Family Law Prof Blog

Editor: Margaret Ryznar
Indiana University
Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Case Law Development: Supreme Court Twin Rulings Viewed as Important Advance in Fighting Domestic Violence

Twin rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court this week are being hailed as important advances in the fight against domestic violence. In Davis v. Washington, a recording of a conversation between the victim of domestic abuse and a 911 operator in which the operator ascertained the name of the boyfriend perpetrator was ruled admissible over claims it violated the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause.  The Confrontation Clause bars “admission of testimonial statements of a witness who did not appear at trial unless he was unavailable to testify, and the defendant had a prior opportunity for cross-examination.”  The Court held that statements are nontestimonial when made in the course of police interrogation under circumstances objectively indicating that the primary purpose of interrogation is to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency. They are testimonial when the circumstances objectively indicate that there is no such ongoing emergency, and that the primary purpose of the interrogation is to establish or prove past events potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution.  In this case, the 911 operator’s  interrogation objectively indicated its primary purpose was to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency. She simply was not acting as a witness; she was not testifying. Therefore, the tape was admissible.

In a companion ruling, Hammon v. Indiana, 05-5705, the police responded to a domestic disturbance call. After first claiming nothing was wrong, the wife signed a statement asserting that her husband “Broke our Furnace & shoved me down on the floor into broken glass. Hit me in the chest and threw me down. Broke our lamps & phone. Tore up my van where I couldn’t leave the house. Attacked my daughter.”  Although the wife was subpoenaed for trial, she failed to appear.  As a part of the state’s case, the affidavit was admitted as evidence over the objection it did not allow the defense lawyer to cross examine the writer. The defendant was found guilty of domestic battery and violating his probation.

The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed, concluding that the statement was admissible for state-law purposes as an excited utterance. 

The Supreme Court did not agree with the lower court ruling and distinguished the situation in Hammond from that in Davis observing that in Hammond the circumstances were clear that the interrogation was part of an investigation into possibly criminal past conduct and there was no emergency in progress. The Court said that in cases like this one, where the statements were neither a cry for help nor the provision of information enabling officers immediately to end a threatening situation, the fact that they were given at an alleged crime scene and were “initial inquiries” is immaterial and the Sixth Amendment applied.

However, the Court observed that “This particular type of crime is notoriously susceptible to  intimidation or coercion of the victim to ensure that she does not testify at trial. . . . [W]hen defendants seek to undermine the judicial process by procuring or coercing silence from witnesses and victims, the Sixth Amendment does not require courts to acquiesce. While defendants have no duty to assist the State in proving their guilt, they do have the duty to refrain from acting in ways that destroy the integrity of the criminal-trial system. We reiterate what we said in Crawford: that “the rule of forfeiture by wrongdoing . . . extinguishes confrontation claims on essentially equitable grounds.” The Supreme Court slip opinion consolidating Davis v. Washington and Hammon v. Indiana, filed June 19, 2006, may be found by clicking here (last visited June 21, 2006, reo).

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