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United States v. Mercado-Gracia

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 18, 2018



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant Aaron Mercado-Gracia's request for a pretrial Daubert hearing set forth in his Response in Opposition to Government's Notice of Intention to Offer Expert Testimony (ECF No. 113). The Court, having considered the notices, briefs, evidence, applicable law, and otherwise being fully advised, concludes that Defendant's request for a pretrial Daubert hearing should be granted as to the admissibility of the testimony of Douglas Lloyd and Thomas Handley regarding latent print analyses, but will be denied as to the testimony of Alexandra Moninger and Undersheriff Rudy Mora.

         I. BACKGROUND

         According to the Government, on March 25, 2016, New Mexico State Police (“NMSP”) Officer Ronald Wood, stopped Defendant Mercado-Gracia for speeding. In the course of the detention, Officer Wood deployed his drug detection dog on the exterior of the vehicle, which alerted to the vehicle, resulting in Officer Wood searching the interior of the vehicle and discovering approximately 7.25 pounds of heroin and a handgun therein. The United States subsequently charged Defendant in a two-count Indictment (ECF No. 12) for Possession with Intent to Distribute 1 Kilogram and More of Heroin under 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A), and Using and Carrying a Firearm During and in Relation to a Drug Trafficking Crime and Possessing a Firearm in Furtherance of Such Crime under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).

         On September 7, 2016, the United States filed its First Notice of Intent to Call Expert Witness for Forensic Chemist Alexandra Moninger who will testify regarding the chemical composition of the substance seized in this case, identifying it as heroin in a weight exceeding more than 1 kilogram. Notice 1-2, ECF No. 31. The Government proffers that Ms. Moninger determined the contents of the seized package using gas chromatography, gas chromatography/mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy, a marquis color test, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Id. at 2.

         On August 21, 2017, the United States filed a Notice of Intent to Call Expert Witnesses Douglas Lloyd and Thomas Handley on Latent Print Analysis (ECF No. 65). Douglas Lloyd and Thomas Handley work for the Department of Homeland Security Laboratories and Scientific Services as forensic scientists. Id. at 1. The Government proffers that Mr. Handley will testify that he processed the firearm and magazines seized in this case for latent prints using a process where he fumed with superglue under negative pressure and stained using rhodamine 6G the firearm and magazines, later viewing the items with a forensic laser and photographing the latent prints. Id. at 2. Mr. Lloyd will testify that he viewed the digital images photographed by Mr. Handley, compared them to Defendant's fingerprint images, and identified fingerprints of value 4A and 5A as the right thumb and right index finger of Defendant. Id.

         The Government additionally filed a Notice of Intent to Offer Opinion Testimony of Law Enforcement Witness Sheriff Rudy Mora (ECF No. 112). It proffered that Undersheriff Mora would testify that the amount of heroin seized is consistent with distribution, and opine as to the street value of the seized heroin, his knowledge of its manufacturing origins, its properties and nature, how it is used and sold, how it is packaged, general drug trafficking geographical routes and patterns, the frequent use of third party or borrowed vehicles for narcotics transportation, and tools of the trade that include firearms. Notice 1-2, ECF No. 112.

         On July 2, 2018, Defendant filed a response in opposition to all four expert witnesses and requested a pre-trial Daubert hearing for all the expert witnesses. Def.'s Resp., ECF No. 113. Defendant objects to Ms. Moninger because her resume does not state from which University she obtained her degree in Forensic Science, and her analysis occurred only two weeks after her certification as a forensic scientist and five months from the time she began work at the New Mexico Department of Public Safety. See Id. at 3. Defendant asserts that he has no report from either Mr. Lloyd or Mr. Handley from which to assess the bases and reasons for their respective opinions. Id. Defendant objects to Undersheriff Mora's opinions because the jury could reach a conclusion of weight without the need for expert testimony and that the arresting officer's testimony is sufficient on the rest of the factual issues, rendering the expert testimony unnecessary and cumulative. See Id. at 4-5. Finally, Defendant argues that Undersheriff Moya's opinions as to drug use and firearms should be excluded under Rule 403 as unnecessary, cumulative, and unfairly prejudicial. Id. at 4-5.

         The United States asserts in response that a pretrial hearing is not necessary because none of the testimony involves any new scientific theory or any novel idea and this type of testimony has been widely accepted by the courts. United States' Reply 4, ECF No. 116.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Federal Rule of Evidence 702 governs the admissibility of expert testimony. Fed.R.Evid. 702. A witness, qualified by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may offer an opinion so long as the following conditions are met:

(a) the expert's scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the ...

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