Expert Need not opine specifically on the disputes issue

When experts are brought into court proceedings and asked to give their testimony regarding issues in dispute they need not opine specifically on the alleged offence. As long as they are qualified to opine on the particular issue, follow a sound methodology to arrive at the final opinion and present an opinion which proves to be helpful to the trier of facts (jury) their opinions would be given importance and should be admitted by the Courts.

In this case, (2015 US App Lexis 5413) the petitioner, Carlos Alfonso Almanza Sanchez, was first recruited by a  Columbian naval officer, Oscar Agusto Gutierrez Garcia to work as a mechanic for $50,000 in an Ecuadorian submarine that smuggled cocaine. The attempt was foiled by the Ecuadorian Army which besieged the submarine before it set sail towards its destination. Immediately after, Carlos got another opportunity to work as a co-captain in another Columbian submarine for a fee of $100,000. This time too, the Columbian law enforcement officials waylaid the troupe and apprehended Carlos before the commencement of the voyage. Since the officials found 3,000 kilograms of cocaine and a weapons cache near the place where the submarine was captured, they charged Carlos and his crew members, for attempt to smuggle cocaine to USA in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 959(a)(2) and 963.

The District Court found him guilty under the above charges and awarded him an imprisonment term of 135 months. Carlos appealed against this order to the United States Court Of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. He challenged a few things: and the most relevant one for our discussion is his opposition to the admission of the testimony of the expert, Agent Holm, by the District Court which was brought in by the government against Carlos.

The government had got a US Coast Guard, Agent Holm as an expert witness to support their case against Carlos and testify about drug trafficking routes from South America to Mexico and the United States via the Pacific Ocean. Holm had 22 years of extensive experience in investigating Drug Trafficking route in the eastern Pacific region and therefore was a desirable choice.

However Carlos alleged that by admitting Holm’s testimony the District Court had abused its power of discretion. Carlos asserted that Holm’s testimony was not useful to the jury and was in fact unfairly prejudicial to him. The District Court heard his objections but allowed Holm’s to testify for the government, so long as the statement was not related to Carlos’ specific knowledge about the cocaine’s intended destination. The District Court had only allowed Holm to generally opine only on the alleged existence of the drug trafficking route and nothing more.

On appeal the Court of Appeal went on to investigate about the propriety of Carlos’ allegation. The Court assessed the present fact situation against the requirements laid down in the Daubert case[1] and Sheriff of Monroe Cnty case[2].  These cases required the court to ensure that the deposition of the expert would be beneficial to the trier of facts (jury in this case) to understand the evidence presented before it a little better; and that the witness was qualified to opine on the contentious issues at hand and that his opinion was arrived at by following a sound methodology. If the expert witness ticked all these boxes then the court could not be held to have abused its power of discretion in allowing the expert testimony.

Records presented before the court proved that the expert had more than 22 years of experience in investigating drug trafficking in the eastern pacific channel. He had in fact prior familiarity in deposing as an expert on semi-submersible drug trafficking operations and he also recognized practices of cocaine smugglers operating out of South and Central America quite well. All of this was apart from his skill at interviewing drug traffickers and extracting information from confidential informants. The Court considered these facts and concluded that there could be no doubt about Holm’s qualification as an expert on drug trafficking routes and therefore the District Court had not erred in admitting his opinion. Besides the court also noted that the lower court had asked him to depose generally regarding the trafficking routes that he believed existed between South America to Mexico and the United States via the Pacific Ocean; and was not asked to surmise if Carlos had the definite knowledge of the route that the submarine was venturing out for. Since he was not asked to give his opinion regarding Carlos’ knowledge regarding the trafficking route, his opinion was admissible and therefore the Court of Appeal held that allegation of bias did not hold water.

The Court of Appeal also rejected the other issues raised by the appellant and upheld the conviction awarded to Carlos Alfonso Almanza Sanchez by the District Court.

[1] Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993)

[2] Cook ex rel. Estate of Tessier v. Sheriff of Monroe Cnty., Fla., 402 F.3d 1092, 1107 (11th Cir. 2005)