WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that statements made by crime victims to 911 operators or police during emergencies can be used in court even if those victims do not testify at trial.
In a pair of cases – one from Washington state – the justices gave a nod to the difficulties of prosecuting domestic violence cases.
By a 9-0 vote, justices ruled that a Washington man’s right to confront his accuser was not violated because he could not cross-examine his ex-girlfriend, who lived south of Seattle and who claimed in a 911 call that he had assaulted her.
In another case, out of Indiana, the justices ruled 8-1, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, that a police officer had crossed the line – from dealing with an emergency to conducting an investigation – when he questioned a woman about what her husband had done to her well after she had been assaulted.
By affirming the Washington man’s conviction and reversing the Indiana man’s, however, the justices opened the door for prosecutors and police to gather evidence to show that batterers intimidated their victims into silence and “forfeited” their rights to confront their accusers in court.
“It’s more of a win than a loss,” said Joan Meier, director of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment &Appeals Project at George Washington University’s Law School. “It’s an acknowledgment of the reality of domestic violence.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said 911 statements are admissible in court when police are trying to deal with an emergency. But such statements cannot be used if the emergency has ended and police are gathering evidence to use in filing criminal charges, he said.
The Washington case involved Adrian Davis’ trial, in which a judge allowed the tape of Michelle McCottry’s February 2001 emergency call to be admitted into evidence but barred police testimony about what McCottry had said to officers. She disappeared before trial and did not testify despite a subpoena.
In the other case out of Peru, Ind., Amy Hammon also did not testify. But a judge allowed a police officer to testify that she had told him that her husband, Hershel, had thrown her into the glass panel of a gas heater during an argument before police arrived.