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, one of the four dissenters.

With the 500 employees at the Federal Bureau of Investigation laboratory in Quantico, Va., conducting more than a million scientific tests a year, Kennedy noted that before a jury hears any of those cases, at least one of the lab's analysts will have to travel to the courthouse to read their notes.

“It's a train wreck,” said Scott Burns, the National District Attorneys Association's executive director, of the ruling. “To now require that criminalists in offices and labs that are already burdened, and in states where budgets are already being cut back, to travel to courtrooms and wait to say that cocaine is cocaine – we're still kind of reeling from this decision.”

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