Wednesday, April 24, 2002
Ninth Circuit Grants New Trial Based on Expert’s Testimony About Drug Organizations
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday granted a new trial to a resident alien convicted of bringing marijuana across the border from Mexico, saying a district judge erred in allowing an expert to testify as to the structure of drug trafficking organization.
Admission of such testimony in a “simple border bust case” was a prejudicial abuse of discretion, Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the court.
The defendant, Vicente Pineda-Torres, was sentenced to 37 months in prison for importation of marijuana and possession of the drug with intent to distribute. He was arrested after a customs inspector’s drug-sniffing dog alerted to the front dashboard of his car at the San Ysidro point of entry, resulting in a search that produced more than 42 pounds of marijuana hidden in secret compartments behind the glove compartment.
Chief U.S. District Judge James K. Singleton of the District of Alaska, sitting by designation in the Southern District of California, permitted a Customs agent to testify that in a drug trafficking organization, functions are compartmentalized so that marijuana will be grown, stored, packaged, loaded, driven across the border, and sold by different people.
One would not expect to find the driver’s fingerprints on the drug packaging, he testified, because the driver would not typically be the person who loaded the drugs into the vehicle.
The defense, which presented no evidence, questioned the prosecution’s claim that Pineda knew there were drugs in the car. The prosecutor argued that as part of a “sophisticated drug organization,” he must have known what he was carrying.
Reinhardt, writing for the appeals court, said that the combination of the expert’s testimony and the prosecutor’s argument likely convinced jurors that Pineda was part of an international drug organization, even though there was no evidence that he was and the government “did not articulate a theory of relevance for the drug structure testimony.”
The jurist rejected the argument that defense counsel opened the door to the drug-structure testimony by questioning the customs agents about their failure to lift fingerprints from the car and the drug packages.
“We have held that limited drug structure testimony is admissible in drug importation cases when the defense opens the door by introducing evidence that the government did not attempt to lift fingerprints,” Reinhart explained. “….In this case, however, it was not Pineda-Torres who first introduced the fingerprint evidence issue. Rather, the government notified the defense that it intended to have Special Agent Villars testify that fingerprinting would not be helpful in drug importation cases because of the compartmentalized structure of drug trafficking organizations.”
Judge Richard C. Tallman and visiting U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. of the Eastern District of California joined in the opinion.
The case is United States v. Pineda-Torres, 01-50133.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company