Coles v. U.S.: The Right to a “Meaningful Degree” of Cross-Examination

by Jamison Koehler on February 7, 2012

Although the ability to cross-examine a witness is a critical component of the Sixth Amendment right to confront your accusers in a criminal case, this right is not without boundaries:  “Once sufficient cross-examination has occurred to satisfy the Sixth Amendment, . . . the trial judge may curtail cross-examination because of concerns of harassment, prejudice, confusion of the issues, the safety of the witness, or interrogation that is repetitive or only marginally relevant, without violating a defendant’s rights under the Confrontation Clause.”

The limits to the right of cross-examination was the focus of Coles v. United States, a decision handed down on February 2 by the D.C. Court of Appeals. The defendant had sought at trial to cross-examine two police officers on regulations potentially governing their behavior at the time they arrested the defendant. While trial judge Lynn Leibovitz permitted some of the cross-examination, she precluded defense counsel from eliciting testimony regarding one of the officer’s delay in filing his report, whether the officer had copies portions of his report from that prepared by the other officer, and whether the officer had spoken with other officers about the incident in violation of a regulation requiring sequestration.

In reversing the guilty verdict and remanding the case for a new trial, the Court of Appeals held that, although “[c]ross-examination is the principal means by which the believability of a witness and the truth of his testimony are tested” and thus essential “for ensuring the integrity of the fact-finding process,” the Sixth Amendment is violated “only when the court precludes a meaningful degree of cross-examination.”

In this case, seeking to prove officer bias, the defense was precluded from cross-examining the officers on some of the regulations potentially governing their behavior on the day of the arrest. “Bias,” the court held, “is a broad term that may refer both to a witness’ personal bias for or against a party and to his or her motive to lie.”  Since bias or motive to lie “may be a critical component in the jury’s assessment of the credibility of a witness,” it is always a proper subject for cross-examination:

To make cross-examination based upon witness bias effective (and thus satisfy the Sixth Amendment), defense counsel must be permitted to expose to the jury the facts from which jurors . . . could appropriately draw inferences relating to the reliability of the witness.  A trial court therefore errs when it precludes the defense from pursuing a line of cross-examination that is necessary to enable the jury to meaningfully evaluate the witness’s credibility.  It is not enough that the possibility of bias has been mentioned.  Defense counsel must be able to elicit enough information to allow a discriminating appraisal of the witness’s motives and bias. (Internal quotations and citations omitted; emphasis in the original.)

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