On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 348 N.J. Super. 213 (2002).
This appeal concerns the admissibility of a laboratory certificate proffered by the State pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:35-19 to establish the nature and quantity of an alleged controlled dangerous substance (CDS) and whether a defendant who challenges such a certificate is entitled to confront at trial the laboratory employee or analyst who prepared the certificate.
In this case, defendant, Ceesay Simbara, was arrested in Paterson on June 21, 1999, and subsequently indicted for third-degree possession of CDS, third-degree possession with intent to distribute, third-degree possession with intent to distribute within 1,000 feet of a school, and fourth-degree possession of drug paraphernalia.
Before trial, the State proffered a State Police laboratory certificate to demonstrate the illicit nature and the weight of the substance found in defendant=s possession. The court held a pre-trial hearing to determine whether the certificate would be admissible at trial. Counsel presented the parties= arguments; no witnesses were called.
Defendant asserted that the State had failed to establish the type of laboratory analysis undertaken, that the analyzing equipment was working properly, and the nature of the equipment used by the analyst. The State contended that the certificate indicated the type and weight of CDS possessed by defendant and adequately described the tests performed on the substance. Accordingly, the State argued, the certificate met the requirements of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-19b and was admissible.
The trial court found that the certificate as proffered failed to explain the type of analysis performed, the nature and condition of equipment used, the result of each test, and that it failed to demonstrate adequately the conclusions of the analyst. The court ruled the proffered certificate to be inadmissible.
The State=s motion for leave to appeal was granted by the Appellate Division, which reversed the determination of the trial court. Perceiving the trial court=s application of the statute as too narrow and too rigid, the Appellate Division declared that a defendant has the right to require the State to produce the laboratory analyst as a witness subject to cross-examination unless the certificate is found to comply with N.J.S.A. 2C:35-19.
The Supreme Court granted defendant=s motion for leave to appeal and granted amicus curiae status to the Attorney General.
HELD: The State must produce for cross-examination the laboratory employee or analyst who prepared the certificate proffered by the State pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:35-19 to establish the nature and quantity of an alleged controlled dangerous substance whenever a defendant timely invokes the right to confront that witness in a challenge to the certificate.
1. The form of certificate proffered by the State in this case, when considered with the supporting data and other information the Court assumes the State has made available to defendant, sufficiently conforms to the statute. The Attorney General=s recent directive to prosecutors and laboratory directors appears to reflect a reasonable interpretation of the requirements of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-19. (pp. 6-12)
2. The State=s compliance with N.J.S.A. 2C:35-19 does not by itself make the certificate admissible. The laboratory certificate in a drug case is singularly important in determining whether a defendant will be imprisoned or set free. Because of a defendant=s rights under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant who makes a timely challenge to the certificate is entitled to confront the preparer of the certificate through cross-examination before the trier of fact. (pp. 12-16)
3. The trial court is to afford defendant the opportunity to renew his challenge to the certificate in view of the supplemental information furnished under the Attorney General's directive. If defendant does not contest the certificate, the certificate should be admitted at trial. If he contests the certificate, he shall be permitted to cross- examine the analyst. (pp. 16-17)
4. Because the laboratory tests and instruments used in the tests have been standardized for some time and are recognized generally as routine and reliable, it is expected that a trial court addressing a broad challenge to the tests or instruments would take judicial notice, consistent with N.J.R.E. 201, of relevant published articles or studies or would rely on prior case law that might dispose of the challenge. (p. 17)
The JUDGMENT of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for further proceedings.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES COLEMAN, LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI and ALBIN join in JUSTICE VERNIERO's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: ...