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Can a Piece of Paper Send You to Prison? (Crawford 101)

paper1.jpgEver notice how the more “advanced” we become, the less actual people are needed? Machines can do everything for us. We don’t even need “real” friends anymore, we’ve got Facebook.

So, why not get the people out of the courtroom as well? After all, they can only served to confuse the jury, why not let the machines convict citizens of a crime? If prosecutors had their way, a mere computer printout would be admissible without the need for a human being to ever testify regarding that piece of paper. How do you like them apples? If you’re accused of some prison worthy offense, the state attorney may simply approach the jury with a piece of paper, and WHAM BAM! You’re off to prison.

These pieces of paper used to convict come in all shapes and sizes. Some prosecutors sought to introduce a lab report showing the BAL of a DUI defendant, all without human testimony. Some sought to introduce a medical report showing injury in a battery case, without doctor or nurse testimony. Other prosecutors sought to introduce a piece of paper containing what somebody said on a previous date (transcripts, technically). Again, all pieces of paper. All admissible without a defendant being able to cross-exam it or question it. You see the beauty of it from a prosecutor’s perspective, right? No witnesses. No cross examination. No way for a defendant to cast doubt upon the document. Quick convictions.

Fortunately, our Constitution gives a defendant the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” (Sixth Amendment, to be exact). The United States Supreme Court decided to put an end to the admissibility of such “evidence” in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004). Crawford says that no evidence may be admitted without a person’s testimony supporting that evidence, unless the person is unavailable and the defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine that person. Got it? Yes, I know, that’s a zillion page opinion compressed into three sentences….

Unfortunately, some pieces of paper are admissible under Crawford, but as a general rule, the court don’t want prosecutors presenting “testimony” thru a piece of paper that can not be cross-examined by a defendant. Thus, much of the cases that have followed Crawford involve what the court meant by “testimony”. We’ll save that for another day.