Daubert Expert Requirements Need Not Be Met For A Suppression Hearing

Seventh Circuit holds that the district court was not required to conduct any Daubert analysis before considering handwriting expert testimony during a suppression hearing on whether the defendant’s signature appeared on a consent form, in United States v. Ozuna, 561 F.3d 728 (7th Cir. April 6, 2009) (No. 07-2480)

The proponent of expert testimony at trial must satisfy the requirements under FRE 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Do the same requirements apply at a suppression hearing? The Seventh Circuit recently addressed this issue and concluded it does not.

In the case, a tractor-trailer suspected of transporting drugs and driven by defendant Ozuna was stopped by DEA agents based on law enforcement information. A consent form was given to the defendant Ozuna. After he consented to a search, the agents discovered 200 kilograms of cocaine hidden under limes. Initially the defendant agreed to cooperate but ultimately did not. Charges were filed. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the search, arguing that he did not consent to the search. During the suppression hearing, the agents and the defendant testified. In reviewing the written consent form, the court was not convinced that the defendant’s signature was on the form based on a comparison with known signatures. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the search evidence after concluding the government failed to establish the defendant consented to the search by a preponderance of the evidence.

Subsequently, the consent form was submitted for a fingerprint and handwriting analysis. No fingerprints were identified but his handwriting was. The government asked the court to reopen the suppression hearing. The defendant claimed the proffered expert testimony did not satisfy the requirements under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The court granted the defense request for its own expert. At a hearing, the court considered the conflicting testimony of the two handwriting experts. The defense expert noted “several inconsistencies and ‘voids’ within the pen strokes that could indicate forgery,’ but concluded that ‘there were ‘indications’ [defendant] Ozuna may have signed the form, which she described as a ‘very weak opinion of authorship.’” Ozuna, 561 F.3d at 732. The government handwriting expert, in contrast, opined “with his ‘highest degree of confidence’ that Ozuna had signed the questioned document,” and “all dissimilarities between the questioned and known signatures were within the expected range of variation.” Ozuna, 561 F.3d at 732. After the hearing, the district court vacated its prior ruling and denied the suppression motion. The defendant’s first trial resulted in a mistrial after the jury could not render a verdict. He was convicted at the second trial. The court sentenced the defendant to twenty-five years’ imprisonment. On appeal, he challenged the court’s failure to hold a Daubert hearing on the handwriting expert testimony.

The circuit concluded there was no obligation of the district court to conduct any Daubert analysis for a suppression hearing:

“Ozuna argues that Daubert applies with full force in suppression hearings, just as it does in trials, but he cites no law that effectively supports this contention. In fact, he concedes that the Rules of Evidence do not apply at pre-trial admissibility hearings. Rule 104(a) makes this explicit. When ruling on admissibility, a district court judge ‘is not bound by the rules of evidence except those with respect to privileges.’ Fed. R. Evid. 104(a). We see no persuasive reason to disregard the Rules of Evidence and impose a new requirement on district court judges to conduct a Daubert analysis during suppression hearings.”
Ozuna, 561 F.3d at 736 (citations omitted).

The Seventh Circuit also considered the objects served by the Daubert standards:

“[T]he primary rationale behind Daubert is not applicable in a suppression hearing. The purpose of Daubert was to require courts to serve as gatekeepers so that unreliable expert testimony does not carry too much weight with the jury. Judges, on the other hand, are less likely to be swayed by experts with insufficient qualifications. For this reason, we have held that a court conducting a bench trial could make reliability determinations as the evidence was presented throughout the trial, rather than during a formal pre-trial Daubert hearing. Nothing in the Rules of Evidence or our case law prohibits a judge from taking a similar course of action during a suppression hearing.”
Ozuna, 561 F.3d at 737 (citations omitted). Finally, the circuit concluded that there was no abuse of discretion in the manner in which the district court considered the expert testimony during the suppression hearing.

Even for trial, the court is not required to hold a full Daubert hearing, but must merely ensure the Daubert standards are met. For other cases addressing the discretion in the court on whether to hold a Daubert hearing, see Full Daubert Hearing Is Not Always Required To Admit Expert Testimony (I); Full Daubert Hearing Is Not Always Required To Admit Expert Testimony (II); and Full Daubert Hearing Is Not Always Required To Admit Expert Testimony (III).

For other posts considering handwriting expert testimony, see: Handwriting Expert Testimony Satisfied Five Daubert Reliability Factors; and Third Circuit: Expert Testimony Need Not Reflect A “Reasonable Degree Of Scientific Certainty”.

Federal Rules of Evidence