Case: Chambers v. United States

Date: Monday Nov. 10, 2008

Issue: Is a defendant's failure to report for confinement involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another such that a conviction for escape based on that failure to report is a violent felony within the meaning of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA)?

Background: Deondery Chambers of Illinois is no stranger to law enforcement. Following his arrest in 2005 for a weapons violation, the government sought to convict Chambers under the federal "three strikes" law also known as ACCA. That law requires a minimum of 15 years behind bars for anyone convicted of three violent felonies. The government counted as one of his violent felonies an "escape" conviction several years earlier. Chambers had failed to report to jail for weekend incarcerations. Illinois law distinguishes escapes between “failure to appear” — as in this case — or the more standard definition of escape as in a jail break. Chambers says this legal distinction shouldn't qualify him for the added time behind bars under ACCA. And he says the common sense test of his "escape" conviction would show it wasn't a violent crime. The Seventh Circuit disagreed and now the case appears in front of the High Court. In its 2007 Term, the justices ruled in favor of the government in two of its three ACCA cases. Chambers argues this case most parallels Begay v. United States, in which the Court ruled in favor of a man who could not be given an ACCA sentencing enhancement for drunken driving convictions.

Case: United States v. Hayes

Date: Monday Nov. 10, 2008

Issue: Must a federal weapons charge related to a past conviction of domestic violence show that the past conviction was for an act against a loved one in order for the weapons charge to hold?

Background: The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Randy Hayes’ conviction for weapons charges that came about because of another case 12 years earlier. In that case from 1994, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of battery after striking his then-wife. In 2006, the West Virginia man was involved in another domestic incident (later dismissed) that led authorities to search his house, where they found an old hunting rifle. He conditionally pleaded guilty to a charge of weapons possession, having previously been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. The plea was conditioned on his appeal to the Fourth Circuit, which accepted his argument that the West Virginia statute he was convicted under in 1994 made no distinction for battery of a domestic nature that would qualify him for federal punishment in 2006. The government sought further review to reinstate the weapons conviction and argues to the High Court that Hayes's 1994 "misdemeanor [state] offense need not specify the domestic relationship as an element" necessary to press forward with the federal charges.

Case: Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts

Date: Monday Nov. 10, 2008

Issue: Is a state forensic analysis laboratory report prepared for use in a criminal prosecution is testimonial evidence subject to the demands of the Constitution's Confrontation Clause?

Background: The Constitution's Sixth Amendment affords the accused the right to confront witnesses presented against them at a criminal trial. The right is designed to protect all citizens from over-zealous prosecutions by the government. The High Court's 2004 opinion in Crawford v. Washington buttressed this right, which had been somewhat diluted by an earlier Court ruling.

In this case, Luis Melendez-Diaz was arrested for dealing drugs in the Boston area. At his trial, prosecutors introduced forensic evidence from a crime lab that concluded the powdery substance found in Melendez-Diaz's possession was cocaine. Defense lawyers immediately objected to the introduction of the evidence because they claim they were not afforded an opportunity to cross-examine the lab analysts who filed the report.

In an effort to save time and money, Massachusetts law allows for the direct submission of lab analysis into evidence without an opportunity for lawyers to question the methodology or conclusions of those reports. Accordingly, the trial judge overruled the defense objection. Melendez-Diaz was found guilty and he was sentenced to three years behind bars. The state court of appeals upheld the conviction, and after the state's highest court refused to intervene, the case is now before the Supreme Court.

Lawyers for Melendez-Diaz argue to the Court that "the Massachusetts court's supposition that forensic reports are purely objective is mistaken. Such reports reflect complicated, subjective interpretations of imprecise scientific tests. It thus is entirely proper — indeed, vital — that forensic witnesses' claims be subject to the ordinary Sixth Amendment process of live testimony subject to cross-examination." In response, Massachusetts questions the spirit of the argument presented to the Court because at no point did Melendez-Diaz seek a preliminary hearing to challenge the forensic reports or even subpoena the analysts for the trial. Both of these maneuvers are allowable under Massachusetts law. The state also notes that the jury is free to disregard the evidence as it sees fit. Furthermore, the state argues that "[t]he vast majority of courts have correctly concluded that laboratory reports, like the drug analysis certificates here, are non-testimonial and, thus, not subject to the Confrontation Clause."