Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Court Upholds Federal Agent’s Testimony Interpreting Drug Jargon
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
A government agent’s testimony as to the meaning of encoded drug jargon used in intercepted phone calls was properly admitted into evidence at the trial of an alleged cocaine dealer, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Upholding an evidentiary ruling by now-retired U.S. District Judge Dickran M. Tevrizian, of the Central District of California, the court affirmed Kevin Freeman’s jury conviction for conspiring to distribute cocaine base in the Venice area.
Freeman’s conviction stems from a three-count indictment that included charges he manufactured and distributed cocaine base. The conspiracy count charged him with conspiring to manufacture and distribute at least 50 grams of cocaine base, and to possess with the intent to distribute at least 500 grams of cocaine.
Freeman came to the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2001, while it was investigating Corey Mitchell and Maurice Brown in connection with a drug trafficking organization run by Mitchell. During the course of its probe, the agency intercepted telephone calls between Brown and Freeman in which the men allegedly used coded language to arrange for various drug transactions involving them and Mitchell.
At Freeman’s trial, the prosecution’s key witness was Los Angeles Police Department detective Bob Shin, who had been working with the DEA as a federal task force officer at the time of the Mitchell investigation. One of only four prosecution witnesses, Shin took the stand over three of the four days during which the prosecution presented its case, and offered his interpretations regarding 36 phone conversations that had been intercepted and recorded.
While none of the conversations contained explicit references to cocaine, Shin testified that based on his interpretations of the words used, the calls concerned cocaine and were made to facilitate drug transactions.
He explained, for example, that based on his familiarity with drug traffickers’ jargon prior to the Mitchell investigation, he knew that the term “iggidy” referred to an ounce, “all gravy” mean the situation is good, and the words “bread,” “cheese” and “chips” all referred to money.
The agent also interpreted a number of terms he had not been familiar with before the investigation, but decoded based on his knowledge that drug traffickers commonly altered words by placing “e-z” or some variant of it in the middle of them. For instance, he interpreted “fezone” to mean phone, “teznower” to signify tower, “fezo” to indicate four, and “reezey” to mean ready.
Shin deciphered certain other words based on their context ascertained through the DEA investigation and his experience with drug trafficking generally. He said that, for example, that “piece” signified ounce, “cuatro-cinco” meant $450, and “diamond” meant ten ounces of crack that would be produced by cooking nine ounces of powder cocaine.
In addition to the alleged encoded drug jargon, Shin offered interpretations for other ambiguous statements consisting of ordinary terms.
Defense counsel objected to the agent’s testimony as hearsay, speculation and lacking foundation, but Tevrizian overruled the challenge.
Freeman later testified at trial that he and Brown were friends, but that the intercepted phone conversations concerned the sale of stolen basketball tickets rather than drugs.
The jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict on the conspiracy charge and not guilty verdicts on the other two counts.
Freeman made a new trial motion, which was denied, and was sentenced to 240 months in prison, five years of supervised release and $100 special assessment.
On appeal, Freeman contended Tevrizian erred both by permitting Shin to testify as an expert witness as well as a lay witness.
Concerning his Shin’s expert testimony on drug trafficking jargon, the defendant said the government failed to establish that he employed a reliable methodology in interpreting the alleged encoded drug language.
Eight Circuit Judge John R. Gibson, sitting by assignment, wrote for the Ninth Circuit panel:
“Our review of the record leads us to conclude that Shin’s interpretation of encoded drug jargon was admissible. Several terms, such as ‘iggidiy,’ ‘ticket,’ and ‘all gravy’ were familiar to Shin before the investigation. Other terms, such as ‘cuatro-cinco’ and ‘diamond’ were unfamiliar to Shin before the investigation, but Shin explained during his testimony how he arrived at his interpretations. Shin also offered interpretations of altered words such as ‘fezone’ and ‘teznower,’ which we have acknowledge uses a methodology that satisfies [precedent].”
Concerning Shin’s lay testimony—his interpretation of conversations not containing any coded terms—Gibson held it was largely admissible, with the exception of certain statements that were clear and that contained hearsay. The agent’s lay testimony was based on his direct and extensive knowledge of facts from the DEA investigation, and helped the jury determine what was communicated during the recorded phone calls, the judge reasoned.
The few improperly admitted statements amounted to harmless error in light of the overwhelming admissible evidence connecting Freeman to illegal drug transactions and contradicting his claim that the phone conversations had to do with basketball tickets, Gibson concluded.
Judges Consuelo M. Callahan and Raymond C. Fisher concurred in the opinion.
The case is United States v. Freeman, 05-50401.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company