In Depth: Evidence Ruling Potentially “Horrific”

Virginia prosecutors say a recent Supreme Court decision will throw a wrench into the state’s legal system and lead to hundreds of case dismissals.

The ruling, issued June 25, places new restrictions on how prosecutors use laboratory evidence in drug and drunken driving cases.

By a 5-4 split, justices determined that lab evidence is inadmissible unless the technician who completed the tests comes to court to testify. The case at bar was Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, a cocaine possession trial.

“It will have the most significant impact on the practice of criminal law in Virginia courts since, I believe, Miranda,” said Del. Bill Janis (R-Henrico), referring to the landmark 1966 case that laid out rights for the accused.

Typically, lab analysts in the Commonwealth will vouch for the validity of their work in a letter to a judge. The scientist won’t come to court unless the defense orders such testimony.

Under the Supreme Court’s ruling, the prosecution must bring the technician to court, unless the defense decides otherwise.

Prosecutors here claim the ruling puts their cases in jeopardy.  Many have asked for continuances to bide time to get a lab analyst onto the witness stand.

“The practical effects of this are too many cases, not enough scientists,” said Louisa County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Garrett.

Garrett said he’s already had one drug case dismissed because of the ruling and has asked judges to delay many more. If Garrett delays too many cases for too long, he’ll violate defendants’ rights to speedy trials. If that happens, a judge will toss out the case.

“The outcome is horrific,” Garrett said. “We haven’t run into the speedy trial wall yet, but it’s just a matter of time.”

Lawmakers say there’s little time left.

“You’re getting a ripple effect on the calendar that hasn’t hit us yet,” said state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R- Fairfax). “I want to solve this problem before we have public safety problems because we’re walking legitimately guilty drunk drivers and drug offenders.”

Cuccinelli, the GOP nominee for Virginia attorney general,  has asked Gov. Tim Kaine (D) for a special legislative session on the issue.

“Let’s conform Virginia statutes to the ones the Supreme Court has said qualify,” Cuccinelli said.

The governor is out of state this weekend, but a spokesman said Kaine is working toward “an administrative solution.”

“There’s no need to leap to a legislative solution,” Gordon Hickey, the governor’s press secretary, said.

Cuccinelli said an adminstrative fix might not be admissible in all courtrooms.

“I’m concerned that we’re rolling the dice with any approach like [Kaine’s],” he said.

The director of the state crime lab, Pete Marone, tried to downplay some legislators’ fears.

“We cannot afford to be hysterical about this,” he said. “We are already adapting, and we’ll do what we have to do.”

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a similar case — Briscoe, et al v. Virginia — next term. A different ruling for the Commonwealth could solve this controversy, prosecutors say, but that’s at least a year away.

“The problem is what happens in the intervening 12- to 18 months,” Garrett said.

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