Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts

PETITIONER:Luis E. Melendez-Diaz
LOCATION:Kmart Parking Lot

DOCKET NO.: 07-591
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 557 US (2009)
GRANTED: Mar 17, 2008
ARGUED: Nov 10, 2008
DECIDED: Jun 25, 2009

Jeffrey L. Fisher – argued the cause for the petitioner
Lisa H. Schertler – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the respondent
Martha Coakley – Attorney General of Massachusetts, argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Luis Melendez-Diaz was arrested while making a cocaine sale in a parking lot in Massachusetts. At trial, bags of the cocaine alleged to have been distributed by Melendez-Diaz were introduced into evidence along with drug analysis certificates prepared by the lab technician who analyzed the drugs and identified them as cocaine. A jury convicted Melendez-Diaz of distributing and trafficking cocaine in violation of Massachusetts law. Melendez-Diaz appealed, arguing that the State’s introduction of the drug analysis certificates violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him under the Court’s ruling inCrawford v. Washington.Crawford had held that so-called “testimonial” evidence cannot be introduced at trial unless the defendant has a chance to cross-examine the witness providing the evidence. Melendez-Diaz characterized the lab analysis as testimonial and argued thatCrawford required the lab technician to testify on the results. The State argued that Massachusetts had previously held, inCommonwealth v. Verde, that lab reports were not testimonial.

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals rejected Melendez-Diaz’s claims in an unpublished opinion, referring to them in a short footnote as “without merit.” The Massachusetts Supreme Court also denied his appeal.


Is a state forensic analyst’s laboratory report prepared for use in a criminal prosecution “testimonial” evidence subject to the demands of the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause as set forth inCrawford v. Washington?

Media for Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 10, 2008 in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 25, 2009 in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has our opinion this morning in case 07-591, Melendez-Diaz versus Massachusetts.

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

Petitioner Luis Melendez-Diaz was charged with the Massachusetts crime of distributing and trafficking in cocaine.

At his trial, the prosecution placed into evidence the substances from the crime scene and three certificates of analysis showing that substance to contain cocaine.

The certificates, they’re called that in the Massachusetts’ statute, were sworn to before a notary public by analysts at the State Laboratory Institute of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Petitioner objected to admission of the certificates contending that they violated his right under the Sixth Amendment to be confronted with the witnesses against him.

The trial court overruled the objection.

The Appeals Court of Massachusetts affirmed relying on a prior decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court which held that certificates of analysis do not contain testimonial statements so that the analyst who authored the certificates need not appear at trial.

The Supreme Judicial Court denied review in this case.

We granted certiorari and now reverse.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to — guarantees defendants the right to be confronted with the witnesses against them.

In Crawford versus Washington, we held that the term “witnesses” in the Sixth Amendment means those who present testimony against the defendant, and we describe the class of testimonial statements as including “extra judicial statements contained in formalized testimonial materials such as affidavits.”

The documents at issue in this case were called “certificates” but they are undoubtedly affidavits.

They contain written sworn declarations of fact.

They were made for the purpose of establishing or proving some fact at petitioner’s trial, and they are functionally equivalent to live in-court testimony concerning the precise testimony one would expect the analyst to provide if called at trial.

Respondent and the dissent advance a number of arguments in an attempt to distinguish this case from Crawford.

Respondent argues that the analyst’s testimony does not alone establish the defendant’s guilt.

It shows that he committed a crime only when it is put together with other evidence.

That is true as it is often true of trial testimony.

It does not prevent the analyst from being in the words of the Sixth Amendment, witnesses against the defendant.

Respondent and the dissent assert that the analysts are not “conventional witnesses” of the sort whose failure to be called for cross-examination at the famous trial of Sir Walter Raleigh provoked the public outcry against violation of the English procedural right ultimately incorporated in our Sixth Amendment.

But the distinctions between the absent witnesses against Raleigh and the analyst in this case do not survive closer scrutiny.

And in any event, the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh marks the core of the right to confrontation, not its perimeter.

Respondent argues that the analyst should be exempt from confrontation because their testimony is based on neutral scientific testimony or testing that is not subject to manipulation.

It is far from evident that scientific evidence is uniquely immune from the risks of error and manipulation.

But regardless, this argument is little more than an invitation to return to our overruled decision in Ohio versus Roberts which held that testimony was admissible, absent confrontation as long as it bore “particularized guarantees of trustworthiness.”

We repudiated that approach five years ago in Crawford and it remains an implausible interpretation of the Confrontation Clause.

Respondent contends that the certificates qualify as business or official records of the sort traditionally admissible absent to the declarant’s testimony.

But the hearsay — but the hearsay exceptions covered materials prepared in the regular course of administering an entity’s affairs.

It did not include materials such as these certificates that were prepared specifically for use in litigation.

Antonin Scalia:

Respondent contends that the defendant’s rights are adequately protected by the Sixth Amendment’s Compulsory Process Clause which guarantees a criminal defendant the right to subpoena witnesses in his favor.

Apart from the fact that here the analysts are not expected to testify in favor of the defendant, the ability to subpoena them is no substitute for the Confrontation Clause’s requirement that the prosecution present its witnesses in court.

If for example the analyst who executed the certificate is no longer alive, it should be the prosecution and not the defense that suffers the disadvantage of his absence.

And finally, respondent and the dissent argue that if we do not exempt forensic scientific testimony from the Confrontation Clause, the criminal process will grind to a halt.

Of course it is not within our power to abandon the dictates of the Confrontation Clause because it makes prosecution more difficult.

In any case, the practice in many states is already in accord with our decision today without any indication that the criminal justice system has been impaired.

Accordingly, we conclude that the certificates of analysis were improperly admitted into evidence in violation of petitioner’s Six Amendment right to confrontation.

The judgment of the Appeals Courts of Massachusetts is reversed, and the case remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with our opinion.

Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Kennedy has filed a dissenting opinion which the Chief Justice, Justice Breyer and Justice Alito have joined.