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Idaho Supreme Court Orders Acquittal for Insufficient Identification of Drug

by Matt Clarke

On March 2, 2018, the Supreme Court of Idaho vacated a prisoner’s conviction and sentence for possession of a controlled substance and ordered an acquittal because the substance she possessed had not been adequately identified as a controlled substance beyond a reasonable doubt.

Gracie Jean Tryon, an Idaho state prisoner, appealed her conviction for possession of methamphetamine. She had been a passenger in her boyfriend’s truck when it was stopped by a detective for a traffic violation. The detective allegedly smelled the faint odor of marijuana and used that as justification to search the vehicle. He found stems and black residue in a small purse, two hypodermic syringes, two glass pipes, and a Baggie with a white crystalline substance in a large purse. He arrested Tryon and her boyfriend.

At her trial for possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia, the detective testified that the white substance looked like methamphetamine, that he usually found pipes or syringes when he found methamphetamine, and that they were next to each other in the purse. He also said when he asked the boyfriend, who was not available to testify at the trial, whose methamphetamine was it, the boyfriend eventually said, “It was mine, okay.”

The detective emphasized his training, experience and knowledge of how methamphetamine looked, smelled, packaged.

However, he had not sent the substance to a laboratory for identification, nor was Tryon tested for methamphetamine in her system. So the detective’s testimony was the only evidence identifying it as methamphetamine. The jury convicted Tryon on both counts. The district court sentenced her to a unified four-year sentence with one-and-one-half years fixed, suspended the sentence, and placed her on probation for three years. Tryon appealed.

On appeal, the Idaho Supreme Court noted that proving possession of a controlled substance requires the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the identity of the substance. In this case, there was no direct evidence regarding the substance’s identity.

Tryon was not a known or suspected methamphetamine dealer, and the detective admitted on cross-examination that the substance was not uniquely identifiable as methamphetamine by its appearance. Kosher salt and other white crystalline substances are similar in appearance. He also testified that methamphetamine had little odor. Thus, the Court found that methamphetamine could not be clearly identified by its appearance, smell, or packaging alone.

Her boyfriend’s statement to the detective did not identify the substance as methamphetamine. The Court stated that even if he implied that the substance was methamphetamine the State was still required to present substantial evidence that the substance was methamphetamine and absent “additional evidence and testimony, proof of the chemical composition of the alleged controlled substance in this case could only be established by chemical analysis.”

The Court noted that its case law permits a substance to be identified beyond a reasonable doubt through circumstantial evidence. However, based on the circumstantial evidence presented in this case, the Court concluded that the State failed to establish the substance in question was methamphetamine beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, the Idaho Supreme Court vacated Tryon’s sentence and conviction with instructions for the trial court to enter a judgment of acquittal.

Tryon was represented on appeal by Ben P. McGreevy of the State Public Defender’s Office in Bosie. See: State v. Tryon, 2018 Ida. LEXIS 41 (2018). 

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