Ragland v. State

Ragland v. State

Argued before BELL, C.J., RAKER, WILNER, CATHELL, HARRELL, BATTAGLIA and GREENE, JJ.

Court of Appeals of Maryland

March 18, 2005

OVERVIEW

This case deals with a procedural issue surrounding the prosecutor’s need to identify the police officer as an expert. Under rules of court, before trial each side is entitled to know what evidence the other side intends to introduce. The main reason for this requirement is to enable each side to be prepared for trial. In Ragland, the State (the prosecutor) was asked by defense counsel to provide the names of all experts it intended to use at trial. The State had not identified the officers as experts. In the past, the State had used police officers to provide testimony to show that a crime was being committed based on the officers’ prior specialized training and experience. This case focuses on the issue of whether a police officer’s testimony was that of an “expert” and, if so, the State had a duty to identify the officers as experts.

Appellant Jeffrey Ragland was convicted of distribution of a controlled dangerous substance in violation of the Criminal Law Article. At trial, two police officers offered “lay opinion” testimony but based on their training, education, and experience. There are two types of testimony -- lay opinion testimony and expert testimony. Each type of testimony has specific requirements in order to be admitted into evidence as trial. Lay opinion testimony permits ordinary citizens to express lay opinions about their observations as to sizes; heights; distances; that another individual was happy or angry, nervous or calm, drunk or sober, well or in pain, young or old, drunk or sober; or that the vehicle was driven fast or slow. Expert testimony requires not just observation but specialized knowledge and skill. In the Ragland case, the prosecutor sought to treat the testimony of the police officers as lay testimony. The police officers testified that a particular series of events had constituted a drug transaction.

Appellant Ragland appealed the conviction, arguing that the testimony should only have been admitted as expert testimony. In such a case, the testimony would be subject to notice by the State and to discovery procedures. This means that the prosecutor had a duty to the defendant to notify the defendant of the use of the police officers as experts. The appellate court agreed with this argument and, accordingly, the conviction was vacated and the case was remanded for a new trial.

FACTS

On the evening of March 18, 2003, members of the Montgomery County Police Special Assignment Team (SAT) observed witness Paul Herring, a man known to them from a prior drug arrest, make a hand-to-hand transaction with the passenger of a yellow Cadillac. The evening was dark and no officer was able to see either the face of the Cadillac passenger or the nature of any items that individual had exchanged with Herring.

Members of the SAT team stopped Herring’s van and forced him to the ground. On the ground nearby they recovered a small object which they suspected to be crack cocaine. Other members of the team stopped the yellow Cadillac and arrested its three occupants, including Appellant Jeffrey Louis Ragland who was seated in the front passenger position. The police searched Ragland and they seized a folding pocket knife and cash. No drugs or drug paraphernalia were found in the car or on Ragland’s person.

Ragland was indicted by the Grand Jury for Montgomery County and charged with distribution of a controlled dangerous substance, to wit, cocaine. At trial, the State called Officer Bledsoe as a witness. The State had not notified the defense that Officer Bledsoe would testify as an expert witness nor did it proffer Bledsoe as an expert.

DISCUSSION

“Expert opinion testimony” is testimony that is based on specialized knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education. When a witness is to testify based on information gained from these attributes, then the State must meet the requirements under Maryland Rule Md. Rule 5-702, which includes identifying all experts before trial.

In this case, it is obvious that the opinions from Officer Bledsoe and Detective Halter were based on their specialized knowledge, experience, and training. At the beginning of Officer Bledsoe’s testimony, the prosecutor asked him to describe his training in the investigation of drug crimes. Bledsoe reported having attended “several drug recognition courses and training at the police academy, and several seminars,” as well as a “drug school.” The prosecutor asked Officer Bledsoe whether “based on [his] training and experience” the activity on Northwest Drive was “of significance” to him, and then asked “what did you believe had occurred?” Although he denied that he was seeking an expert opinion, the prosecutor explained that Officer Bledsoe “brings to this like a mechanic who works on Mercedes brings special knowledge about Mercedes. He brings special knowledge about drug deals and what these things bring.”

Officer Bledsoe testified that “in my opinion what occurred was the drug transaction.” Asked on what that opinion was based, Bledsoe replied, “based on two temporary assignments in a narcotics unit; two and a half years with this unit; involved in well over 200 drug arrests.” Detective Halter similarly testified to an extensive history of training and experience in the investigation of drug cases and gave his opinion that the events on Northwest Drive constituted a drug transaction.

This testimony could not be described as lay opinion. These witnesses had devoted considerable time to studying drug trade. They offered their opinions that a drug transaction had taken place despite the many other possible reasons for such an interaction. The connection between the officers’ training and experience on the one hand, and their opinions on the other, was made explicit by the prosecutor’s questioning.

JUDGMENT OF THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR MONTGOMERY COUNTY REVERSED. CASE REMANDED TO THAT COURT FOR A NEW TRIAL.