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Confrontation Clause Ruling To Be Applied Prospectively Only

In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a chemical test report submitted by a state laboratory analyst is testimonial in nature. As a result, in all criminal prosecutions, the Commonwealth must call the analyst who tested the substance to testify in court that the substance in fact is an illegal drug.

The analyst’s presence is necessary to satisfy the requirements of the Confrontation Clause of the Constitution.

Mr. Melendez-Diaz was arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of a separate and unrelated narcotics trafficking case, which occurred around the same time as the incident that he took to the Supreme Court of the United States. Following his victory before the Supreme Court, Melendez-Diaz appealed this unrelated conviction to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (S.J.C.). There, his attorney argued that the legal precedent set by his victory at the Supreme Court should apply to his second, unrelated offense.

His problem, however, was that the second case was “final” by the time the U.S. Supreme Court decided his first case on the grounds that the admission of the drug certificate violated the confrontation clause. All appeals had been exhausted on that second case. Nonetheless, he asked the S.J.C. to apply the U.S. Supreme Court decision retroactively to his second drug conviction.

The S.J.C. determined that because the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on this first case was a “new” rule, Melendez-Diaz could not benefit from the 2009 decision retroactively.

Retroactivity

The issue of whether a U.S. Supreme Court ruling applies retroactively to other cases hinges on whether it establishes a new rule or extends an old rule.

If it merely extends or clarifies an existing, older rule, then the extension can be applied retroactively because the framework for the rule was already in existence.

If it is considered to be a “new” rule, on the other hand, it may not be applied retroactively. The rationale is that the rule was not in existence during the course of a prosecution, so a criminal defendant should not receive the benefit of a non-existent rule.

So, is it “New?”

The problem for any court is determining whether a rule from another case is “new.” Melendez-Diaz highlights the dilemma a court faces when addressing this question.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Melendez-Diaz states that its decision in the case is, “‘little more than the application’ of the new rule [first] announced in Crawford.” If the S.J.C. had strictly followed this language and determined that the Supreme Court did not in fact create a “new” rule, the defendant in Melendez-Diaz would have benefited  retroactively and his second conviction for drug trafficking would be overturned as well.

The S.J.C., however, was tasked with analyzing the issue as it applied to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and noted that “[t]he language used by the [U.S. Supreme] Court . . . is not conclusive in determining whether a rule is new.”

Indeed, the S.J.C. reached a different conclusion. The S.J.C. reasoned that certificates of drug analysis were long permitted as evidence under the public records exception to the hearsay rule and therefore the first Melendez-Diaz ruling dramatically changed the framework of Massachusetts criminal law and the law governing the admissibility of evidence. Viewing the issue in that light, the S.J.C. determined that the Supreme Court ruling was indeed a “new” rule.

Because the S.J.C. found that it is a new rule, Melendez-Diaz will not receive the benefit of retroactive application to his other Massachusetts conviction. His appeal failed.

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