Defending Against the State’s “Expert Testimony”

“Expert Testimony” in New Jersey Intent to Distribute Drug Cases

In prosecuting defendants charged with drug distribution the State can offer “expert testimony”.  However, the expert testimony has significant and defined limits. In a case that arose out of the Superior Court of Salem County, the New Jersey Appellate Division released a published opinion reversing Ronald L. Jones Jr.’s conviction for possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute.

According to the State v. Jones decision, the defendant was arrested pursuant to a search warrant. At the time he was apprehended Mr. Jones had 99 packages of cocaine concealed in his groin area. At the time of the trial, the Salem County Prosecutor offered the testimony of Lieut. Timothy Haslett.  Lieut. Haslett testified as an expert in narcotics and narcotics distribution.

At the trial Mr. Jones’s attorney did not object to any of the testimony that was given by Lieut. Haslett.  Lieut. Haslett opined that the defendant possessed the packages of cocaine in that form not because he intended to use the cocaine but rather intended to distribute them. Specifically Lieut. Haslett testified,

“…Mr. Jones was found to be in possession of 98 bags, each weighing an estimated .12 grams, which equals 11.7 grams of cocaine, which is less than half an ounce.  Hence, he would have overpaid hundreds of dollars to purchase cocaine in that manner.

If Mr. Jones merely wanted to use cocaine, he would go out, buy a half ounce of cocaine for $600 and use it.

Mr. Jones was in possession of individual bags which were destined for sale.  No user of cocaine in his right mind would overspend over $300 for cocaine.  It just wouldn’t make any sense.  They would go out, buy a half ounce of cocaine and use it.

These bags are packaged in street level distribution amounts, i.e., an individual drug dealer would go out in the street and he’ll sell them by the bag or two bags or three bags for $10 each, $10, $20, $30.”

At the conclusion of Mr. Jone’s trial the jury found him guilty of third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance, second-degree possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, third-degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of a school, and secondary possession of cocaine with intent to distribute within 500 feet of public housing. As a result of this conviction the judge sentenced Mr. Jones to a 13 year prison term subject to a five-year parole ineligibility.

In reversing the conviction the New Jersey Appellate Division relied upon State v. Odom, New Jersey’s seminal decision on the state’s use of expert witness testimony and in drug distribution prosecutions.. In drug distribution cases the defendant is entitled to court imposed “safeguards” when the prosecution attempts to use expert testimony to secure a conviction. In this case it isparticularly noteworthy that the State did not and offer any evidence of the sale of any narcotics by Mr. Jones. The case solely turned upon thepackaging and location of the drugs on the defendant.

In order for expert testimony on drug distribution to be admissible it must meet all of the following standards:

  1. questions posed and the testimony offered must be in a hypothetical format, and
  2. the testimony offered cannot use the precise terminology of the statute
  3. the testimony offered should not use the defendant’s name
  4. the testimony offered cannot express a direct opinion as to the defendant’s guilt

In reversing the conviction the appellate court held that Mr. Haslett ‘s testimony violated the above listed Odom standards.

As in all criminal defense cases the state must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Those charged with crimes including, possession of drugs with intent to distribute, are presumed innocent until found guilty. You have a right to make sure that all of the evidence that is presented against you is proper and admissible. Having good defense counsel ready to make the appropriate objections to prevent improper evidence getting before the jury can mean the difference between a conviction and “not guilty”.  If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges contact the skilled defense attorneys at DeMichele & DeMichele.  Your free initial consultation is only a phone call away. (856) 546-1350.