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Name: People v. Veamatahau
Case #: S249872
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 02/27/2020
Summary

Expert’s testimony that he used on an online pharmaceutical database to determine that pills seized from defendant contained a controlled substance was not inadmissible case-specific hearsay. Defendant was charged with a number of offenses, including possession of a controlled substance, alprazolam (Xanax). At defendant’s trial, a criminalist testified that he identified tablets taken from defendant by comparing their visual characteristics against a database containing descriptions of pharmaceuticals. Defendant appealed his conviction, asserting the testimony violated the prohibition in People v. Sanchez (2016) 63 Cal.4th 665, 686, against expert communication of case-specific hearsay. The Court of Appeal affirmed. Review was granted. Held: Affirmed. An expert witness may rely on hearsay in forming an opinion and may tell the jury in general terms that he did so. However, an expert may not relate inadmissible case-specific facts about which the expert has no independent knowledge. Here, the expert’s testimony that he performed a visual inspection of the pills seized from defendant and formed the opinion that they contained alprazolam was not hearsay. The only “case-specific” fact concerned the markings on the pills recovered from the defendant, which was not hearsay because it was based on personal observations. The expert’s testimony about the pharmaceutical database was not about the pills seized from defendant, but general background about what pills containing certain chemicals look like. While this testimony was hearsay, it is the type of expert background information that has always been admissible and did not constitute case-specific hearsay. The fact that a drug database served as the basis for the expert’s ultimate opinion does not make information from the database case specific. The court noted expert testimony based on a drug database is subject to scrutiny on reliability grounds by the court and opposing counsel. (See Evid. Code, §§ 801-803, 721.) [Editor’s Notes: (1) Because the court determined the expert witness did not relate inadmissible case-specific hearsay, it did not reach the argument concerning whether the testimony would also have been admissible under Evidence Code section 1340, the published compilation exception to the hearsay rule. (2) The court disapproved of People v. Stamps (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 988, to the extent it is inconsistent with the opinion in this case.]

The trial court did not err in denying defendant’s Penal Code section 1118.1 motion for acquittal because defendant’s statements and the testimony of an experienced police officer and criminalist provided substantial evidence he possessed Xanax. The denial of a motion for acquittal is reviewed under the substantial evidence standard. Here, defendant contested one element of the drug possession charge: that the pills he possessed actually contained alprazolam (Xanax). This element may be proved by circumstantial evidence. Here, the arresting officer and the prosecution expert identified the pills as Xanax. This identification was corroborated by defendant, who stated that he took the pills and they made him feel good. The motion was properly denied.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/archive/S249872.PDF