Expert Testimony on Drug Quantities: Possesion v. Trafficking

The New Mexico Court of Appeals case of State v. Rael-Gallegos deals with an important criminal law issue concerning trafficking by possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute.

The Court had to determine when there‘s sufficient evidence to support this charge. More specifically, the court addressed two issues: 1) whether there was sufficient evidence to show the defendant possessed the requisite level of cocaine, and 2) whether expert testimony of an experienced narcotics officer was admissible on the issue of possession of various amounts of cocaine for personal use versus distribution.

The admission of the evidence and testimony, along with the substance of the evidence, formed the basis for defendant‘s appeal on the basis that the expert testimony should not have been admitted and that the evidence submitted was insufficient to support a conviction for trafficking.

The Facts as Stated by the Court

The facts as set forth in the case are as follows. A police officer found the defendant “passed out at the wheel” of her vehicle. After stepping out of the car, the officer saw a small bag of what appeared to be crack cocaine fall out of the defendant‘s purse.

The defendant admitted to smoking crack an hour before being stopped by the police. The officer arrested the defendant and conducted an inventory search. The officer conducted a second inventory search after the defendant told him she had money in her console.

During the searches, the officer found: sandwich bags, three cell phones, two separate amounts of cash, a crack pipe, and a second bag of what appeared to be crack cocaine. Based on the amount of crack cocaine, baggies, and multiple cell phones, the officer‘s training and experience led him to believe that the defendant was a “trafficker,” and she was “charged accordingly.”

Sufficiency of Evidence

First, the Court of Appeals considered the sufficiency of the evidence. For a trafficking conviction, the State had to prove that the defendant possessed the cocaine, knew it to be cocaine, and intended to transfer it to another.

The issue came down to whether the State had proven possession of the cocaine found in the console following defendant‘s admission that there was money in the console and the second inventory search. In viewing the evidence in light most favorable to the jury‘s verdict, which is the standard of review in New Mexico, the Court found that the evidence did support the finding of possession.

The Court reasoned that there “existed substantial evidence from which the jury could conclude that the defendant possessed the cocaine found in the center console.” The Court cited the arresting officer‘s findings in the vehicle and conversation with the defendant at the time of the arrest, in which she “stated that [the cocaine] was hers.”

The vehicle was also registered in her name, and she directed the officer to the money in the console, where cocaine was also found.

Criteria for Expert Testimony in New Mexico

The Court next had to address the finding of whether there was intent to distribute, which was reliant upon the State‘s expert testimony. The expert addressed the possession of multiple cell phones, the amount of cash, the baggies, and the officer‘s experience identifying traffickers based upon the level of cocaine and other instruments in a suspect‘s possession.

New Mexico, like most states, follows Daubert v. Merrell Dow under the Daubert standard. Daubert has different criteria for admission of expert testimony based upon whether the testimony is scientific or technical versus that based upon specialized knowledge.

The expert testimony in this case was based upon the officer‘s extensive experience and training in the area of trafficking. As such, her testimony was allowed under Daubert despite the defenant‘s arguments that it did not meet the rigor associated with scientific and technical expert testimony.

Conclusion

The testimony of the expert, in conjunction with the evidence and findings on possession, were sufficient to support the jury‘s conviction for trafficking. As such, the Court upheld the jury verdict.

DISCLAIMER

Related reading:
Blood Alcohol Level Evidence & the Confrontation Clause in New Mexico and Beyond
Confrontation Rights Fully Apply to State‘s Forensic Experts
Prosecution Medical Experts and the Confrontation Clause in New Mexico

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