US Supreme Court issues 2 opinions in criminal cases

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In Dean v. United States, the Court holds, in a 7-2 opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, that under 18 USC 924(c)(1)(A)(i), which provides for a firearm enhancement of 5 years for using or carrying a firearm and an enhancement of 10 years if the firearm is discharged, that the 10 year enhancement applies even if the discharge is accidental as no proof of intent to discharge the firearm is required.  Dissenting opinions were filed by Justices Stevens and Breyer.  Various rules of statutory construction are discussed throughout the opinion.

In Kansas v. Ventris, the Court holds, in a 7-2 opinion authored by Justice Scalia, that a defendant's statement to an informant which was elicited in violation of the Sixth Amendment, was admissible to impeach the defendant's inconsistent testimony at trial.  Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion which was joined by Justice Ginsburg.

The majority holds that whether a confession that is not admissible in the State's case in chief nonetheless can be admitted for impeachment purposes depends on the nature of the constitutional guarantee which was violated.  The Fifth Amendment guaranteed against compellsed self-incrimination is violated by introduction of a coerced confession at trial, by way of impeachment or otherwise.  In contrast, the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable search or seizues, where exclusion comes by way of a deterrent sanction rather than to avoid a violation of the substantive guarantee, results in an admissibility determination based upon an exclusionary-rule balancing test.  This same result holds for violations of the Fifth and Sixth Amendment prophylactic rules prohibiting certain pretrial activities by police.  The Massiah violation at issue here is a component of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, but the right covers pretrial interrogations to ensure that police manipulation does not deprive the defendant of effective representation by counsel at a stage when legal aid and advice would help him.  A violation of Massiah requires the exclusion of the evidence from the State's case in chief, but does not preclude introduction of the evidence for impeachment purposes where the defendant testifies.  The majority finds that the interests safeguarded by excluding tainted evidence for impeachment purposes are outweighed by the need to prevent perjury and to assure the integrity of the trial process.

Some good news: the Court notes that the trial court gave a cautionary instruction on the unreliability of rewarded informant testimony.  It's by no means the holding of the case, but the footnote is worth attention - especially in light of the otherwise unfavorable decision.

A question concerning prior inconsistent statements is presented under Nevada law which was not squarely addressed in Ventris.  Under the Nevada Rules of Evidence, unlike the Federal Rules, prior inconsistent statements are admissible as both impeachment and susbtantive evidence.  My reading of Ventris and the cases cited therein is that testimony by an informant that was obtained in violation of Massiah would not be admissible as substantive evidence, but is admissibly only as impeachment evidence in the event that the defendant testifies.  Counsel should request a limiting instruction if such statements are introduced.  It appears that the Nevada Supreme Court implicitly recognized this limitation in Kaczmarek v. State, 120 Nev. 314, 331 (2004).




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This page contains a single entry by JoNell published on April 29, 2009 8:13 AM.

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