Ragland v. State,
Argued before BELL, C.J., RAKER, WILNER, CATHELL, HARRELL, BATTAGLIA and GREENE, JJ.
Court of Appeals of Maryland
March 18, 2005
This case focuses on the issue of whether a police officer’s testimony was that of an “expert” and, as such, should have been designated as expert testimony prior to the officer taking the stand.
Appellant Jeffrey Ragland was convicted of distribution of a controlled dangerous substance in violation of Md. Code §5-602 of the Criminal Law Article. At trial, two police officers offered “lay opinion” testimony, based on their training and experience, that a particular series of events had constituted a drug transaction. Appellant Ragland appealed the conviction, arguing that the testimony should only have been admitted as expert testimony. In such a case, the testimony would be subject to qualification and discovery procedures. The appellate court agreed with this argument and, accordingly, the conviction was vacated and the case was remanded for a new trial.
On the evening of March 18, 2003, members of the Montgomery County Police Special Assignment Team (SAT) observed witness Paul Herring, a man known to them from a prior drug arrest, make a hand-to-hand transaction with the passenger of a yellow Cadillac. The evening was dark, and no officer was able to see either the face of the Cadillac passenger or the nature of any items that individual had exchanged with Herring.
Members of the SAT team stopped Herring’s van and forced him to the ground. On the ground nearby, they recovered a small object which they suspected to be crack cocaine. Other members of the team stopped the yellow Cadillac and arrested its three occupants, including Appellant Jeffrey Louis Ragland who was seated in the front passenger position. The police searched Ragland and they seized a folding pocket knife and cash. No drugs or drug paraphernalia were found in the car or on Ragland’s person.
Ragland was indicted by the Grand Jury for Montgomery County and charged with distribution of a controlled dangerous substance, to wit, cocaine. At trial, the State called Officer Bledsoe as a witness. The State had not notified the defense that Officer Bledsoe would testify as an expert witness nor did it proffer Bledsoe as an expert
“Expert opinion testimony” is testimony that is based on specialized knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education. When a witness is to testify based on information gained from these attributes, then the State must meet the requirements under the Maryland Rule Md. Rule 5-702, which includes identifying all experts before trial.
In this case, it is obvious that the opinions from Officer Bledsoe and Detective Halter were based on their specialized knowledge, experience, and training. At the beginning of Officer Bledsoe’s testimony, the prosecutor asked him to describe his training in the investigation of drug crimes. Bledsoe reported having attended “several drug recognition coursesand training at the police academy, and several seminars,” as well as a “drug school.” The prosecutor asked Officer Bledsoe whether “based on [his] training and experience” the activity on Northwest Drive was “of significance” to him, and then asked “what did you believe had occurred?” Although he denied that he was seeking an expert opinion, the prosecutor explained that Officer Bledsoe “brings to this like a mechanic who works on Mercedes, brings special knowledge about Mercedes. He brings special knowledge about drug deals and what these things bring.”
Officer Bledsoe testified that “in my opinion what occurred was the drug transaction.” Asked what that opinion was based on, Bledsoe replied, “based on two temporary assignments in a narcotics unit; two and a half years with this unit; involved in well over 200 drug arrests.” Detective Halter similarly testified to an extensive history of training and experience in the investigation of drug cases and gave his opinion that the events on Northwest Drive constituted a drug transaction.
This testimony could not be described as lay opinion. These witnesses had devoted considerable time to studying drug trade. They offered their opinions that a drug transaction had taken place despite the many other possible reasons for such an interaction. The connection between the officers’ training and experience on the one hand, and their opinions on the other, was made explicit by the prosecutor’s questioning. Such testimony should have been admitted only upon a finding that the requirements of Md. Rule 5-702 were satisfied. In admitting the testimony under Md. Rule 5-701, the trial court abused its discretion.
HOLDING: JUDGMENT OF THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR MONTGOMERY COUNTY REVERSED. CASE REMANDED TO THAT COURT FOR A NEW TRIAL. COSTS TO BE PAID BY MONTGOMERY COUNTY.