Court Rules No Constitutional Rights to Cross Examine at Probation Hearing

We are all familiar with cross examination in trial—it seems to be the highlight of every legal TV show or televised trial. What you may not be aware of is that the constitution’s sixth amendment actually guarantees defendants a right to cross examine—that is, the right to question their accusers (or in criminal cases, the state and its witnesses).

Defendant has Probation Revoked

A recent Maryland appellate court case discusses the parameters of that right when it comes to a probation revocation hearing. The case involves a defendant who pleaded guilty to a robbery charge. His sentence involved probation. During his probation, he tested positive for marijuana,  thus violating his probation, and as a result was sentenced to serve prison time for the robbery.

During the trial on his violation of probation, a state’s witness testified about information obtained from the drug testing lab. The testimony included information as to chain of custody, how the urine sample was tested, and the chemical results.

The attorney for the defendant objected, arguing that the person testifying for the state was not someone who actually worked on or tested the urine sample. As such, the attorney argued, the defendant was being deprived of his right to confront (cross-examine) his actual “accuser,” specifically, the actual lab individuals who conducted the urine testing and did the analysis.

Appeal on Sixth Amendment Grounds

The defendant appealed. The appellate court noted that the constitution requires a defendant be allowed to cross examine a state’s witness, unless the witness is unavailable and the defendant has previously deposed the witness.

But that right only applies to criminal cases, and a probation revocation hearing is considered civil in nature. Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the sixth amendment cross examination right does not apply to probation hearings.

But even if the sixth amendment does not apply, the Supreme Court has held that a defendant in a probation revocation hearing still has basic fundamental rights. One of those rights is the right to cross examine—but unlike the sixth amendment’s absolute guarantee, the basic due process guarantee can be overcome in a probation hearing if the state can show good cause for admitting evidence without affording a defendant the right to cross examine. In Maryland, as long as evidence is not hearsay, it can be used in a probation hearing.

The court here noted that the witnesses testified as to the lab’s procedures, and were familiar with them. The testing is automated, and there was a procedure to make sure samples were not mixed up. Thus, the testimony at trial was not hearsay. In fact, the trial court had noted that it would be impractical to require everyone who touches a lab sample to have to testify in court.

Thus, the Court held that there was no error in admitting the lab information, and the defendant’s rights were not violated by not being able to cross examine the workers who processed and analyzed the results.

Make sure your constitutional rights are protected if you are arrested in Maryland. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights in the criminal justice system.