Friday, June 10, 2005

Doctor-patient privilege "must yield to defendant's constitutional right of confrontation."

The Fourth Department handed down its decisions for the May, 2005 term today, and there are a bounty of interesting criminal decisions. More on some of the truly interesting cases this weekend. For tonight, I'll focus on the Court's decision in People v Bridgeland. In Bridgeland, defendant was accused of sexually abusing his girlfriend's 11 year old daughter. At trial, the defendant made an "offer of proof that the complainant had previously made an allegation of sexual abuse against another man but subsequently recanted the allegation to three individuals, i.e. her mother, her grandmother and a psychologist." (Bridgeland at 2.) The trial court did not allow the child to be cross-examined concerning this prior false accusation, finding 1) the defendant failed to offer a good-faith basis for believing the accusations were false, and 2) in any event, the statements to the psychologist were covered by the doctor-patient privilege and thus questioning would not be allowed unless the child witness waived the privilege. (Id. at 2.) The Fourth Department reversed, finding the trial court erred on both issues. The defendant's proffer, which included the victim's "conflicting statements" about the prior allegations, was enough to establish a good-faith basis for inquiry because defendant established "that the allegation 'may have been false.'" (Id. at 2 [emphasis added].)

The more interesting part of the Bridgeland decision involves the interplay between the doctor-patient privilege and a defendant's 6th Amendment confrontation rights. Up to now, no New York appellate court had reached the issue of whether the doctor-patient privilege was trumped by a defendant's confrontation rights. After an extensive discussion of Davis v Alaska (415 US 308) (the United States Supreme Court decision holding that the statutory rights of a witness to have his juvenile offender records kept confidential was outweighed by the defendant's 6th Amendment confrontation right to probe the witness' potential bias), the Fourth Department concluded "that the policy interest underlying the statutory [doctor-patient] privilege must yield to defendant's constitutional right of confrontation." (Bridgeland at 3.) The Court noted that the credibility of the child witness was of central importance in the case, and the defendant's right to confront and cross-examine the witness about her alleged prior false allegations of sex abuse against another man clearly outweighed any statutory rights the child witness had under the doctor-patient privilege.

Bridgeland was just one of many interesting decisions handed down this term dealing with issues of first impression. More this weekend on the others.