Is a 911 Call Admissible as Evidence of Domestic Abuse?

By March 28, 2018Domestic Violence

Domestic abuse incidents often involve sudden bursts of violence that can seriously threaten the lives of the victim and other people in the household. If you are a target of, or witness to, such abuse it is imperative to call 911 and seek police assistance, especially if physical violence has already occurred. Galveston-area police are trained in dealing with domestic abuse situations and, if a crime has occurred, dealing with the suspects in accordance with the law.

Supreme Court Rules Emergency Recordings Can Be “Non-Testimonial”

If you are arrested and charged with domestic abuse, it is important to understand that any 911 calls that led to police intervention may be used against you in court. This includes any statements made by the accuser or other witnesses at the scene. Even if these individuals do not testify directly at trial, the jury can still hear their voices on the 911 recording.

In a 2006 decision, the United States Supreme Court specifically addressed the admissibility of 911 calls in criminal domestic abuse cases. The Court reviewed two separate cases, one from Washington state and the other from Indiana, where 911 calls were used as evidence against the defendants. The legal question was whether each defendant had a constitutional right to cross-examine the individuals who made the 911 calls.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of every criminal defendant to “confront” the witnesses against them. (The Texas state constitution contains a similar provision.) But the Supreme Court held that this right only applied to “testimonial” statements. And statements such as 911 calls may be classified as “nontestimonial”–and thus not subject to the Sixth Amendment’s cross-examination requirement–if they are made “under circumstances objectively indicating that the primary purpose … is to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency.”

What does this mean in practical terms? A recent case from Harris County offers a useful illustration. A 15-year-old male called 911 and told the operator that his father–the defendant–had physically attacked his mother. Two more 911 calls followed, one from the alleged victim and another from the son, before a Houston Police Department officer finally arrived at the scene to investigate.

During each of the three 911 calls, the operator asked a series of questions, such as whether there were any weapons used in the assault or if the defendant had any “mental-health issues” the police should know about. All of the 911 calls were played before the jury at the defendant’s subsequent trial. The only live witnesses for the prosecution were the arresting officers. Neither the defendant’s son nor his wife testified in-person.

The jury found the defendant guilty of misdemeanor assault of a family member. The Texas First District Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence. The appeals court said the purpose of the 911 calls was to “facilitate police or medical assistance to meet an ongoing emergency.” The wife’s and son’s statements were therefore not “testimonial,” and the defendant had no constitutional right to cross-examine them.

Need Help From a Galveston Domestic Abuse Lawyer?

Domestic abuse is not simply a “family matter.” Galveston prosecutors will use every legal tool at their disposal to secure convictions for anyone accused of assaulting or injuring a family member, especially a spouse or child. That is why if you are charged with such crimes you need to work with an experienced Galveston domestic abuse defense attorney who understands the law in this area. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates at (281) 843-9776 if you need to speak with a lawyer right away.