Newark, NJ- The outcome of any criminal case depends on the body of evidence gathered by the prosecution and defense. But not all evidence accurately reflects the facts of the case and some evidence, expert testimony, for example, can make assumptions that do not meet the court’s standards. Recently, in a case involving a drug conviction that relied on expert testimony, the New Jersey Supreme Court was asked to clarify what is acceptable evidence for criminal cases.
The case, State v. Yasin Simms, involved Yasin Simms, who was convicted of several drug charges related to an alleged heroin sale between him and two others in 2009. Simms, a female co-defendant and a third party were arrested and charged with possession and distribution of heroin charges after Atlantic City detectives witnessed what they believed to be a drug transaction. During the arrest, detectives found heroin on all three parties.
Simms was convicted of several charges including possession of heroin, possession of heroin with the intent to distribute, distribution of heroin, possession of heroin with intent to distribute within a school zone (all third degree), and intent to distribute heroin within 500 feet of a public housing facility. His female co-defendant was also convicted of distribution charges.
Simms appealed his conviction, arguing that the detectives who testified in his case “improperly” presented an opinion about facts in the case which unfairly bolstered the prosecution’s claim that Simms was distributing heroin. The NJ Supreme Court held that Simms was convicted based on flawed evidence and overturned his conviction. His case was remanded and a re-trial was ordered.
The NJ Supreme Court’s decision, in State v. Yasin Simms, means prosecutors will have to meet stricter rules in regards to expert testimony that asserts opinions as statements of fact. For the case, the high court was asked to address issues concerning two crucial pieces of evidence used to convict Simms of distribution charges.
One of those issues concerned statements made by one of the detectives just before Simms’s arrest and was repeated in court as part of the prosecution’s case. According to the court brief, on the night of Simms’s arrest, Detective Ruzzo radioed two other detectives involved in the operation, instructing them to move in on Simms and the other defendants. Ruzzo told detectives he “was possibly observing a C.D.S. transaction.” (According to New Jersey statutes, a C.D.S. is a controlled dangerous substance.) Det. Ruzzo later radioed that “there was a C.D.S. transaction taking place.”
Det. Ruzzo’s statement that he was witnessing a drug sale was an important piece of evidence used to convict Simms. The only problem is that Det. Ruzzo did not actually see what was in either man’s hand. Detectives assumed because they found one bag of heroin on Simms and found 13 bags of heroin in the vehicle driven by the third party that the men handed each other drugs in exchange for money. Det. Ruzzo did not see the men pass off bags of heroin, he just assumed they did and testified as such in court.
The second piece of evidence the high court addressed was a statement from one of the detectives that led to distribution charges for Simms and his co-defendant, a woman who was also in possession of several bags of heroin.
After the prosecution presented a long hypothetical question that outlined the details of the case, Det. Locket, a drug expert, testified, “Based on the facts that you’ve given me, that’s consistent with the distribution. Based on those facts, . . . it appears consistent that the female may have conspired with the male or conspired with the male to distribute C.D.S. That would be my opinion of it.”
The NJ Supreme Court said in its opinion, “The lengthy hypothetical question posed to the drug expert included the assumed fact that the detective actually observed defendant hand a buyer drugs for cash.” Justices maintained that Det. Ruzzo’s testimony was “nothing less than a pronouncement of guilt.”
The decision places a greater burden on the state and prevents convictions based on assumptions. Justices established that expert testimony is admissible if it is based on scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge that adds to the facts of the case or allows the court to understand better the evidence presented. They also clarified the purpose of expert testimony is to add facts to the body of evidence and help the jury come up with their own conclusions; such testimony should not be used to guide a jury to a conclusion.
I see this case as important and recognize that the NJ Supreme Court’s decision gives clarity to what is acceptable evidence; part of providing a good defense is pointing out when evidence is inadmissible, presumptive or prejudicial.
Simms’s case also emphasizes how important it is to have an attentive and aggressive attorney working on your defense. I understand that as an attorney I need to be vigilant and explore every possible defense strategy. You can count on me to give your case the attention it deserves. Contact me at 973-453-2009 and we can set up a consultation.