As a drug crimes specialist at both the state and federal levels, I have taken issue with a trend in recent years where trial courts have permitted prosecutors to offer a police officer to provide “expert” evidence on drug courier profiles. Drug courier profile testimony is an unverified list of general behavior patterns ostensibly engaged in by typical drug traffickers. Courts have continuously held that this type of expert opinion is helpful to the jury because it is based on the observation of seemingly innocent conduct, which only a trained individual would be able to distinguish as being indicative of criminal activity. However, I view such profiling evidence as prone to discrimination and racism, and certainly incapable on its own of proving the ultimate issue of guilt. Thankfully, the Ninth Circuit agreed with this position in a new landmark ruling in the Espinoza-Valdez decision.
In my view, drug courier profile testimony is inherently prejudicial because of the potential it has for including innocent citizens as profiled drug couriers and because simply matching a defendant to a drug profile may unfairly suggest to the jury that otherwise innocuous conduct or events demonstrate criminal activity. A drug expert’s testimony cannot substitute for witnesses who actually observed or participated in the illegal activity. Accordingly, I have argued in my cases that the unfair prejudicial effect of this kind of evidence substantially outweighs any probative value it might have, and must not be admitted at trial.
The Ninth Circuit’s new ruling in Espinoza-Valdez will help to stem the ability of prosecutors to rely exclusively on “expert” profiling evidence to prove the ultimate issue in drug cases. Espinoza-Valdez is scout case where the Ninth Circuit reversed convictions of conspiracy to import and conspiracy to distribute marijuana for insufficiency of evidence. In that case, the government raided a mountaintop, and caught the defendant. He had a radio, batteries, provisions, and other evidence of drug trafficking. The defendant had been apprehended months previously backpacking. What the government lacked was evidence of with whom he conspired, the object of the conspiracy, any agreement, or evidence of what had occurred with others. The government used solely expert testimony to explain the structure of the trafficking, role, and possible amounts.
The Ninth Circuit reasoned that while it was probable that the defendant was a scout, more was needed than an “expert profiling” to find him guilty of conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, the government may no longer rely on expert testimony of drug courier profiles alone to establish guilt.
The Ninth Circuit’s reversal for insufficiency of evidence was based on reasoning that the risk of profiles are too great, especially when the actual evidence of an agreement for a conspiracy was nonexistent. The ruling in Espinoza-Valdez acknowledges that jury members are too often presented with the testimony of a case agent whose opinion entails conclusions on ultimate issues, thereby leaving them with no real fact to find due to the expert’s credibility. See United States v. Dukagjini, 326 F.3d 45, 53 (2d Cir. 2002) (noting that a case agent acting as expert has “unmerited credibility” in the eyes of jurors).
This ruling will give defense counsel a powerful tool to object when officers are introduced as experts simply to repeat the testimony of a fact witness and place the government’s seal on that fact witness’s testimony. Federal lawyers, as well as state lawyers who focus on drug crimes, should keep this valuable new case in their pockets when trying to exclude expert evidence from police officers.