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California Court of Appeal: Confrontation Clause Violation Where Supervisor, Not Lab Tech Who Performed Drug Tests, Testified at Trial

Ignacio Ogaz was living in a tent in Santa Ana’s Civic Center Plaza when Officer Collin Reedy noticed he was sleepy and lethargic. A search of Ogaz’s person resulted in Reedy finding two baggies of what appeared to be narcotics, and a search of the tent turned up more narcotics, a digital scale, needles, and cash. A presumptive field test confirmed the narcotics were heroin and methamphetamine. Ogaz was arrested, and the narcotics were sent to the Orange County Crime Lab for analysis.

Despite objections by Ogaz, the lab report was admitted into evidence, but the lab tech who prepared it, Michelle Stevens, did not appear at trial to testify. Instead, the People called Thomas Dickan, her lab supervisor, who signed off on the report. Dickan testified about the tests used to identify the substances tested and that he trained Stevens to perform them.

Ogaz was convicted at trial and sentenced to 68 months’ imprisonment, largely due to having four prior drug convictions. He appealed on the ground that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to confront Stevens at trial.

The Sixth Amendment prevents admission of “testimonial statements” made by a nontestifying witness unless the witness is unavailable at trial and the defendant had a prior opportunity for cross-examination. Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004).

In order to be “testimonial,” a forensic report must have “two critical components.” People v. Lopez, 286 P.3d 469 (Cal. 2012). It “must have been made with some degree of formality and solemnity,” and its primary purpose must “pertain in some fashion to a criminal prosecution.” Id.

The Court noted that Stevens signed the report – a more formal and solemn act than merely initialing it – and it “had broader implications” than a mere record for use in administering the lab. Further, “the report contain[ed] the substantive conclusions Stevens reached [rather than machine generated data or objective facts] as a result of the testing she conducted, which is exactly what she would have been expected to testify about had she appeared at trial,” the Court explained. People v. Cage, 155 P.3d 205 (Cal. 2007) (describing testimonial statements as “out-of-court analogs, in purpose and form, of the testimony given by a witness at trial”).

Also, “acting as an investigative arm of the prosecution, [Stevens’] responsibility was to determine whether the substances seized from appellant contained contraband, so as to support the charges in the complaint,” the Court stated. In re Brown, 952 P.2d 715 (Cal. 1998) (county drug lab scientists who assist the government’s case are part of the prosecution team).

The Court determined that the totality of the circumstances surrounding the preparation of the report established that “its primary purpose pertained to a criminal prosecution.” As such, the report “qualifies as a testimonial document for purposes of the Sixth Amendment,” the Court concluded. The Court further concluded that the report reflected the experience and conclusions of Stevens, not Dickan. Dickan never reviewed the evidence nor formed his own conclusions; “he was a ‘mere conduit’ for Stevens’ opinions,” according to the Court. People v. Leon, 352 P.3d 289 (Cal. 2015) (confrontation clause violated where expert simply conveys the opinions of others).

As Stevens’ report was testimonial, the People were required to “prove the jury’s verdict was surely unattributable to the evidence that resulted from the violation.” People v. Pearson, 297 P.3d 793 (Cal. 2013). The Court explained that since the report was “scientific in nature, the drug testing evidence was likely the most compelling proof on that issue for the jury, and therefore it is at least reasonably possible that evidence contributed to the jury’s verdict.” Thus, the Court ruled that “the judgment against [Ogaz] cannot stand.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed his conviction. See: People v. Ogaz, 2020 Cal. App. LEXIS 749 (2020).

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People v. Ogaz

 

 

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