Expert testimony addressing drug trafficking routes in general without referring to the particular knowledge of the defendant not cumulative and prejudicial: Eleventh Circuit

Identification of the routes through which illegal trafficking of commodities take place is essential to determination of the modus operandi of any criminal organization engaged in such acts. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently had the opportunity of evaluating expert testimony regarding drug trafficking routes in United States of America v. Carlos Alfonso Almanza Sanchez (2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 5426).

The defendant and various co-conspirators planned to use a submarine to transport drugs to the United States. The defendant was convicted by the District Court of the Southern District of Florida, of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute cocaine, knowing that the cocaine was bound for the United States. Appealing the conviction before the Eleventh Circuit Court, the defendant challenged, inter alia, the admission by the district court of expert testimony given by Agent Erik Holm of the United States Coast Guard on behalf of the government as to drug trafficking routes. It was contended on behalf of the defendant that Agent Holm’s testimony was cumulative, without being of much help to the jury, and unfairly prejudicial.

The Eleventh Circuit took due note of the fact that Agent Holm served on active duty with the US Coast Guard for more than twenty-two years and acquired extensive experience in investigating drug trafficking in the eastern Pacific, which included working with confidential informants, interviewing drug traffickers as well as testifying as an expert on semi-submersible drug trafficking operations. The Court found his testimony adequately reliable and useful for the jury to understand the evidence, satisfied as to his familiarity with the practices of cocaine smugglers operating out of South and Central America and the trafficking routes from this region to the US, explaining that the majority of substance smuggled through the eastern Pacific towards Central America or Mexico ends up in either the US or Mexico. The Court also held that Agent Holm’s testimony was not cumulative or unfairly prejudicial as he only addressed the routes generally used in the drug trafficking business, and did not testify as to the defendant’s personal knowledge or the particular submarine operations in the present case. Thus, the Eleventh Circuit held that the the district court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the expert testimony of Agent Holm.