Your Right as a Criminal Defendant to Confront Witnesses Against You

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There was an article recently written in The Daily Record which discusses a Defendant's right under the Constitution to confront witnesses against you. An accused person, under the Constitution, has the right to confront and question all witnesses testifying against him. While looking at this issue, an interesting decision was recently rendered by the Court of Special Appeals. Specifically, it focused on whether the State is required to reveal the exact location where an officer witnessed a drug-related crime.

In Church v. State, an undercover officer allegedly saw the Defendant give a woman small white rocks in exchange for money from an undisclosed surveillance location. The undercover officer used binoculars to observe the act, and then radioed for additional officers to detain the Defendant. Upon apprehending the Defendant, officers found a clear plastic bag containing cocaine on the ground next to him, and a substantial amount of cash on his person.

Prior to trial, the State filed a motion, requesting that the defense be barred from asking the undercover officer to reveal the exact location where the surveillance occurred. The trial judge granted the State's request, the case proceeded to trial, and the defense adhered to the State's request by refraining from asking the officer to reveal the exact surveillance location on cross-examination. Subsequently, the Defendant was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison without parole. Defense counsel then filed an appeal, claiming that the Defendant was prejudiced by not being allowed to question the undercover officer on the exact location of the surveillance.

The decision of the Court of Special Appeals in Church v. State establishes an important point of law. The Court stated in its decision that the State does possess a 'qualified privilege' in refusing to disclose the exact location of surveillance. However, before the 'qualified privilege' of the State can be used to prohibit the location of the surveillance from being revealed, the interests of the State in keeping the location confidential must be balanced against the Defendant's 6th Amendment right to confront witnesses. Procedurally, the State must meet a threshold establishing that there is a legitimate interest in keeping the location of surveillance confidential. If the State meets this threshold, then the Defense must be permitted the opportunity to demonstrate why the Defendant's 6th Amendment rights outweigh the State's interest in keeping the surveillance location confidential.

Applied to the facts of this case, the State did not meet the initial threshold because no evidence was presented demonstrating why there was a legitimate interest in keeping the location of surveillance confidential. In cases that were heard in other jurisdictions, factors that were considered as legitimate interests included: the location was still being used by police for surveillance purposes; and the location needed to be kept confidential to protect a private individual associated with the location. Here, no evidence of any sort was presented by the State.

A Defendant's 6th Amendment right to confront witnesses is a fundamental right, and any attempt to limit this right must be examined carefully. If the 'qualified privilege' claimed by the State to keep a surveillance location confidential was granted, without any consideration for a defendant's 6th Amendment rights, serious breaches in criminal procedure would occur. Police work in many parts of this state is sloppy, and limitless application of the State's 'qualified privilege' could potentially give law enforcement officials license to falsely claim that they witnessed a crime. The location of an officer who witnessed a criminal act can be a key fact in any criminal matter. A good defense attorney can often use information on the location that an officer observed an act to prove that it was physically impossible for the officer to have done so. To suppress the surveillance location in a criminal matter limits the ability of a defense attorney to make this argument. When making a ruling to suppress the location of surveillance, courts should give strong deference to a defendant's fundamental right to confront witnesses, and the decision rendered by the Court of Special Appeals in Church v. State supports that principle.

For more information on your rights as a Defendant, please contact Portner & Shure for a free criminal defense consultation.

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