Kansas v. Ventris

PETITIONER:State of Kansas
RESPONDENT:Donnie Ventris
LOCATION:Nogales Unified School District

DOCKET NO.: 07-1356
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: Kansas Supreme Court

CITATION: 556 US (2009)
GRANTED: Oct 01, 2008
ARGUED: Jan 21, 2009
DECIDED: Apr 29, 2009

Matthew J. Edge – argued the cause for the respondent
Nicole A. Saharsky – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Stephen R. McAllister – argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In January 2003, Donnie Ventris and his girlfriend entered the apartment of Ernest Hicks who was subsequently robbed and killed. Mr. Ventris was convicted of aggravated robbery and aggravated battery by the District Court of Montgomery County in Kansas. To rebut the testimony of Mr. Ventris at trial, the State relied on the testimony of his former cell mate, Johnnie Doser. The government recruited Mr. Doser to keep his “ear open” and listen for incriminating statements made by Mr. Ventris. Mr. Ventris appealed claiming this testimony violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The District Court’s decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals but reversed by the Supreme Court of Kansas.

The court held that “[w]ithout a knowing and voluntary waiver of the right to counsel, the admission of the defendant’s uncounseled statements to an undercover informant who is secretly acting as a State agent violates the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights.” It reasoned that the fact finding responsibilities of the trial court do not outweigh individuals’ constitutional rights.


Are statements obtained in the absence of a knowing and voluntary waiver of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel admissible for the purposes of impeaching a defendant’s testimony?

Media for Kansas v. Ventris

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 21, 2009 in Kansas v. Ventris

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 29, 2009 in Kansas v. Ventris

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has our opinion today in Case 07-1356, Kansas versus Ventris.

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Kansas.

Rhonda Theel and the respondent here, Donnie Ray Ventris robbed one Ernest Hicks in his home. In the course of the crime, one or both of them shot and killed Hicks.

The State charged both with murder, burglary, and robbery.

Before Ventris’s trial, police officers planted an informant in his cell with the instructions to listen for incriminating statements.

Apparently, the informant did a bit more than merely listen.

And in response to some prodding, Ventris admitted that he had shot and robbed Hicks.

The prodding violated the Sixth Amendment which we have held prohibits deliberate elicitation of inculpatory statements from uncounseled defendant’s postindictment.

At trial, Ventris took the stand and blamed both robbery and the shooting on Theel, asserting that he did not know his companion’s intentions when they went to the victim’s home.

In response to this testimony, the State sought over Ventris’s objection to have the informant testify to Ventris’s prior contradictory statement.

The State conceded that the informant had deliberately elicited the inculpatory statement in violation of Ventris’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel but argued that the statement was nevertheless admissible for impeachment purposes.

That is to undermine Ventris’s testimony.

The trial court allowed the informant’s testimony and the jury convicted Ventris on counts of aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery but acquitted him on the murder charge.

The Kansas Supreme Court reversed the convictions, holding that the informant’s statements were not admissible for any reason including impeachment.

We granted certiorari.

Whether a confession that was not admissible in the prosecution’s case-in-chief, can nonetheless be admitted for impeachment purposes, depends on the nature of a constitutional guarantee that has been violated.

The Fifth Amendment guarantee against compelled self-incrimination for example is violated by introducing a coerced confession at trial, which means it simply cannot be used whether by way of impeachment or otherwise.

But for other constitutional guarantees such as the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, which is violated when the search or seizure occurs and for certain prophylactic rules developed under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, we have held that exclusion comes by way of deterrent sanction for the prior constitutional violation, rather than to avoid violation of the substantive guarantee at trial.

Admissibility in such cases is determined by an exclusionary-rule balancing test.

The core of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is indeed a right to be enjoyed at trial, but we have held that the right extends to govern police conduct at certain critical stages prior to trial.

Whenever the assistance of counsel is denied at one of these pretrial critical stages, such as the one here when — when a confession was — was sought to be obtained by the police, whenever assistance of counsel was denied, the defendant’s constitutional right is infringed at that time, not when evidence is later admitted at trial.

The earlier deprivation demands the remedy of exclusion from the prosecution’s case-in-chief but its admissibility for impeachment is subject to the balancing test.

On one side of the balance, when the defendant has taken the stand to lie is the cause of denying a prosecution the traditional truth testing devices of the adversary process.

On the other side of the balance is the deterrence which that denial will provide against such violations of the Sixth Amendment in the future.

But in fact, preventing the impeachment would provide little incremental deterrence since officers already have strong incentive to comply with the Constitution in order to make the defendant’s statements admissible in the prosecution’s case-in-chief.

In every other context, this Court has held that tainted evidence excluded from the prosecution’s case-in-chief is admissible for impeachment and no distinction here alters that balance.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Kansas is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Ginsburg has joined.