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State v. Herrera

Supreme Court of South Carolina

January 30, 2019

The State, Respondent,
v.
Daniel Martinez Herrera, Petitioner. Appellate Case No. 2016-002523

          Heard October 17, 2018

          Appeal from Laurens County Eugene C. Griffith Jr., Circuit Court Judge

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

          Appellate Defender LaNelle Cantey DuRant, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

          Attorney General Alan M. Wilson and Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Scott Matthews, both of Columbia; and Solicitor David M. Stumbo, of Greenwood, all for Respondent.

          KITTREDGE JUSTICE.

         This is a case about the amount or weight of an illegal drug. For self-evident reasons, the possession of an illegal drug carries increased penalties as the amount of the drug in the possession of the offender increases. In this case, Petitioner Daniel Herrera was convicted of "trafficking in"-meaning, possessing-between ten and 100 pounds of marijuana, which carries a substantial term of imprisonment. The penalty for possessing fewer than ten pounds of marijuana is less severe. Moreover, drug trafficking is classified as a violent and serious crime, affecting Herrera's parole eligibility now and in the future.[1]

         At trial, Herrera contended that he did not knowingly possess any marijuana. Moreover, Herrera disputed the weight of the marijuana-allegedly, ten pounds, 2.78 ounces-by challenging (1) the qualifications of the State's marijuana expert, police officer Jared Hunnicutt, and (2) the accuracy of the purported weight of the marijuana.

         Ultimately, Herrera's challenges were unsuccessful, and following his trafficking conviction, the court of appeals affirmed the admission of Hunnicutt's testimony regarding the weight of the marijuana in a summary unpublished opinion. State v. Herrera, Op. No. 2016-UP-424 (S.C. Ct. App. filed Oct. 12, 2016). We granted Herrera's petition for a writ of certiorari, and we now reverse, for under the circumstances presented it was an abuse of discretion to permit Hunnicutt to testify to the weight of the marijuana. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals and remand to the trial court for a new trial.

         I.

         Herrera was arrested when he appeared at a post office to claim a package that law enforcement had intercepted. The package contained six bags of suspected marijuana. Herrera was indicted for trafficking in marijuana over ten pounds and less than 100 pounds. At trial, the State attempted to qualify Detective Hunnicutt of the Laurens Police Department as an expert in marijuana analysis. The basis for his alleged expertise came from his experience as a police officer, as well as attending a single course sponsored by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. Hunnicutt had never been qualified as a marijuana analyst in General Sessions court prior to his testimony here.

         II.

         "The appellate court reviews [the] trial [court's] ruling on admissibility of evidence pursuant to an abuse of discretion standard. . . ." State v. Torres, 390 S.C. 618, 625, 703 S.E.2d 226, 230 (2010). Similarly, "[t]he trial court's decision to admit expert testimony will not be reversed on appeal absent an abuse of discretion." State v. Price, 368 S.C. 494, 498, 629 S.E.2d 363, 365 (2006). "An abuse of discretion occurs when the conclusions of the trial court either lack evidentiary support or are controlled by an error of law." State v. Douglas, 369 S.C. 424, 429- 30, 632 S.E.2d 845, 848 (2006).

         Rule 702 of the South Carolina Rules of Evidence governs the admissibility ...


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