Confronting an Accuser via Zoom: The SJC Considers the Constitutionality of Virtual Evidentiary Hearings

Brett D. Lovins_resized

by Brett D. Lovins 

Case Focus

In Vazquez Diaz v. Commonwealth, 487 Mass. 336 (2021), the Supreme Judicial Court confronted the novel question of whether, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a virtual evidentiary suppression hearing violates a defendant’s constitutional rights. The Court concluded that such a virtual hearing during the pandemic is not a per se violation of a defendant’s right to be present, to confrontation, to a public hearing, or to effective assistance of counsel, and instead determined that videoconferencing technology can create a close approximation of the courtroom setting. However, under the specific facts of the case, the Court also held that the motion judge abused her discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to continue where he waived his speedy trial rights and where a delay would not substantially harm the government’s case, especially since there were no civilian victims or witnesses.

Background

John W. Vazquez Diaz, charged with drug trafficking in the Superior Court, sought an evidentiary hearing on his suppression motion. After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the judge ordered the hearing to proceed via Zoom. The defendant objected, waived his speedy trial rights, and requested that the case be continued until an in-court proceeding could be held. The judge denied the request, and the defendant filed a direct appeal pursuant to G. L. c. 211, § 3. The single justice reserved and reported the matter to the full Court.

The Opinion

In the opinion, authored by Justice Cypher, the Court addressed—and rejected—the defendant’s State and Federal constitutional arguments.

As to the defendant’s right to be present during a critical stage of the proceedings, derived from article 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Court concluded that under certain circumstances, a suppression hearing could be held by videoconference so long as the technology provided adequate safeguards. The Court reasoned that Zoom could “approximate a live physical hearing” and “effectively safeguard the defendant’s right to be present” by permitting him to listen to evidence, adequately observe the testifying witnesses, and privately consult with counsel using virtual, private Zoom “breakout rooms.” Id. at 342. Nevertheless, the Court determined that under the particular circumstances of the case and in light of the “exceptional circumstances” of the pandemic, the judge abused her discretion by denying the defendant’s motion to continue. Id. at 344 & n.13. The Court opined, however, that the government’s “significant” interest in protecting public health “combined with its interest in the timely disposition of a case, would, in many instances, outweigh the defendant’s interest in an in-person hearing.” Id. at 343.

As to the defendant’s argument that a virtual hearing deprived him of his right to confrontation, the Court joined a minority of states to hold for the first time that the confrontation right extends to suppression hearings. But it concluded that, under art. 12, a virtual evidentiary hearing held during the pandemic is not a per se violation of that right, opining that videoconferencing (when functioning properly) closely approximates the courtroom because two-way video transmission permits live cross-examination and the defendant and the judge are virtually present onscreen and can see all the participants. As to the Sixth Amendment, the Court explained that the right may be satisfied without physical, face-to-face confrontation when necessary to further an important public policy and where the reliability of the testimony can be assured. It determined that protecting public health during the pandemic constituted an important public policy and two-way videoconferencing technology was sufficiently reliable, but ultimately demurred on whether a virtual hearing was necessary in light of its holding regarding the continuance motion.

The Court also rejected the defendant’s argument that a virtual hearing violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public hearing, concluding that a videoconference in which the public could join by telephone or Zoom was not a “constitutional closure” because the virtual nature of the hearing adjusted “only the forum” and “not the prospective audience.” Id. at 353. It reasoned that the limits on access were “no broader than necessary given the severity of the pandemic” and that the court provided virtual alternative access for those with the requisite technology. Id. at 354.

Finally, the Court rejected the defendant’s concerns about his right to the effective assistance of counsel under art. 12 and the Sixth Amendment, concluding that virtual hearings with virtual private breakout rooms are not a deprivation of that right. The Court noted that the defendant can interrupt the proceeding to confer with counsel, but also advised judges to confirm that the technology is functioning properly and encouraged judges to check with counsel periodically to ask whether their clients wished to confer.

The Concurrence

Justice Kafker authored a concurring opinion. Although he agreed with the Court’s conclusion that in this case the judge abused her discretion by denying the motion to continue, he wrote separately to emphasize the potential problems of virtual hearings and to implore judges to proceed cautiously. He noted that virtual hearings “may alter our evaluation of demeanor evidence, diminish the solemnity of the legal process, and affect our ability to use emotional intelligence, thereby subtly influencing our assessment of other participants.” Id. at 357 (Kafker, J., concurring). For example, he noted that body language is concealed, subpar lighting obscures facial expressions, eye contact is impossible, small images and diminished sound dilute the potential emotional impact, and even a participant’s Zoom background may trigger subconscious biases. He also noted the potential for technological problems, user errors, and accessibility issues. “Importantly,” he wrote, “access to reliable Internet is often dependent on income, socioeconomic background, and educational attainment,” and “[l]ack of Internet access is more common among racial minorities.” Id. at 366 n.16. Moreover, he expressed concern about the defendant’s confrontation rights, cautioning that “‘there is something deep in human nature that regards face-to-face confrontation between accused and accuser’ as essential to fairness, a concept that has ‘persisted over the centuries because there is much truth to it.’” Id. at 364–65 (quoting Coy v. Iowa, 487 U.S. 1012, 1017, 1019 (1988)).

Implications

In some ways, the Vazquez Diaz decision is narrow and case-specific: the motion judge abused her discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to continue during a pandemic where the defendant had waived his right to a speedy trial and a delay would not substantially harm the government’s case. But the holding leaves open the possibility that under different circumstances, a judge may proceed virtually over the defendant’s objection. This might include situations where there are costs to delay, including the prosecution’s ability to prove its case because evidence may disappear altogether or degrade as memories fade.

While the Court’s decision regarding the requested continuance may be seen as narrow, the Court did not limit its discussion to that issue. Rather, it broadened its focus to reach the significant issue of the constitutionality of virtual evidentiary hearings and found them permissible, despite the concerns articulated by Justice Kafker. If virtual evidentiary hearings continue to be used after the current pandemic when no longer necessary to protect public health, these constitutional issues will surely be the basis of future litigation.

In the meantime, the decision puts the onus on defense attorneys to vigilantly protect their clients’ rights. That might mean requesting a continuance rather than proceeding to a Zoom-based evidentiary hearing when it is in their clients’ best interests to do so. And when proceeding virtually, advocates must ensure their clients connect from a neutral location with stable internet, assume responsibility for requesting breakout rooms, object if circumstances impede the judge’s evaluation of a witness (e.g., poor lighting or distractions), and confirm that the judge monitors the hearing for technological problems.

The Court’s holding that the right to confrontation extends to evidentiary suppression hearings is a significant victory for criminal defendants. It is now up to trial courts and practitioners to ensure that confrontation—so essential to fairness—is not diluted in this new virtual world.

Brett D. Lovins is a criminal defense attorney at Lovins & Metcalf. He represents individuals accused of wrongdoing from the initial stages of investigation through appeals.