We had a rare win in a DUI case from the United States Supreme Court. Last week the Court decided that the Confrontation Clause of the Constitution really means what it says – that a witness against a criminal defendant must testify in open court and look the defendant in the eye. It’s about time.
Mr. Bullcoming was charged with DUI in New Mexico. The government sent a sample of his blood to the state lab. The lab tech tested it and said Mr. Bullcoming’s blood-alcohol level was over the limit. He filled out a form that said that and signed the form. Mr. Bullcoming asked for a trial at which he could face his accusers.
When the case came for trial the lab tech had been put on “unpaid leave.” No one knows if it was because of incompetence, poor job performance, some sort of conflict, or any number of other things that can result in being put on unpaid leave. Apparently the tech was still around. The state could have called the tech as a witness, but decided not to.
Instead they called another lab tech as a witness. This witness knew how the test was supposed to be done, but did not see any part of the testing on Mr. Bullcoming’s blood. Even though he had more of Mr. Bullcomings blood on hand, he didn’t bother to retest it. He just came to court and said, “sure, this test if fine.”
Mr. Bullcoming’s lawyer objected. He argued that the Constitution gave Mr. Bullcoming the right to have the lab tech who did the test present and face cross-examination by Mr. Bullcoming’s lawyer. The New Mexico courts disagreed and said meaningful cross-examination wasn’t necessary. They convicted Mr. Bullcoming.
Mr. Bullcoming appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. That Court said it was plain that there were lots of steps in the testing that could cause a false result. Most important it said that a defendant has a right to question the person who actually did the testing to see if they knew what they were doing. They reversed the conviction. Mr. Bullcoming gets a new trial – a fair trial.
Chalk up a win for the Constitution and all of us who might have to face government accusations some day.