Header graphic for print
White Collar Defense & Compliance Developments in Criminal Law, Federal Case Law and Statutory Developments

Admission by government of absence-of-record certificates now unconstitutional

Posted in Constitutional law, Tax prosecutions

The Supreme Court last week applied a newly-invigorated Confrontation Clause to deny the admission at trial of drug lab test certificates in an opinion which may unintentionally prove very useful to attorneys defending criminal tax cases.

In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 2009 U.S. LEXIS 4734 (June, 25, 2009), the Court unremarkably extended the reach of Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004) to the test reports of crime laboratories, holding that the admission in a Massachusetts trial of a laboratory report showing that a seized substance was cocaine violated the defendant’s Confrontation Clause rights; the State was obliged instead to produce witnesses in court to establish the drug’s chain of custody and the testing conclusion. The dissent argued less forcefully that the majority’s conclusion was unwarranted or surprising after Crawford, and more effectively that a practical consequence of the decision would be to strain the resources of crime labs everywhere.

But one legal argument posited by the four Justices in dissent was that the lab certificate of results was akin to a business records certificate offered under FRE 803(6), which, even after Crawford, may be admitted in the absence of a live witness. Justice Scalia, writing for the five-Justice majority, dismissed this comparison. First, the business of a crime lab is to produce evidence for use at trial and so it does not share the routineness and regularity of a true business, leaving the former’s products — drug test reports — outside the scope of Rule 803(6). Second, true business records are neutrally created for the purpose of administering an entity, rendering them non-testimonial when offered in a criminal trial and thus outside the Confrontation Clause, while police lab reports are prepared specifically for use at such a trial and to inculpate a defendant, so are testimonial and subject to the Confrontation Clause. Id. at *31-33.

To further make its point, the majority contrasted non-testimonial clerks’ certificates as to records located in a business or government office with "those cases in which the prosecution sought to admit into evidence a clerk’s certificate attesting to the fact that the clerk had searched for a particular relevant record and failed to find it … the clerk’s statement would serve as substantive evidence against the defendant whose guilt depended on the non-existence of the record for which the clerk searched. Although the clerk’s certificate would qualify as an official record [in the sense of FRE 803(6) and 803(8)] the clerk was nonetheless subject to confrontation." Id. at *31.

In myriad criminal cases the government is required as an essential element to prove the absence of an official record in order to establish guilt, but perhaps this is most often true in tax prosecutions. Whether seeking to prove a misdemeanor failure to file returns, 26 U.S.C. § 7203, or a felony Spies tax evasion where an act in furtherance is the failure to file returns, 26 U.S.C. § 7201, the prosecutor typically relies on a certificate from the IRS records center that no return is on file for the given year(s). Defense attorneys can now use Melendez-Diaz to argue that any and all IRS personnel involved in the search for the missing filing must be called as live witnesses in court, since the IRS certificate of non-filing cannot be admitted without violating the defendant-taxpayer’s constitutional right of confrontation.