Court Says Gov't Can't Claim Testimony That Undermines Its Criminal Case Is 'Privileged' When It's Used It In Other Cases

from the decks-undergo-destacking dept

The government rarely likes to play fair in court. This is why we have the (repeatedly-violated) Brady rule (which forces the production of exonerative evidence) and other precedential decisions to guide the government towards treating defendants the way the Constitution wants them to be treated, rather than the way the government would prefer to treat them.

In a case involving drug charges predicated on the distribution of synthetic marijuana, the government tried to keep testimony of a DEA chemist out of the hands of two charged defendants. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals says this isn't OK in a decision [PDF] that gets very weedy (why yes, pun intended) pretty quickly. That's the nature of synthetics -- and the nature of DEA determinations on controlled substances analogues.

The two proprietors of Zencense -- Charles Ritchie and Benjamin Galecki -- decided to manufacture and distribute their own blend of spice, using XLR-11 and UR-144 as active ingredients. The DEA raided Zencense's Las Vegas production facility, charging the pair with conspiracy to distribute controlled substance analogues.

The government alleges both synthetics are analogues of JWH-018, which is a controlled substance. Unfortunately, its own chemist disagrees with this assertion.

The DEA’s determination that a substance is an analogue is made by its Drug and Chemical Evaluation Section (DRE). During the process of determining if UR-144 is an analogue, the DRE solicited the views of Dr. Arthur Berrier, a Senior Research Chemist with the DEA’s Office of Forensic Sciences. Dr. Berrier concluded that UR-144 is not substantially similar in chemical structure to JWH-018, which would mean that it is not outlawed by the Analogue Act.

This means the distribution was only half as illegal as the government asserts. Or, possibly, not illegal at all, as this footnote portrays the government's assertions.

All of the expert testimony in this case agreed that XLR-11 and UR-144 are indistinguishable, and the Government treats them as the same substance.

If they're similar, and UR-144 isn't "substantially similar" to controlled substance JWH-018, the government doesn't have much of case left to prosecute. The charges hinge on the defendants' knowledge that the substances they manufactured were illegal analogues. But the DEA's chemist is on record stating that the substance Zencense emulated isn't actually a controlled substance.

Upon learning this, the defendants sought to obtain the chemist's testimony. The government refused their request.

The Government opposed the motion to compel, arguing that “some of the information sought [was] part of the deliberative process and is therefore privileged.” (J.A. 673). The district court denied the Defendants’ motion, “find[ing] that the denial of this Touhy request is appropriate as it would violate the Deliberative Process Privilege of the Drug Enforcement Agency to grant the subpoena”.

As the court points out, this is a ridiculous position for the government to take. While the government made a proper claim of privilege, there's nothing privileged about the DEA chemist's assertions.

Applying this framework, we readily conclude that the district court erred in concluding that the deliberative process privilege applies because, to the extent the privilege covers Dr. Berrier, the Government has waived any reliance on it. The Government has, by its own admission, provided Dr. Berrier’s opinion as Brady material in criminal cases involving XLR-11 and UR-144. See United States v. $177,844.68 in U.S. Currency, 2015 WL 4227948, *3 (D. Nev. 2015) (cataloguing cases). Moreover, Dr. Berrier recently testified in open court pursuant to a motion to compel in an analogue case involving the distribution of UR-144. See United States v. Broombaugh, 2017 WL 2734636 (D. Kan. 2017) (ordering the unsealing of Dr. Berrier’s testimony). Finally, Dr. Berrier’s opinion that UR-144 is not an analogue of JWH-018 is freely available online. See Federal Judicial Center, Litigating Synthetic Drug Cases, http://fln.fd.org/files/training/April%202015%20Handout.pdf, pp. 37-41 (last visited May 16, 2018). Therefore, Dr. Berrier’s opinion was accessible to everyone but the jurors in this case.

As the court notes, compelling testimony is limited to that which is "favorable" and "material" to the defense. Clearly, Dr. Berrier's testimony is favorable, as it shows the analogue produced by the defendants was not identical to a controlled substance. As for the materiality of the testimony, the appeals court will let the district court decide. It seems extremely material, as the government's case rests on its accusations of manufacture of a controlled substance analogue, which is at odds with its own expert's assertions.

Unfortunately, this isn't the end of the road for the defendants. Having already faced two trials (one mistrial, one resolved with an Allen charge delivered to a deadlocked jury), the convictions are vacated and the government now has a chance to potentially put the defendants on trial one more time. Even when the government apparently has it wrong, it's still given multiple chances to obtain a conviction.

Filed Under: dea, evidence, government, privilege


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  1. icon
    JoeCool (profile), 4 Jun 2018 @ 1:51pm

    Re: Re: "similar to" ...

    You're lucky when they DO change their conclusions and admit they were wrong. These days, they'll often double-down on the stupid instead.

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