Friday, August 31, 2007

Case o' The Week: Ninth Rewards Defense Expert Chase, United States v. Chase

Yet another great Ninth Circuit decision arises out of the Fertile Crescent for criminal appeals: the District of Montana. United States v. Chase, __ F.3d. __, 2007 WL 2410177 (9th Cir. Aug. 27, 2007), decision available here. In Chase, Judge Ferguson emphasizes the right of an indigent defendant to a defense expert, and adds some teeth to the process by which meth quantities are estimated.

Players: Notable win by Montana AFPD John Rhodes, decision by Judge Ferguson joined by Judges Pregerson and Ikuta.

Facts: Chase pleaded guilty to meth crimes. 2007 WL 2410177 ,*1. At sentencing, he fought the government’s theory of the quantity of meth produced. Id. The government’s estimate was based on a letter by an expert, who had in turn relied on state reports about the lab’s contents. Id. The expert’s estimate was five times higher than what Chase admitted he produced. Id. Chase’s requested his own forensic expert; that was denied by the district judge. Id.

At an evidentiary hearing, the government expert conceded that he didn’t know the amount of precursors, and that he based his estimate on the size of a big flask (although there was no evidence that this particular flask had been used). Id. Chase testified and denied cooking that much meth. The district court sided with the government, and sentenced based on at least double what Chase admitted to having cooking. Id. at *2.

Issue(s): “Chase contends that . . . the district court erred in denying his request for an expert; . . .[and] the court based its determination of drug quantity on unreliable evidence.” Id. at *1.

Held: “We hold that the district court abused its discretion in denying Chase's request for a forensic expert and relied on evidence lacking sufficient indicia of reliability.” Id. “The Supreme Court has long recognized ... that ... justice cannot be equal where, simply as a result of his poverty, a defendant is denied the opportunity to participate meaningfully in a judicial proceeding in which his liberty is at stake. . . . In this case, Chase had a right to hire an expert who could have produced his or her own investigation, interpretation, and testimony.” Id. at *3 (internal quotations and citation omitted).

Of Note: Chase will be remembered for its strong endorsement of the right of indigent defendants to experts. The case is also important, however, for meth lab cases because the Court establishes several important rules for yield calculations.

First, Judge Ferguson explained that the district court’s calculated production “lacked sufficient indicia of reliability.” Id. at *6. He then clarifies that glassware alone is an insufficient base to calculate production – previous cases involving glassware included precursor amounts and estimates arising from those chemicals. Id. Moreover, Ferguson limits the “multiplier” method of estimating production over several cooks. Id. at *7.

How to Use: Judge Ferguson’s rejection of the government’s arguments about defense experts provides ammo to the defense when seeking experts in other contexts. The Court rejects the government’s whine that the defense had a chance to cross the government expert, and that was enough. As Ferguson observes, “This argument misses the point.” Id. at *3. A defense expert is critical for two separate and independent reasons. First, a defense expert could have presented an alternative theory of calculating meth production – in other words, the expert could have affirmatively advanced the defense case. Id. Secondly (and separately) a defense expert could have sharpened the cross of the government expert, by honing attacks on the expert’s methodology. Id. at *4. Plug both of these rationales into CJA requests for defense experts (and note the reversal in Chase just to drive the point home).

For Further Reading: Rely on a good Ninth Circuit decision in the last couple of years, and you probably have the District of Montana to thank. That district had just 417 defendants commencing federal criminal cases in the year before June of ‘06. See US Courts statistical report here. The D Az, by contrast, had over 4,000. Id. Yet the Big Sky district has had a hugely disproportionate number of criminal appeals (and reversals) in the Ninth: Chase, Garcia, Larson, Jimison, and Juvenile Male in the last year alone. What’s gives?

The aggressive appellate chops of Tony Gallagher’s Defender office is one explanation – though US Attorney Mercer and the Montana district court bench may deserve some of our thanks, as well. Has no one heard of buying appellate waivers with a reasonable deal?

Steven Kalar, Senior Litigator N.D. Cal. FPD. Website at


Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home