Full Daubert Hearing Is Not Always Required To Admit Expert Testimony (Part III)

In drug conspiracy trial, no error in admitting expert testimony by expert witness with extensive training in fingerprinting, without first conducting a Daubert hearing, because a foundation of his training and experience was established before the witness offered an opinion about fingerprints on containers at the searched residence and his fingerprint analysis was peer-reviewed by a nationally recognized fingerprint examiner, in United States v. Spotted Elk, 548 F.3d 641 (8th Cir. 2008)

As another example that a formal Daubert hearing is not always required before expert testimony may be admitted, the Eighth Circuit considered the admission of fingerprint expert testimony.

In the case, defendants Blue Bird, her son Spotted Elk and three co-defendants operated a large drug trafficking business on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation. They were charged with drug conspiracy, drug distribution and firearm offenses. At trial, the court admitted testimony by a fingerprint expert identifying prints found on a container at the defendant’s premises. The defendants were convicted. The defense contended the trial court failed to hold a Daubert hearing on the expert testimony.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed the admission of the expert testimony. Similarly, admission of the expert fingerprint testimony without a Daubert hearing was not erroneous. The expert testimony at trial demonstrated his “extensive training” in fingerprinting and that the expert’s methods were “accepted in the scientific community, in the law enforcement community, and the legal system.” In addition, the expert “said that his work in this case was peer-reviewed by a nationally recognized fingerprint examiner.” Spotted Elk, 548 F.3d at __. After this foundation, the expert provided his opinion in identifying latent prints on the seized containers. Because the defendant did not specify “anything questionable” about the expert’s methodology or the reliability of the science used, the circuit found no error in admitting the opinion testimony. There was no error in failing to conduct a Daubert hearing since the witness provided evidence of extensive training and experience before testifying. Spotted Elk, 548 F.3d at __ (citing United States v. Collins, 340 F.3d 672, 682 (8th Cir. 2003) (“Fingerprint evidence and analysis is generally accepted.”).

As the Eighth Circuit explained:

“A Daubert hearing is not required where the record already establishes that the testimony is admissible. ‘When a district court is satisfied with an expert's education, training, and experience, and the expert's testimony is reasonably based on that education, training, and experience, the court does not abuse its discretion by admitting the testimony without a preliminary hearing.’ United States v. Kenyon, 481 F.3d 1054, 1061 (8th Cir. 2007). [**link: ] Blue Bird did not object to Dicks' opinion itself, but to the exhibit comparing Blue Bird's prints to the prints lifted from the duct tape on the Tupperware containers. Thus, Blue Bird did not properly preserve any Daubert objection. Blue Bird did not offer to the district court any plausible reason why Dicks' opinion would not be admissible under Daubert, nor does she offer any such reason to this court. Even reviewing the point as if it were properly preserved, we see no abuse of discretion in admitting Dicks' opinion testimony.”
Spotted Elk, 548 F.3d at __.

The Spotted Elk case presents another interesting issue as the basis for the expert testimony appears to have been established during (and not before) the trial. For other cases addressing the discretion in the court on this issue, see Full Daubert Hearing Is Not Always Required To Admit Expert Testimony (I) and Full Daubert Hearing Is Not Always Required To Admit Expert Testimony (II).

Federal Rules of Evidence
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