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State v. Lawson

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

June 6, 2018

The State, Respondent,
Johnnie Lee Lawson, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2015-002467

          Heard March 6, 2018

          Appeal From Lexington County R. Knox McMahon, Circuit Court Judge.

          Appellate Defender Laura Ruth Baer, of Columbia, for Appellant.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson and Assistant Deputy Attorney General David A. Spencer, both of Columbia, for Respondent.

          THOMAS, J.

         Appellant Johnnie Lee Lawson appeals his conviction for breaking into a motor vehicle, arguing the trial court erred by (1) admitting evidence of his prior criminal record, (2) refusing to give a limiting instruction to the jury regarding the evidence of his prior criminal record, and (3) admitting a witness for the State as an expert in fingerprint analysis. We reverse.


         In April 2015, a grand jury indicted Appellant for breaking into a motor vehicle in violation of section 16-13-160(A)(1) of the South Carolina Code (2015). The State called Appellant's case for trial in November 2015 and began by calling Jessica Wilbanks, the alleged victim, to testify.

         Wilbanks testified she was in the process of moving, with her husband and a teenager who lived with them, from Barnwell County to Lexington County in March 2014. Wilbanks asserted they were in Lexington for the weekend preparing their new house and moving in some household items. According to Wilbanks, they parked their car on the street in front of the house while they were moving items into the house from a moving truck. Wilbanks testified she went outside around 10:30 p.m. and heard a noise. As she walked around the moving truck, she noticed someone standing over her car. Wilbanks described the person as an adult, black male who was "[t]aller than [her]" and wearing a "dark hoodie sweatshirt and either very dark blue jeans or, or black jeans." Wilbanks alleged she heard a metal scraping noise when she saw the man near her car. She admitted she did not see his face during the encounter. Wilbanks testified the man ran away once he saw her. Following the encounter, Wilbanks returned to the house to notify her husband, and they called 911.

         Following Wilbanks's testimony and outside the presence of the jury, Appellant brought up "one other matter" to the trial court. Appellant explained State's Exhibit 16 was a "ten-print fingerprint card" and he had "an issue with the hearsay of what he was arrested for on the back." Appellant acknowledged the State had an employee from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) to authenticate the card, but he agreed to stipulate to authenticity. The trial court agreed the prior criminal history was inadmissible and instructed the State to redact that information. With regard to Appellant's offer to stipulate, the trial court explained the State was not required to accept the stipulation. Appellant noted he had no objection as long as "his prior arrests are not there."

         Sergeant Jason Merrill testified he responded to the scene on the night of the incident and, when inspecting one of the car windows, found "approximately three fingerprints on the inside of the glass." Merrill asserted he collected the fingerprints and submitted them for latent print examination. Subsequently, Merrill received a report from the examiner alleging the fingerprints from the scene matched Appellant's fingerprints.

         Next, the State called Seraphim Haftoglou who was the supervisor at SLED for the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). Haftoglou testified AFIS is an automated database where SLED stores all fingerprints in a statewide system. Haftoglou explained the fingerprints in AFIS come "mainly" from arrests because detention centers throughout the state "capture the person's demographics and fingerprints and submit it to us through SLED pretty immediately." He noted AFIS allows SLED to have an up to date criminal history on the individual. Haftoglou then clarified that AFIS also contains fingerprints from individuals submitted by various entities for background checks. Haftoglou testified he printed and certified State's Exhibit 16, which was a ten-print fingerprint card, for the trial. The State requested to admit the ten-print card, and Appellant objected "to what we said previously." The trial court noted the objection and admitted the exhibit. Haftoglou then identified the ten-print card as belonging to Appellant. Haftoglou testified the ten-print card indicated Appellant's fingerprints were collected in July 2003 at the "Department of Corrections, Kirkland Correctional Institute" (Kirkland). Appellant objected and asked for the jury to be excused.

         Appellant explained he objected to referencing the ten-print card's connection to Kirkland. Appellant claimed his understanding of the earlier discussion of the ten-print card included redacting that the fingerprints were collected at Kirkland. He asserted the reference to Kirkland indicated to the jury he had been arrested prior to this incident and again offered to stipulate to the authenticity of the ten-print card. The trial court noted the State was not required to accept a stipulation and, in the absence of an accepted stipulation, must authenticate the fingerprints. The trial court contended Appellant's prior criminal history had not come into evidence despite the reference to Kirkland. Appellant alleged the State's motive for rejecting the stipulation was to allow the jury to hear he had a prior criminal history. The trial court explained the State's motive was irrelevant to its decision. When the jury returned, Haftoglou repeated that Appellant's ten-print card originated at Kirkland in July 2003.

         Subsequently, the State called James Hickman. Hickman testified he was the AFIS operator and a latent fingerprint examiner. Following voir dire, the trial court excused the jury, and Appellant objected to qualifying Hickman as an expert. The trial court disagreed with Appellant and admitted Hickman as an expert in fingerprint examination. Hickman then testified the ...

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