Video Testimony and Confrontation Rights in New Mexico

The 6th Amendment allows for confrontation of witnesses in criminal trial is extremely important to defendants in criminal cases. The rise of video technology has given rise to issues regarding confrontation rights and remote video testimony. The New Mexico Court of Appeals case State v. Smith addresses just that issue.

Specifically, the Court of Appeals had to determine whether the district court violated the defendant‘s right to confront the State‘s witnesses under the Sixth Amendment when it allowed the State to use video testimony instead of live testimony.

In short, were the defendant‘s Sixth Amendment rights violated when the district court prevented the defendant from confronting a witness in person?

In this case, the defendant was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol (DWI). An analyst from the State‘s Scientific Laboratory Division (SLD) tested his blood. At the trial, the analyst testified about the blood results through a two-way video conference.

The defendant objected to the video testimony. However, the district court decided that the video testimony was permissible because in order to appear in person, the SLD analyst would be “inconvenienced in her work” and she would have to drive several hours, which would result in the SLD “being shorthanded.”

The district court denied the defendant‘s objection. The defendant was subsequently convicted by the jury.

The questions became whether allowing the testimony violated the defendant‘s Sixth Amendment rights and if so, whether the error was harmless.

Addressing the Sixth Amendment issue, the Court first explained that the confrontation guarantees a defendant a “face-to-face meeting with witnesses” who appear in court. If there‘s any variation or “departure from that standard,” it must be “necessary to further an important public policy…” Moreover, that necessity “must be supported by specific findings by the trial court.”

The Court reasoned that the right to confrontation is not only essential for the defendant, but also “for the integrity of a trial.” Having so reasoned, the Court then looked to the differences between video and live testimony.

The Court reasoned that “virtual presence created by television falls short of physical presence in satisfying the elements of confrontation” since they “do not provide the same truth-inducing effect.” The Court further explained that there‘s no significant difference between one-way and two-way video testimony. Rather, the important issue is whether video testimony is strictly necessary.

The Court looked to an important U.S. Supreme Court precedent in Maryland v. Craig, where the U.S. Supreme Court held that the only allowable exception to the physical, face-to-face testimony required by the Sixth Amendment is in cases where it‘s necessary to further an important public policy, and “only where the reliability of the testimony is otherwise assured.”

The New Mexico Court of Appeals reasoned that the Craig exception requires a “particularized showing of necessity in the service of an important public policy before a court may approve an exception to physical presence.” It explained that it therefore must decide whether the district court properly allowed the SLD analyst‘s video testimony “following an adequate showing of necessity.”

The Court emphasized that “necessity” does not include mere convenience. It explained that the Craig exception is a very narrow one. The convenience of a witness or the convenience of a witness‘s employer is not enough to allow an exception to the physical, face-to-face requirement of the Sixth Amendment.

The Court went on to reason that, in many jurisdictions, it‘s simply part of an analyst‘s job to testify about results such as those at issue in the current case. A court can only consider an exception to the Confrontation Clause in situations where there‘s “more than inconvenience” to a testifying analyst, especially since analysts anticipate testifying in court about their test findings. As a result, the Court concluded that the district court erred when it allowed the video testimony because there was no “adequate showing of necessity.”

Upon this finding, the Court then had to determine whether the error was harmless. The Court ruled that it was not harmless error since there was a “reasonable possibility” that the evidence from the blood test results influenced the jury‘s verdict.

This area of law will most assuredly continue to evolve. In fact, there are exceptions to the rule as set forth in Maryland v. Craig and acknowledged here. Rest assured, the State will continue to push the issue.


Related Readings:
Blood Alcohol Level Evidence & the Confrontation Clause in New Mexico and Beyond
Prosecution Medical Experts and the Confrontation Clause in New Mexico
In An Increasingly Technical Age, There Is Still No Substitute for Face-to-face Confrontation of Witnesses

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