United States v. Enrique Valencia-Lopez (9th Cir. August 2020)

The Federal Docket

September 18, 2020

Rule 702/Daubert – The district court abused its discretion when it failed to to assess the government’s proposed expert witness, an ICE agent, for reliability by stating that reliability goes to the weight of the evidence.

Appeals/Harmless Error – The district court’s admission of expert testimony from an ICE agent was harmful error where it directly undercut the defendant’s duress defense and credibility.

Enrique Valencia-Lopez was convicted by a jury on four drug felonies for transporting marijuana.  In his duress defense, he stated he was involuntarily stopped, detained, and threatened by the drug cartel.  An ICE agent that the trial court qualified to testify as an expert witness stated that there was “nil” probability for drug cartels to use unwilling couriers.

On appeal, the Court reviewed Valencia-Lopez’s challenge to allow expert testimony under abuse of discretion.  The Court held the district court’s analysis under Daubert and Rule 702 was void of a reliability assessment.  By merely stating that the expert witness’s reliability “goes to the weight of the evidence” upon objection, the trial court had not conducted a not sufficient review of the expert’s methodology to explain his knowledge, the investigatory facts, or the evidence that formed his expert opinion.

The Court reviewed the admission of the testimony for harmless error and held that the expert opinion directly undercut the defendant’s credibility and duress defense.  The Court vacated the conviction and remanded for a new trial.

Judge Owens dissented, holding the record supported admission of the testimony so the district court’s failure to make an explicit finding of reliability was harmless and the convictions should be upheld.

Appeal from the District of Arizona

Opinion by Bennett, joined by Hawkins. 

Dissent by Owens.

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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