In an opinion released two days ago in State v. Anthony Martinez [PDF], the CT Appellate Court held – in what was apparently an issue of first impression – that those narcotics field tests that officers do to determine whether the “powdery white substance” was indeed cocaine and not talcum powder are subject to the standards “enumerated” in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. In CT, that standard was adopted in State v. Porter and challenges under Daubert are called “Porter challenges” or “Porter hearings”.
Prior to Daubert, the generally accepted standard was the “Frye” standard and it was that the examination or procedure had to be generally accepted in the scientific community. Daubert then altered that standard – and lowered it – to whether the scientific evidence would assist the trier of fact and whether it was scientifically “valid” as opposed to generally accepted by that scientific community.
The irony is that in CT, the defendant wanted the Court to adopt the lower Daubert standard in Porter so as to let in polygraph evidence. The defendant won on Daubert, but lost on polygraph, thus not completely fucking every criminal defendant over for eternity, but only slightly.
What the Supreme Court didn’t do in either Daubert or Porter is define just what the hell “scientific evidence” is, thus opening a gaping door for all sorts of pseudo-scientific testimony (more on that in a bit).
But clearly, dipping a stick into some chemical and then applying a drop of that chemical to a “powdery white substance” to determine if that substance changes color, thus revealing the presence of a narcotic, seems “scientific” enough.
But just because it’s scientific, doesn’t mean a court has to conduct a hearing to determine if it’s valid. Some scientific evidence is so scientifically accepted that it’s a foregone conclusion:
In one line of cases, ‘‘we have concluded that certain forms of scientific evidence have become so well established that a formal Porter inquiry is rendered unnecessary . . . .’’ Id., 170; see State v. Porter, supra, 241 Conn. 85 n.30, citing State v. Cline, 275 Mont. 46, 55, 909 P.2d 1171 (1996) (ordinary fingerprint identification evidence); see also Hayes v. Decker, 263 Conn. 677,687–89, 822 A.2d 228 (2003) (effects of discontinuation of blood pressure medication); State v. Kirsch, 263 Conn. 390, 405, 820 A.2d 236 (2003) (reliability of alcohol blood testing done at hospital well established); State v. Legnani, supra, 109 Conn. App. 418–21 (matching of fired cartridges to magazines on basis of magazine marks).
This, the Appellate Court notes, is not one of them. While the argument the state makes, that these tests have been admitted into evidence in CT Courts for a very long time, is appealing as to their validity, that doesn’t close the inquiry, nor should it. Just because something has been admitted forever doesn’t make it scientifically valid. It just means we defense lawyers have been terrible about objecting to it.
In this case, there was no evidence presented – and indeed the trial court did not allow it – of the scientific method used in these field tests, nor their acceptance in the community or their validity. So the Appellate Court did hold that there was error in this case. But don’t be fooled. It wasn’t that bad. The guy was still guilty as sin, so we don’t care that there was a mistake in his trial. It was found to be harmless error.
In the second line of cases ‘‘we have concluded that certain types of evidence, although ostensibly rooted in scientific principles and presented by expert witnesses with scientific training, are not ‘scientific’ for the purposes of our admissibility standard for scientific evidence, either before or after Porter.’’ Maher v. Quest Diagnostics, Inc., supra, 170 n.22; see State v. Reid, 254 Conn. 540, 549, 757 A.2d 482 (2000) (testimony of criminologist regarding visible characteristics of and similarities between strands of hair not ‘‘scientific evidence’’ for Porter purposes); State v. Hasan, supra, 205 Conn. 490 (testimony of podiatrist as to likelihood that certain pair of sneakers would fit on defendant’s feet was not ‘‘scientific’’ evidence under Frye).
When evidence is “not scientific” it doesn’t mean that an expert is not permitted to testify about their “expert conclusions”; but just the opposite: that the expert opinion is not subject to a gatekeeping function by the court to determine if that “expert” is an expert or an “expert”.
The big unmentioned area where the State has driven a truck through this hole is the testimony of “child sexual abuse experts” whose job it is to take the facts of a case and opine, based on their training and experience that such behavior is consistent with being sexually abused.
If a complainant does poorly in school, that’s consistent. If a complainant does well in school, that’s consistent. If a complainant discloses abuse immediately after it happens, that’s consistent. If a complainant discloses 5 years later, that’s consistent. If a complainant is left-handed, that’s consistent. If a complainant is right-handed, that’s consistent. You get the picture. And this is permitted, routinely, without limit or caution, because it’s not “scientific” evidence:
We first consider whether the trial court abused its discretion in declining to subject Lanning’s testimony to a Porter hearing. On appeal, the defendant concedes that Lanning’s testimony was not “scientific” but argues that the testimony nevertheless required the trial court to conduct a Porter hearing because it was “other specialized knowledge” within the meaning of § 7-2 of the Connecticut Code of Evidence. The state argues that no Porter hearing was required because Lanning’s testimony was not based on any scientific theory but, rather, on his training and experience in the field of child victimization. We agree with the state that, because Lanning’s testimony was not based on scientific knowledge, the trial court properly determined that a threshold admissibility hearing under Porter was not necessary.
State v. Sorabella. So these “experts” show up in court, talk about the 2000 children they’ve interviewed and in their (anecdotal) experience, what the characteristics are of those that have been abused, which incidentally happen to be every single child they’ve ever examined.
So, clearly, it’s not scientific. More like junk, but whatever.
But that’s not the end of the road. There’s this decision called Kumho Tire Ltd. v. Carmichael, which essentially applies Daubert to “non-scientific” evidence.
In Kumho Tire Co., Ltd., the United States Supreme Court held that a trial court’s gatekeeping function under Daubert applies not only to expert scientific testimony but also to expert testimony based on technical or other specialized knowledge. Id., at 149, 119 S.Ct. 1167. We decline to consider the defendant’s claim, however, because the defendant failed to raise it in the trial court.
That’s from Sorabella again, a shining example of what the CT Supreme Court does best. Surprisingly, in the 7 years since Sorabella has been decided, not one single appeal has challenged the admissibility of this type of “expert” testimony under Kumho Tire.
That should be next.