Confrontation And Victim Identifications

The 6th Amendment allows for confrontation of witnesses in criminal trial of the U.S. Constitution and the New Mexico Constitution guarantee the right of a criminal defendant to confront witnesses that offer testimony against them.

In accordance with the Confrontation Clause, testimonial evidence is inadmissible in court against a defendant unless the defendant is able to cross-examine the witness giving the testimony. However, a recent U.S. Supreme Court case and a subsequent New Mexico Supreme Court case have both held that an identification of the perpetrator by a mortally-wounded shooting victim close to the time of the shooting is not testimonial evidence and therefore not in violation of the Confrontation Clause.

In Michigan v. Bryant police called to a gas station found the Victim mortally shot. The Victim identified the Defendant as his shooter before he died. At the Defendant‘s trial, police officers at the scene testified about the Victim‘s statements identifying the Defendant as his shooter.

The Defendant was found guilty of second-degree murder, but the Supreme Court of Michigan reversed the conviction on the grounds that the officer‘s testimony of what the Victim said violated the Defendant‘s rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.

The Supreme Court in Michigan v. Bryant held that the Victim‘s description and identification of the shooter were not testimonial evidence and therefore not in violation of the Confrontation Clause. The Court stated that police interrogations are testimonial if there was no ongoing emergency and the primary purpose of the interrogation was to determine or establish previous events with the objective of later using those statements in a criminal prosecution. However, police interrogation is not testimonial if the primary purpose for the interrogation is to facilitate police response to an ongoing emergency.

The Court stated that to evaluate the primary purpose of a police interrogation, courts must evaluate (1) the circumstances of the encounter between the police and individual that gave a statement, including the existence of an ongoing emergency, and (2) the statements and actions of both the individual and police.

For the first part of the inquiry, where the questioning took place and whether it occurred during or after the emergency are relevant. If the emergency is ongoing, it is likely that the primary purpose of an inquiry is to put an end to a dangerous or threatening situation; if the inquiry occurs after the danger is eliminated, it is more likely that the purpose of the interrogation is to establish past facts in preparation for criminal prosecution. The formality of the questioning may also be telling. While formality may indicate that the emergency is not ongoing, informality does not always, but may, indicate that the emergency is ongoing.

In Michigan v. Bryant the Court found that the Victim‘s identification was not testimonial because its primary purpose was to meet an ongoing threat to police and the public. Earlier this year, the New Mexico Supreme Court came to the same conclusion in a similar case in State of New Mexico v. Largo.

In State v. Largo, the victim was allegedly shot by her ex-husband. A neighbor responded and called 911. Through the neighbor, the victim identified her ex-husband as the shooter to the 911 operator and later to a police officer who responded to the scene. Both the 911 recording and the officer‘s testimony of what the victim said were admitted as evidence and the Defendant was convicted of murder.

On appeal, the Defendant argued that the 911 call and the officer‘s testimony violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause. For the same reasons as the Supreme Court in Bryant, the New Mexico Supreme Court found that since the Defendant was armed and at large, the victim‘s statements were not testimonial and obtained instead to meet an ongoing emergency. For this reason, the statements were allowed into evidence and the conviction was upheld.

If you are faced with criminal charges, it is important to understand your rights and defenses. Understanding issues such as the confrontation clause is very important to your defense. These issues are can be quite complicated depending on the circumstances. As such, it is highly advisable that you seek the guidance of a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.


Related Reading:
Pleas of Co-Defendants: Admissability and Harmless Error in New Mexico
Defendants Have the Right to Pretrial Interview of State‘s Expert Witnesses But…
6th Amendment Confrontation Rights in New Mexico Domestic Violence Cases

Collins & Collins, P.C.
Albuquerque Attorneys

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