Video Testimony Not Constitutional

Oct 24, 2014

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled today remote, two-way video testimony is an inadequate substitute for live, in-person testimony. 

The court says Zachariah Rogerson's Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers in court was violated when Dubuque County Judge Monica Ackley issued an order to allow witnesses in Rogerson's drunk driving trial to testify remotely.  

Iowa Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines.
Credit John Pemble / Iowa Public Radio

In 2012 Rogerson was involved in a single-vehicle car accident on Hales Mill Road in Dubuque County. Rogerson was subsequently charged with unintentionally causing serious injury to four people by operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. 

The court struck down Ackley's order, in part because there was no attempt by the state to show an exceptional circumstance requiring remote testimony. Instead, the order assumed video testimony is equivalent to testimony given in person. 

The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed with this assumption. 

In the majority opinion written by Justice Edward Mansfield, the court acknowledges technology may someday reach a point where remote testimony can satisfy the constitutional right to confront one’s accusers in court. However the court says right now, two-way video testimony is no substitute for a face-to-face courtroom appearance and may only be allowed when absolutely necessary.   

"Technology has changed since the late eighteenth century, but human nature has not," writes Mansfield. "Social pressure to tell the truth can be diminished when the witness is far away rather than physically present with the defendant in the courtroom."

Technology has changed since the late eighteenth century, but human nature has not. -Justice Edward Mansfield

The rest of the bench concurred with Mansfield with the exception of Justice Daryl Hecht who concurred specially. While agreeing Rogerson's trial lacked a necessity for remote testimony, Hecht disagrees videoconferencing denies a defendant the ability to confront his or her accusers.  

Drake University Law School’s Bob Rigg says the ruling means witness testimony in Iowa courts will always take place in person, with few exceptions. 

"There has to be some public interest that's going to be advanced that supersedes a defendant's right for confrontation," says Rigg. "And that's a really high standard."

In the past, remote testimony has been allowed in cases of illness or child sexual assault. Testimony via videoconferencing is also common if  both sides agree to the arrangement. 

As a result of this ruling, three out-of-state witnesses who were injured in the accident will have to travel to Dubuque County to testify in Rogerson's trial.