- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The constitutional right to confront one’s accuser in court in person was upheld Friday when the Iowa Supreme Court denied a prosecution request in a Dubuque County case to allow witnesses to appear via video teleconference.

The justices said virtual electronic presence in the courtroom may someday become an adequate constitutional substitute for actual physical presence, “but we are not there yet.”

In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Edward Mansfield, the court concludes that while exceptions have been allowed in cases including when a child witnesses had to face an abuser or witnesses who were ill, the courts have construed the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to mean a person on trial has the right to face an accuser in person in court.

The court was considering an appeal by Zachariah Rogerson, 22, who was involved in car accident in August 2012 which seriously injured four passengers. A test showed his blood alcohol level to be at 0.15 percent, above the 0.08 percent legal limit in Iowa, and Rogerson was charged with four counts of unintentionally causing serious injury by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle.

He pleaded not guilty and in preparation for trial, prosecutors sought to allow three of the injured passengers who live outside Iowa to testify by two-way video conferencing. The state also asked the court to allow three Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation laboratory analysts who work in Ankeny to testify by video to avoid the 200-mile drive to Dubuque for the trial.

Rogerson’s attorney, Brian Spannagel of Dubuque, argued that the state had failed to show it was necessary, rather than merely convenient, for its witnesses to testify remotely.

A Dubuque County judge allowed the video conference testimony and Rogerson appealed. The Supreme Court accepted the appeal’s arguments.

“Applying Sixth Amendment precedent, we now hold that two-way videoconference testimony should not be substituted for in-person confrontation absent a showing of necessity to further an important public interest,” the court said. Mere convenience, efficiency, and cost-saving, it said, are not sufficient justification.

Justice Daryl Hecht agreed with the court’s decision but disagreed with some of his colleagues’ reasoning. He said more evidence from social sciences experts should be gathered to determine whether existing technology can achieve the goal of confrontation through an accuser’s virtual presence.

“If technology has evolved to the point where real-time video testimony neither significantly diminishes the fact-finders’ ability to assess credibility nor lessens accusers’ motivation to tell the truth, courts should not cling to old forms for consistency’s sake,” he wrote. “Courts must maintain their relevance over time by utilizing emerging technologies consistent with constitutional purposes, rather than steadfastly adhering to the way it used to be.”

Rogerson’s attorney and the spokesman for the Iowa attorney general’s office did not immediately return messages.

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