What Are Your Rights under the Confrontation Clause?

If you are a criminal defendant who has been accused of a crime, it is likely that much of the evidence that will be presented against you at trial will take the form of witness testimony. This means that individuals who witnessed activities or heard information related to your case will take the stand and be asked to present information that might be used against you.

As long as this evidence is presented in a way that is generally consistent with the evidentiary rules of the court, this type of witness testimony is usually admissible in a criminal case. However, as the criminal defendant, you must have the opportunity to confront or question these witnesses when they present their information in order to determine whether they are being credible and truthful. This is known as the confrontation clause right.

Where Does the Confrontation Clause Right in Cedar Rapids Come From?

The right of a criminal defendant to address witnesses who will be providing evidence against him or her is contained within the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution. It states that “in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to be confronted by the witnesses against him.”

The confrontation clause right is applied in two different ways during a criminal prosecution. First, as discussed above, the criminal defendant must have the right to question and cross-examine any witnesses who appear at trial to present their testimony. Second, the defendant is also entitled to confront or examine any out- of- court statements from third parties that may be introduced during a criminal trial. This can often be slightly more complicated.

Dealing with In-Court Testimony

Under the Sixth Amendments, criminal defendants almost always have the right to cross-examine witnesses who testify against them. This means that after they present their initial testimony on behalf of the prosecution, the defendant’s attorney can then ask additional questions to elicit other testimony from the witness. In addition, the attorney can cross-examine the witness to poke holes in the witness’ testimony or shed doubt on what he or she is saying.

While the cross-examining attorney will typically be permitted to ask questions that are relevant to the facts alleged in the case or similar in scope to what the prosecution asked, they are still bound by the rules of evidence. The attorney cannot ask questions that are meant merely to embarrass or harass the witness or to bring up unrelated acts that might discredit the witness.

For example, when cross-examining a victim in a sexual assault or harassment case, the attorney usually cannot ask prying questions into the victim’s past sexual history with other individuals.

In some very rare situations, a defendant may be unable to cross-examine certain witnesses. This might happen where the witness is a minor in a sexual abuse case, or where the witness faces a very real threat of harm from the defendant or individuals related to the defendant and is placed under protection.

Confronting Out- of- Court Statements

In a trial, witnesses will often talk about not only things they saw or did, but also statements that they heard from other individuals. For example, a witness may have heard a rumor from a third-party that the defendant was guilty of the crime. These are known as out- of- court statements, because they’re referencing a statement that the individual did not actually make in the courtroom but made at some prior date.

Out- of- court statements are governed by very strict evidentiary rules. Certain types of out- of- court statements, known as hearsay, cannot be admitted unless very particular circumstances apply. Other out- of- court statements, which are not hearsay, are more easily admissible.

In a criminal case, the Supreme Court has also provided special protections for criminal defendants against these types of out- of- court statements. In the Crawford v. Washington case, the Supreme Court held that under the Sixth Amendment, prosecutors may not use out- of- court statements that are offered as testimony against a criminal defendant unless the witness is absolutely unavailable and the defendant has previously had the opportunity to cross-examine the witness.

Figuring out when this Crawford rule applies is complicated and requires the assistance of an experienced trial attorney. Not all out- of- court statements will be considered testimony offered against a criminal defendant. And there may be instances, such as a prior deposition, where the defendant has already had an opportunity to cross-examine – so the statements are admissible. Generally, these kinds of determinations must be handled on a case by case basis.

Recently, the Supreme Court also held that this requirement for out- of- court statements applies equally to forensic tests that the prosecution may attempt to present. This means that, for example, where the prosecution wants to present evidence from a DNA test, the criminal defendant must have the ability to cross-examine the laboratory technician or other individual who conducted the test.

If the criminal defendant is not given the opportunity to address this type of evidence through cross examination and no special circumstances apply, this would be a violation of the Sixth Amendment.

Iowa Attorneys Helping You Keep Track of These Evidentiary Details

The Confrontation Clause is a powerful tool for criminal defendants to use in protecting themselves from harmful witness testimony. However, it is also a complicated tool that requires defendants to carefully evaluate the possibility of future witness testimony, and consider what out- of- court statements might be used against them at trial.

For most individuals, parsing the details of court evidentiary rules and constitutional requirements can quickly become overwhelming. At the same time, the failure to properly object to the incorrect introduction of witness testimony can prevent a defendant from raising any issue regarding the testimony down the road.

Experienced criminal defense attorney, Jonathan D. Schmidt, works hard to make sure that the constitutional rights of his clients are protected and respected, and that criminal defendants are given the opportunity to confront and examine witnesses who testify against them. For more information or to schedule an initial consultation, contact him online or at (319) 423-3031.