Expert Article Library

Interpretation of Coded Drug Words

Case Name: United States v. Freeman (Click here for the full text of the case)

Court: U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit

Date: June 11, 2007

Expert: Drug Enforcement. Los Angeles Police Department Detective Shin, Drug Enforcement Agency federal task force officer

Issues: Whether the district court erred in convicting appellant, after a jury trial, of the first count of the indictment. Appellant also sought review of whether the district court abused its discretion in violation of Fed. R. Evid. 702 and Fed. R. Evid. 704(b) by allowing expert witness testimony as to the meaning of coded drug language.

Summary of case: Appellant was indicted on three counts. The first count charged appellant with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute at least fifty grams of cocaine base as well as conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute at least five hundred grams of cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. The other counts accused appellant of manufacturing and distributing cocaine base. The Government alleged that appellant was involved in a scheme to purchase cocaine from two individuals, to convert the cocaine into cocaine base, and to return the base for distribution.

Role of the expert: Detective Shin testified as to the meaning of allegedly coded words used by appellant Freeman in telephone calls to facilitate drug transactions that the government had intercepted. Although none of the telephone calls contained explicit references to cocaine, Shin testified that the calls concerned that subject. While some of Shin's testimony focused on interpreting words or phrases he was previously aware of, other portions of Shin's testimony focused on interpreting both words that he was not familiar with before the investigation and entire conversations. Some of the words and conversations that Shin interpreted were not encoded drug language, but rather ambiguous statements consisting of ordinary terms.

Challenges to the Expert's testimony: Defense counsel objected to Shin's interpretive testimony as hearsay, speculative, and lacking foundation. The appellate court found no error by the district court in allowing Shin to testify as an expert regarding the meaning of coded drug words. The appellate court did find that the district court erred in allowing some of Shin’s lay testimony, but it concluded that the erroneously admitted testimony was harmless. The appellate court affirmed appellant’s conviction and sentence, finding that there was sufficient evidence to support appellant’s conviction and finding that appellant’s sentence was reasonable.

Summary prepared by W. McLennan, Student, U.C. Hastings College of the Law