How Is the Confrontation Clause Applied Today?

The American legal system was built on the principle that everyone deserves an impartial, public, and “speedy” trial when they stand accused of a crime. As part of that principle, the 6th Amendment of the Constitution includes a section called the “Confrontation Clause.” Stating that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right… to be confronted with the witnesses against him,” this clause underscores that a truly fair trial must allow the accused to cross-examine witnesses and accusers within the boundaries of the courtroom.

Although the Confrontation Clause is still a fundamental human right in our legal system, its practical meaning and application in criminal cases has changed somewhat over the years. In this post, our Boston criminal defense team reviews a few of the major cases that shaped its interpretation, and what it can mean for modern criminal cases.

The Inclusion of the Confrontation Clause

For years, the Founding Fathers had watched British leaders dole out harsh punishments for a wide range of violations – and often simply because the individual’s religious or political beliefs conflicted with their own. This is why more than half of the first eight amendments included in the Bill of Rights deal with criminal law procedures. The Founding Fathers believed that establishing an impartial criminal justice system would give citizens the best chance at pursuing life and liberty.

Under British law at the time, statements made outside the courtroom could be admitted as evidence, without the defendant ever getting to ask their accuser questions or shed new light on witness credibility. The Founding Fathers recognized that this too was a violation of defendant’s rights, and that all witnesses needed to testify in person before a judge and jury, so that their behavior could be observed. Thus, the Confrontation Clause was born.

Shifting Interpretations for the Confrontation Clause

One of the first major Supreme Court cases to refine the Confrontation Clause was Mattox v. United States in 1895. In this case, the Court stipulated that there are 3 basic reasons the clause must be protected and upheld:

  • It ensures that all witnesses must testify under oath
  • It allows jurors fully assess witness credibility and behavior
  • It permits the accused to cross-examine witnesses

For many years, these three fundamental purposes served to guide proper application of the Confrontation Clause in criminal courts. However, by the mid-1960’s, some new questions arose about the limits of the Confrontation Clause. In Smith v. Illinois in 1968, the Supreme Court found that the court can exercise reasonable judgment when a witness has been cross-examined to exhaustion, and that courts can limit the defendant’s right to cross-examination if they are only doing it to harass or humiliate someone.

Later cases before the Supreme Court, like Maryland v. Craig in 1990, determined that cross-examination can depend on the circumstances of the case. For instance, children who may have been abused can now testify through digital means rather than facing the defendant directly in court, if it would cause them significant distress to do so.

Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts: The Veracity of Lab Tests

One of the most significant interpretative changes for the Confrontation Clause came about after Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts in 2009. In this groundbreaking case, the Court considered whether defendants were truly able to cross-examine witnesses under the law, if they were unable to challenge the lab technicians and scientists who prepare evidence.

By confirming that defendants do have the right to cross-examine the preparers of lab tests and reports, Melendez-Diaz became a watershed moment for modern criminal defense cases. When you are arrested for a DUI now, you may be allowed to challenge the results on the basis that the preparer could have made an error. As shown in the example of Annie Dookhan, the disgraced state chemist who falsified reports in Boston, this discovery recognizes the truth that lab testers are only human – and that they too can make mistakes.

To learn more about Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, check out our previous blog post discussing the case in-depth.

Fighting for Your Constitutional Rights in Boston

At Brad Bailey Law, we always seek to uphold the principles set forth in the United States Constitution. The Confrontation Clause, like the other rights listed in the Bill of Rights, still plays a pivotal role in criminal justice, even if the interpretations have changed slightly over the years to better fit our modern world.

When you need effective and passionate representation for your criminal defense case, our AV® Preeminent™ Rated Boston criminal defense attorney Brad Bailey can fight for you. With experience as a former federal prosecutor and more than 35 years of trial and legal experience, Brad Bailey can give you the fair defense you need and deserve when you stand accused.

For a free consultation with Brad and his team, contact our firm today at 617-500-0252.

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