Trying Defendants Without Them Present in Court?

The strange idea actually comes from a Bristol County Massachusetts District Attorney. As with many counties across the country, Bristol County Massachusetts suffers from a high number of no-shows to Court. Defendants arrested or released on bail (most often personal recognizance) simply fail to show up for their next Court date. A bench warrant is almost certain to follow, meaning that the defendant can be arrested and imprisoned at any time. Absent an arrest, the underlying charges remain open while the defendant refuses to show for Court.

It is a big problem and I would be willing to guess that the number of existing bench warrants in Rhode Island and Massachusetts is staggering. A Massachusetts District Attorney, with seeming disregard for the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, has suggested a novel approach to this growing problem… Proceed with the Defendant’s trial without him!

The idea is to try criminal defendants who do not show up for their Court date, in absentia. In their absence. Since most of these defendants do not have criminal defense attorneys representing them, it all but ensures a conviction. Nevertheless, any conviction under such a statute would almost certainly be reversed as a Constitutional violation.

The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution ensures that a defendant has the right to confront his or her accusers:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

I can not see how any proposed statute to this effect could survive a Constitutional challenge. We simply can not waive our constitutional freedoms away, or have them brushed aside because of a failure to assert them.