Evidence & Inferences

Officer's expert testimony that in more than 100 drug transactions he had found that an innocent party did not attend drug deals was admissible the inference the testimony permits was not mandatory, as the jury was not specifically instructed about the appropriate use of evidence of the defendant’s presence during a drug deal and his association with drug dealers, in United States v. Garcia, 439 F.3d 363 (7th Cir. Feb. 28, 2006) (No. 04-3159)

Defendant Garcia was arrested in a DEA sting operation. At trial, the prosecution presented evidence that he accompanied others involved in a cocaine buy and that the defendant was consulted by the participants during various stages in the buy. The government admitted evidence that the defendant drove others to the location where the buy was to occur, but did not actually participate in the buy. Garcia, 439 F.3d at 365.

At trial, the defendant challenged expert testimony that in more than 100 drug transactions, the expert had never observed an innocent adult who was present at the scene of the transaction. He also testified that drug dealers normally did not allow people not involved in the drug deal to be near the transaction because of security fears.Garcia, 439 F.3d at 365.

The defendant was convicted and in his appeal he contended that admission of the expert’s testimony changed the quantum of proof the jury applied to the evidence. Specifically, the defendant implied “that asking the jury to draw any inference that he knew of the drug transaction altered the quantum of proof required of the government.” Garcia, 439 F.3d at 367. After his conviction, the defendant raised the matter of the contents of the expert's testimony as an issue.

The circuit dismissed the argument that anything had happened to the quantum of proof. It affirmed the trial court’s admission of the expert’s testimony. The circuit noted that the defendant’s argument was as example of “flawed reasoning.” At most, the testimony raised a “non-mandaory inference” which did not “affect the application of the reasonable doubt standard.” Under the facts in the record from the trial, the evidence the defendant objected to was admissible because it allowed “a rational inference of guilt and not a mandatory one.” It was admissible because the fact finder could, in a “rational way … make the connection permitted by the inference.” Garcia, 439 F.3d at 367.

The circuit noted that the challenged expert testimony “that it is unlikely for innocent parties to be present at drug deals” was “logical and reasonable because it accords with expert experience as well as common sense.” Garcia, 439 F.3d at 367 (citing United States v. Starks, 309 F.3d 1017, 1023 (7th Cir. 2002) (defendant’s presence at crack house for 45 minutes and finding of a significant crack manufacturing operation there, the defendant’s flight from the scene and the finding of defendant’s license in the house was sufficient to negate assertion that defendant was merely present there); see also County Court of Ulster County, New York v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140, 165 n.27 (1979) (invoking statutory presumption that all occupants of vehicle are considered to be in possession of dangerous drugs found in vehicle because legislature “[did] not believe that persons transporting dealership quantities of contraband are likely to go driving about with innocent friends or that they are likely to pick up strangers”))

The circuit also explained that the result would not be different “[e]ven when an inference is characterized as a legal presumption." This was because the inference involved in the defendant's case was not mandatory. This resolved any difficulty since as long as the presumption "‘leaves the trier of fact free to credit or reject the inference and does not shift the burden of proof,’" it would be permissible. Garcia, 439 F.3d at 367

The circuit also noted that in the defendant's case the jury was never advised to treat the inference as a presumption. In that connection, it noted that in United States v. Burns, 683 F.2d 1056, 1060 (7th Cir. 1982) (per curiam), it had held that an inference contained in a jury instruction was non-mandatory when it was "not expressly labeled as a legal presumption."

In the defendant's trial, the circuit found even less reason for concern, because the inference was not directed by the court's instructions but only by testimony and argument. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive how the jurors could have construed the inference as mandatory, after the district court specifically instructed them not to convict Garcia "solely because of his presence during the deal or because of his association with admitted drug dealers.”

A confusing aspect of the Garcia case is likely to be the circuit’s lengthy discussion of the inferences permitted from the expert’s testimony that it was unlikely that innocent persons would be found at a drug deal. Absent the trial court instructing the jury as to the use of this evidence as the basis of a presumption, it is difficult to understand the defense contention that admission of the testimony created an impermissible “mandatory” inference to be applied by the jury. The central explanation of possible inferences that can be drawn from criminal evidence was explored by the Supreme Court in County Court of Ulster County, New York v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140, 156-60 (1979).

Federal Rules of Evidence