Raleigh, N.C. — House lawmakers gave final approval Monday to a measure that would allow State Crime Lab analysts to testify via videoconferencing, but the bill includes no money to pay for the technology.
Senate Bill 594 is a criminal justice omnibus that contains more than a dozen provisions making changes in areas from illegally carried concealed weapons to graffiti. It also moves the State Bureau of Investigation from under the Attorney General's Office to the Department of Public Safety – although, unlike a similar Senate provision, the House version leaves the State Crime Lab under the attorney general.
The "remote testimony" provision is a response to a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, the court ruled that allowing a prosecutor to submit an analyst's report without making the analyst available for testimony violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confront his accuser.
Since 2009, the crime lab, already understaffed on lab analysts, has lost additional bench time and capacity because analysts must travel across the state to be available to testify at any trial in which their reports are used.
Senate Bill 594 authorizes a forensic or chemical analyst to testify using videoconferencing if the defense attorney doesn't file a written objection. The analyst would still be able to be examined and cross-examined by attorneys for both sides, questioned by a judge and observed by a jury.
The change would help cut down on some analyst travel time, but it wouldn't solve the crime lab's larger staffing problem, said former lab director Joe John.
John, a former judge who still works with the lab as a legal consultant, said the measure would "allow initiation of a test case through the courts (there is a potential Melendez-Diaz issue) to determine what the North Carolina Supreme Court's position might be."
But, he noted in an email to WRAL News, the bill doesn't include any funding for the technology that would be needed for videoconferencing.
"To implement in any district, the technical facilities will have to be available and/or alternative funding will have be to secured," he wrote.
Some courts are already equipped, but many are not. After years of deep funding cuts to the Administrative Office of the Courts, there's not likely to be much spare funding available – a fact noted on the House floor Monday by Rep. Skip Stam, R-Wake, who successfully ran an amendment to clarify that courts are not required to use remote testimony immediately.
"We didn't actually set any money aside for remote testimony," he reminded the House. "This just makes clear that they don’t have to do it till they get the money from somewhere."
The measure passed the House easily and is headed to the Senate for concurrence. It's likely to find its way to a conference committee instead.