According to the Sixth Amendment, “[…]in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right […] to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” This is what has come to be known as the Confrontation Clause, a foundational principle of the criminal justice system in the United States.
It basically means that anyone who has been accused of a crime has the right to give rejoinder to any witness who has testified against the person being accused.
This generally comes in the form of a cross-examination whereby a defendant may pose questions to the witness. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution thereby extending the protection of the Confrontation Clause to state courts. However, this clause does not apply to civil cases or administrative hearings – it only applies to criminal cases.
The Hearsay Rule
The Confrontation Clause may be invoked in the form of a cross-examination or it may be enforced by way of the “Hearsay Rule.” What is the Hearsay Rule? To begin with, there are two forms of testimony that can be offered in a court of law. They are in-court statements and out-of-court statements. We’ve already briefly mentioned in-court statements and the method of confrontation used in that context (namely, the cross examination).
But in terms of an out-of-court statement, confrontation may be applied in the form of the Hearsay Rule. According to the Hearsay Rule, a witness’ testimony in a criminal trial must derive directly from the witness and not from any other person. This rule generally applies to situations where a person makes an out-of-court statement that does not derive from his or her own knowledge or cannot be challenged. Thus, in cases where there is no chance to rebuke the witness’ statements in the form of a cross-examination, the Hearsay Rule allows the defendant to move to throw out testimony that is not up to snuff. The importance of this rule was noted in Delaney v. United States.
Exceptions to the Rule
There are certain cases where the accused may not confront the witness as per the Sixth Amendment. One such exception is when the witness who gave the testimony cannot be brought forth. Additionally, someone may lose their right to confrontation if it can be shown that that person already confronted the witness prior to the trial. Both these exceptions were recognized in Barber v. Page.
Limitations to the Rule
It should be noted that there are certain restrictions placed on the Confrontation Clause. For instance, in Smith v. Illinois, judges ruled that trial courts may use their discretion (within limits) to decide whether the cross-examination has turned into a form of harassment or humiliation. However, this ruling maintained that the cross-examiner should be given reasonable space to make his or her arguments.
There are numerous complexities when it comes to the practical application of the Confrontation Clause, which is why it’s important to seek out the help of a seasoned attorney when a question arises regarding the particularities of this legal principle.