Matt Kaplan has obtained the reversal of his client’s murder conviction. Kaplan had argued that constitutional errors committed by the trial court resulted in an unfair trial and may have led to his client’s wrongful conviction. The case, decided earlier this week by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, is an important precedent which will protect the rights not only of criminal defendants, but of all Americans.
Police obtained important evidence in the case from the review of every piece of data on mobile phones seized from the Defendant. The data was extracted from the phones pursuant to search warrants. But the police had, at best, probable cause to believe that only a limited subset of the information contained on the phone was related the crime they were investigating. In cases involving conventional items (paper documents and other physical evidence) the government is required to specify what items it is seeking to seize when it asks a judicial officer to issue a warrant. In this case, however, the government suggested that the rules are different for cell phones—that if there is probable cause to think that any information on a cell phone is related to a crime (even if the phone’s owner is not suspected of committing the crime) than the government is entitled to fish through all information on the phone, no matter how private or sensitive that information might be, in hopes of stumbling across something that it might find helpful. Kaplan argued, on behalf of his client, that such search warrants are overly broad and the Court of Appeals apparently agreed.
A separate issue in the case relates to the constitutional right of defendants to confront witnesses against them. In this case the government decided not to call to the stand the medical examiner who performed the decedent’s autopsy, instead calling another medical examiner who had no first-hand knowledge of what was done or seen during the procedure. But cross-examination is a fundamental right of defendants in our system because it allows the questioning of witnesses against the accused. One commentator described cross-examination as “beyond any doubt the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” However, as the Supreme Court has recognized, it is impossible to effectively cross-examine a person who does not have first-hand knowledge of what he is testifying too. In this case Kaplan argued on behalf of the defendant that the government’s decision to obtain testimony from a substitute medical examiner violated the Confrontation Clause of the Constitution, an argument that the Court of Appeals apparently agreed with.
One highly unusual aspect of the Court’s decision is that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court did not release an opinion when it issued its judgment reversing the defendant’s conviction. Instead, the court issued a brief statement about why it reversed and indicated that an opinion would be issued in the future.
The D.C. Court of Appeals is the District’s highest “state” court and the case will be an important precedent within the D.C. system. It is also likely to influence other courts nationwide. The importance the Court of Appeals placed on the case was reflected by the fact that in December it permitted over two hours of oral arguments in the matter. (Normally thirty minutes is allocated for oral argument.)
The case is Burns v. The United States, No. 17-CF-1347. Matthew B. Kaplan is the Principal of The Kaplan Law Firm. He was appointed to represent the Appellant in this case by the Court of Appeals.