Constitutional Faces: The Aftermath of Bulcomming v. New Mexico

July 11th, 2011

So what happens when the Supreme Court tells a state that the forensic analyst who conducted a test in a laboratory must be the person to testify in Court, as they did in Bulcomming v. New Mexico? This:

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on a case that originated in Farmington might require state officials to dip deeper into their pocketbooks.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled on June 23 that the actual lab analyst who testifies at criminal trials must be the one that performed or witnessed the lab tests in question.

Though the decision bolstered the constitutional tenet that defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them, it also added pressure on an already overburdened lab.

Laboratory officials are estimating they will have to add anywhere from four to 20 analysts, depending on how the opinion is interpreted by state courts, said Elizabeth Trickey, general counsel for the state health department.

“The initial response is we are going to need more analysts, but if we don’t have more, then we may be asking the analysts there to work more hours,” Trickey said. “The implications could be very broad.”

When anlaysts are in court, they are not in the lab, conducting tests.

In February 2010, the average time between receipt of a sample and reporting the results was 44 days. The following year, however, the average turnaround time was 90 days, she said.

In addition to conducting lab tests, analysts also are required to testify in criminal trials about the results.

Eight are qualified to testify about alcohol lab tests and four are qualified to speak about drug testing conducted at the lab, Trickey said.

Since 2008, the lab has seen a 71-percent increase in the number of subpoenas issued to analysts requiring them to testify in court.

“When the analysts are in court … that is time they are not in the lab testing,” Trickey said. “This 71-percent increase has already been felt today and we anticipate this new decision will lead to more subpoenas.”

Let’s not forget that Supreme Court cases asking what Sir Walter Raleigh thought of the right to confront his accuser has implications on strained state budgets.