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State of Arizona v. Smith 2022, 2024 U.S. LEXIS 2712 (S. Ct. June 13, 2024) (Kagan, J.)

State of Arizona v. Smith 2022, Supreme Court of The United States, decided June 13, 2024.

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause guarantees a criminal defendant the right to confront the witnesses against him. The Clause bars the admission at trial of “testimonial statements” of an absent witness unless she is “unavailable to testify, and the defendant has had a prior opportunity” to cross-examine her. And that prohibition applies in full to forensic evidence. So a prosecutor cannot introduce an absent laboratory analyst’s testimonial out-of-court statements to prove the results of forensic testing.

The question presented here concerns the application of those principles to a case in which an expert witness restates an absent lab analyst’s factual assertion to support his own opinion testimony. This Court has held that the Confrontation Clause’s requirements apply only when the prosecution uses out-of-court statements for “the truth of the matter asserted.” Some state courts, including the court below, have held that this condition is not met when an expert recites another analyst’s statements as the basis for his opinion. Today, we reject that view. When an expert conveys an absent analyst’s statements in support of his opinion, and the statements provide that support only if true, then the statements come into evidence for their truth. As this dispute illustrates, that will generally be the case when an expert relays an absent lab analyst’s statement as part of offering his opinion. And if those statements are testimonial too—an issue we briefly address but do not resolve as to this case—the Confrontation Clause will bar their admission.

The Confrontation Clause still allows forensic experts to play a useful role in criminal trials. An expert can testify about how labs typically function, the practices and procedures. The expert could have been asked hypothetical questions. To implicate the Confrontation Clause a statement must be heresy. And it must be testimonial. Those are separate issues.

A state may not introduce the testimonial out-of-court statements of a forensic analyst at trial, unless she is unavailable, and defendant has had a prior chance to cross-examine her. Neither may the state introduce those statements to a surrogate analyst who did not participate in their creation. Statements have come into evidence for their truth, because only if true can they provide a reason to credit the substitute expert, are inadmissible. Defendant has a right to cross examine the person who made them.