Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, May 13, 2019


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Ninth Circuit:

Qualifications of Expert Witness Is Not for Jury Determination

Panel Says Judge Must Perform ‘Gatekeeping’ Function in Deciding if Fingerprint Analyst May Testify


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared Friday that a judge abused his discretion by leaving it to a jury to decide whether a man was qualified to testify as a fingerprint expert.

A three-judge panel, in a per curiam opinion, declared that it’s up to the judge to make that determination.

The panel—comprised of Circuit Judges Susan P. Graber and Jay S. Bybee, along with M. Douglas Harpool, a district court judge for the Western District of Missouri, sitting by designation—nonetheless affirmed the conviction of Mario Ruvalcaba-Garcia was for illegally reentering the United States after having been removed. It found that “the record is sufficient” to demonstrate that the witness, David Beers, did have the credentials to testify as a fingerprint analyst.

He had been an FBI fingerprint technician and instructor for 33 years, had reviewed more than 300,000 fingerprints, and had testified as an expert more than 200 times.

Ruvalcaba-Garcia contended that he was not the same person who was ejected from the United States in 2015. Comparing fingerprints, Burns testified that he was.

Although the first jury was hung, the evidence persuaded a second jury to convict.

‘Gatekeeping Role’

Friday’s opinion declares:

“Before admitting expert testimony into evidence, the district court must perform a ‘gatekeeping role’ of ensuring that the testimony is both ‘relevant’ and ‘reliable’ under Rule 702.

That rule provides:

“A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if: (a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; (b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data; (c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.”

Comment to Jury

The District Court judge whom the panel said should have if decided Beers was qualified is Larry A. Burns, chief judge of the Southern District of California. Burns told the jury:

“[I]t’s up to you to decide whether the witness by virtue of his experience and training is qualified to give opinions and give his testimony whatever weight you think it deserves in light of that testimony, the reasons given for the opinion, all other evidence in this case.”

The opinion says:

“Here, the district court abused its discretion by failing to make any findings regarding the reliability of Beers’s expert testimony and instead delegating that issue to the jury. Indeed, the district court made this error three times during Ruvalcaba’s second trial.”

Implied Finding

The opinion continues:

“The government argues that the district court fulfilled its gatekeeping duty at Ruvalcaba’s first trial by overruling Ruvalcaba’s objection to Beers’s testimony and declaring that ‘there’s a basis for Mr. Beers to offer an opinion on the basis of his fingerprint comparison in this case.’ But the district court’s ruling at most ‘suggests an implicit finding of reliability,’ which is not sufficient….The district court’s failure to make an explicit reliability finding before admitting Beers’s expert testimony in this case constituted an abuse of discretion.”

Other contentions by the appellant were decided in an accompanying memorandum opinion.

The case is United States v. Ruvalcaba-Garcia, 17-50288.


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