Conviction Overturned; Drug Case Sent Back for a New Trial
SC Supreme Court Says: Judge erred in allowing “marijuana expert” testimony
The SC Supreme Court has granted a new trial to Daniel Martinez Herrera of Laurens, sentenced to five years in prison for drug trafficking, finding that the testimony of a “marijuana expert” was invalid.
The court said 8th Circuit Judge Eugene C. Griffith Jr., of Newberry, was wrong in allowing Laurens Police officer Jared Hunnicutt to testify outside the scope of his qualification as a “marijuana expert”. Hunnicutt was allowed to testify that a substance Herrera acquired from the Laurens Post Office was, in fact, marijuana; however, at Herrera’s trial he also testified about the weight of the drug, although Hunnicutt did not actually weigh the drugs himself.
Instead, Hunnicutt testified he weight a “baggie” that he thought looked similar to a bag containing the drug that Herrera acquired. The substance was tested at the Greenwood Sheriff’s Office.
The weight was less than 3 ounces over the 10-pound minimum for Herrera to be charged with drug trafficking. Because of the questions about Hunnicutt’s qualification, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal (writ of certiorari) after it was denied by the SC Court of Appeals.
The Supreme Court’s Jan. 30 ruling says, in part, “… it was an abuse of discretion to permit Hunnicutt to testify to the weight of the marijuana. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals and remand to the trial court for a new trial.”
Hunnicutt was allowed to testify as a “marijuana expert” based on being a Laurens Police office and taking one course at the police academy.
It was Hunnicutt’s first time being qualified in court as an “expert”.
As the officer testified beyond what the defense thought was his area of expertise, the defense continually objected, yet the prosecution continued with its line of questioning. The conviction for drug trafficking (between 10 and 100 pounds) carried more prison time and had an effect on Herrera’s parole eligibility, the high court said.
Griffith would not qualify Hunnicutt “broadly” as a marijuana expert, but the judge did allow the prosecution’s “fallback request” to qualify Hunnicutt as an expert in marijuana identification.
The package that Herrera appeared at the post office to claim contained six bags of suspected marijuana. It had been intercepted by law enforcement. He was indicted for trafficking marijuana more than 10 pounds but less than 100 pounds. At trial, Herrera’s attorney objected when Hunnicutt’s testimony went to testing the drug; Hunnicutt was ruled by the court not to be an expert in that area. Still, the prosecution continued, and had Hunnicutt testify about the analysis of the marijuana; the defense objected again, since Hunnicutt was not ruled an expert in this area, either. “The trial court overruled the objection, which was error,” the Supreme Court ruled.
Hunnicutt could not testify as to whether the scale used to weigh the marijuana was calibrated, saying “that wasn’t my scale.” Also, the marijuana was packaged and weighed in six different bags, and Hunnicutt weighed an empty bag; the court ruling says, “and not even one of the bags actually containing the alleged drug.”
The court ruling says, “Rather, Hinnicutt chose to weigh a bag he found at the Greenwood County Sheriff’s Office which appeared to him to be of similar size and assumed the sic actual bags were close to the same weight. This relaxed approach may not be prejudicial in every circumstance, but the prejudice is glaring here. … Herrera’s objection to the testimony concerning weight should have been sustained. As a result, we reverse Herrera’s conviction and sentence for trafficking marijuana and remand for a new trial.”
The case was heard before the Supreme Court on Oct. 17, 2018. LaNelle Cantey DuRant of Columbia is Herrera’s attorney. Cited for the state are Attorney General Alan Wilson and Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Scott Matthews, both of Columbia, and Solicitor David M. Stumbo, of Greenwood.