Courts can use their discretion to exclude expert testimony

The courts have enough discretion to decide upon the reliability of an expert testimony. To gain a reversal of the verdict of the lower court, the resisting party would need to successfully prove to the appellate court that the lower court had misused its power of discretion by basing its opinion on erroneous facts, application of wrong law, following of an incorrect procedure or by making an error of judgment.

Shedrick Hollis, the accused in this case (2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 3833) was being hunted down by the Police for a parole violation and also for engaging in possible illegal drugs and arms peddling activities. The police officers of Phenix City, Alabama, and agents of the United States Marshals Service had been tipped off about a probable location (allegedly known as the Drug House) where the accused could be nabbed. The police had followed this tip-off and had arrived at the suspected location to take Hollis into custody. After his arrest they had conducted two search operations: the first one was a protective sweep carried out immediately after the arrest of the accused and the second one was after obtaining a subsequent search warrant. In these two search operations they found large amounts of marijuana, cocaine, weapons, ecstasy, scales and cash. And on one of these scales they located a latent finger print of Hollis that they intended to produce as evidence against the accused at trial.

Hollis was aware of this plan of the police to produce at trial evidence against him that was gathered at the Drug house. So before the police could do so, Hollis moved a petition to withhold the production of such evidence in the court. He alleged that the evidence gathered by the police were illegal, warrantless and in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment.

He also argued that the evidence sought to be produced by the police against him was not reliable. To prove this he had brought in a fingerprint expert, Lawden Yates Jr. to testify in his favor. But the government had resisted this move and sought the exclusion of the expert’s testimony.

A District court hearing was set to rule on Yates’ qualification as an expert that was disputed by the government. The court ruled in favor of the government and held that Yates was indeed not qualified to compare finger prints. It however did not opine on Yates’ ability to reliably comment on whether the quality of the finger print was sufficient to make a comparison in the first place.

But since Yates had himself said that in his opinion the qualification required to remark upon the quality of fingerprints were the same as those required to make fingerprint comparisons, the government used his alibi against Hollis to contend that Yates by his own explanation was incompetent to do either of the two evaluations: comment on quality of fingerprint and reliably compare fingerprints.

The District Court accepted this argument of the government and denied to include the testimony of Yates. The jury favorably considered the evidence produced by police of the finger print evidence attributed to the accused and convicted Hollis of all charges that were brought against him:- : U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. §924(c)(1)(A), and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime, id. §§ 922(g)(1), 924(e); and the Court sentenced Hollis to a term of  imprisonment of 420 months, followed by eight years of supervised release.

Hollis appealed to United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit from this decision. There were two issues for the Court of Appeals to adjudge upon: 1) whether the evidence procured in the drug house and sought to be presented against the accused violated his right under the fourth amendment? 2) Whether the district court had abused its discretion to deny Yates, a forensic expert, to testify about the “sufficiency of a latent finger print for comparison”?

Since we are only concerned with the take of the court on the testimony of an expert we shall directly discuss the second issue.

The landmark judgment of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S. Ct. 2786 (1993), Inc, had clarified that a district court had the authority to assess the reliability of an expert’s testimony. Therefore the Court of Appeals held that there was no dereliction or abuse of power by the District Court when it did use this power of discretion to hold Yates incompetent to give his expert testimony.

It held that the only way the accused could convince the appellate court to reverse the ruling was by successfully proving that the lower court applied the wrong procedure/law, abused its power, based its opinion on clearly erroneous facts, or made a clear error in judgment.

But since Hollis had failed to prove any of the above points there was no reason for the Court of Appeals to reverse the edict. It held that in fact the lower court had proceeded quite correctly in setting up a hearing in tune with the requirements laid down in the Daubert case, when the government petitioned against the competency of the expert testimony. Keeping all these facts in mind the Court of Appeals upheld the verdict of district court on the exclusion of the expert’s testimony and also affirmed the conviction of Hollis.