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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Prosecutors: Dot Your I’s and Cross Your T’s

Shaun Martin at the California Appellate Report posts about a recent decision by the California Supreme Court.  In this case, the defendant challenged his conviction for selling MDMA, arguing that the prosecution failed to sufficiently prove that MDMA was an illegal controlled substance.

The prosecutor presented evidence from a criminalist that the substance the defendant was “MDMA or Ecstasy.”  The criminalist’s lab report identified the chemical name of MDMA: “3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine.”  A police officer testified that MDMA was “a party drug, the effects of which can last up to 24 hours.”

And that was it.

I think some argument could be made that the jury could reasonably interpret this evidence to show that MDMA is a controlled substance.  “Party drug” might imply that the drug has effects similar to amphetamines and the chemical’s name contains “methamphetamine.”  It looks like the attorney general made these arguments.

The California Supreme Court didn’t buy it.

The lesson prosecutors can learn from this case is to always remember to prove every element of the case.  If the illegal drug is not identified by name in the Penal Code, the prosecutor needs to provide at least some evidence that shows that the drug is an analog and has similar effects to illegal, controlled substances.  At the trial level, there was virtually no evidence to this effect -and the California Supreme Court was right to call out the Court of Appeal’s use of “learned treatises” in affirming the conviction.

Finally, this lesson is especially important because if a verdict is overturned due to insufficient evidence, there is no chance of retrial due to double jeopardy concerns.  It isn't easy for defendants to lodge a successful complaint under the sufficiency of evidence standard, but when they do, it's all over for the prosecution.

UPDATE - January 26, 2014

I have changed the title of this post from the earlier, ironic "Prosecutors: Dot your T's and Cross Your I's."

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