Supreme Court Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in two cases that could affect domestic violence prosecutions. At issue in Davis v. Washington and Hammon v. Indiana is whether statements made by victims to 9-1-1 operators and transcripts of police interviews can be considered at trial, if the caller or complainant is unavailable or unwilling to testify.

Attorneys on all sides are asking the high Court to clarify a 2004 ruling that prevented prosecutors from using statements from victims or witnesses if a defendant’s attorney cannot question the victim or witness in court.

Advocates for defendants argue that such statements should not be considered because they were not made under oath and cannot be cross-examined, and because defendants have the right to confront their accusers in court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a longtime woman’s rights advocate, noted that “many women in this [domestic violence] situation are scared to death” and do not testify against their batterers because they fear for their lives. She said a 9-1-1 call is “not just a call” but rather “a cry for help.” She worried that police will not bother pursuing as many domestic violence cases if it becomes much more difficult to later win them in court.

“Without access to such evidence, the criminal justice system may be rendered virtually incapable of protecting victims of domestic violence and of holding their batterers accountable,” attorneys Michael Rips and Amy Lester warned in a guest editorial in the New York Times. A ruling is expected in late spring or early summer.

In a separate case, the Supreme Court ruled on March 22 that police cannot search a home without a warrant if one resident consents to the search but the other resident does not. In the 5 – 3 ruling, the majority said it was protecting privacy rights, and that the decision would not affect domestic violence cases. “This case has no bearing on the capacity of the police to protect domestic violence victims,” Justice David Souter wrote for the majority. “No question has been raised, or reasonably could be, about the authority of the police to enter a dwelling to protect a resident from domestic violence; so long as they have good reason to believe such a threat exists.”

More information on these cases, including the rulings, dissents and briefs, is available at www.supremecourtus.gov

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