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Wheeler v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

June 25, 2018

ROBERT WHEELER
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Argued: February 2, 2018

          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 116007024

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.

          OPINION

          HOTTEN, JUDGE

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Robert Wheeler, ("Petitioner") seeks review of the decision of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City regarding the admission of controlled dangerous substances into evidence at trial, in the absence of strict compliance with Maryland Code Annotated, Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article §§ 10-1001, 10-1002, and 10-1003 (hereinafter "Cts. & Jud. Proc.") discussed in detail herein. Petitioner presents the following questions for our review:

1. Where the Defendant in a criminal case makes a timely and proper demand under [Cts. & Jud. Proc.] §§ 10-1002 and [10]-1003, for the presence of all persons in the chain of custody, is it a legal error for the trial court to admit drug evidence where the State fails to call the "packaging" officer as a witness; or, as the Court of Special Appeals held in this case, is the admission of drug evidence under such circumstances subject to review for abuse of discretion?
2. Did the trial court err or abuse its discretion… in allowing the admission of the drug evidence in view of the lack of proper chain of custody?

For reasons discussed infra, we answer both questions in the negative and affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

         Background

         On September 21, 2015, Baltimore City Detective Ivan Bell ("Detective Bell"), as part of an undercover drug operation, attempted to purchase narcotics in the 5100 block of Park Heights Avenue in Baltimore City, Maryland. A "touter"[1] solicited Detective Bell advertising "space jam" for sale, a name given to the type of heroin sold in the area. Detective Bell later identified the touter as Petitioner. Petitioner proceeded to escort Detective Bell behind several stores where two other individuals sold him three baggies of a suspected controlled dangerous substance, later identified as heroin. Two of the three baggies purchased were orange, while the third was clear with conspicuous blue writing. After the purchase, Detective Bell reconvened with the arrest team, headed by Sergeant Talley, who instructed him to return to the police station with the suspected drugs. At the station, Detective Bell prepared his report and turned the suspected drugs over to the "packaging" or "submitting" officer, Detective Justin Trojan ("Detective Trojan"). During the trial, Detective Bell revealed that he had not packaged or labeled the controlled dangerous substances, nor did he oversee the transfer of the substances to the Evidence Control Unit; but relied upon Detective Trojan to submit the items.

         Prior to the start of trial, Petitioner made a timely demand pursuant to Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-1003 for the presence of all the members in the chain of custody at trial. However, the State was unable to call the packaging officer because his affiliation with the Baltimore City Police Department had ended. During the trial, the court admitted the suspected controlled dangerous substances after the State offered the testimony from the seizing officer and its chemist to establish the chain of custody. Petitioner opposed the admission arguing that Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-1003 requires that the packaging officer be called to testify and that absent the additional testimony, the chain of custody was not established. The court disagreed and found that the testimony presented by the State properly established the chain of custody. At the conclusion of trial, the jury convicted Petitioner of conspiracy to distribute heroin and distribution of heroin, and acquitted him of the possession with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of cocaine charges. Thereafter Petitioner timely noted an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals.

         The Court of Special Appeals issued its reported opinion on July 3, 2017. Wheeler v. State, 233 Md.App. 265, 163 A.3d 843, cert. granted, 456 Md. 80, 171 A.3d 611 (2017). Before the Court of Special Appeals, Petitioner asserted that the State did not provide testimony from all statutorily required individuals to establish chain of custody following his timely demand pursuant to Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-1003. The Court of Special Appeals determined that collectively, the statutes act as "procedural shortcuts" utilized by the State to establish chain of custody. Id. at 268, 163 A.3d at 844. Further, the Court noted that while Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-1002 reduces the number of persons required for the establishment of chain of custody to the seizing officer, the packaging officer, and the chemist who analyzed the substance, the absence of one of those parties is not necessarily a prima facie violation of the statute. Id. In determining whether the circuit court abused its discretion, the Court held that when the State presents evidence demonstrating that a substance is what it purports to be, and there is no evidence of tampering, the substance is admissible. Id. at 278, 163 A.3d at 850. In reaching this conclusion, the Court relied on its decisions in Thompson v. State, [2] Best v. State, [3] and Easter v. State, [4] which rejected the rigid application of Cts. & Jud. Proc. §§ 10-1001, 10-1002, and 10-1003. The Court determined that its previous rulings in Parker v. State[5] and Gillis v. State[6] overlooked situations where it is impractical for the State to produce all required links in the chain of custody and that under these circumstances, evidence is admissible when the State presents testimony that establishes its integrity.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "[O]rdinarily a trial court's ruling[s] on the admissibility of evidence are reviewed for abuse of discretion." Gordon v. State, 431 Md. 527, 533, 66 A.3d 647, 650 (2013). "[A] court's decision is an abuse of discretion when it is 'well removed from any center mark imagined by the reviewing court and beyond the fringe of what that court deems minimally acceptable.'" Alexis v. State, 437 Md. 457, 478, 87 A.3d 1243, 1255 (2014) (quoting Gray v. State, 388 Md. 366, 383, 879 A.2d 1064 (2005)). Further, "even with respect to a discretionary matter, a trial court must exercise its discretion in accordance with correct legal standards." Schisler v. State, 394 Md. 519, 535, 907 A.2d 175, 184 (2006); State v. Graves, 447 Md. 230, 240, 135 A.3d 376, 382 (2016). As such, we examine a trial court's admissibility determinations for an abuse of discretion. Williams v. State, 457 Md. 551, 563, 179 A.3d 1006, 1013 (2018).

         DISCUSSION

         The establishment of chain of custody is a trial court determination made after considering all of the evidence presented. In rendering its determination, the court evaluates whether the State satisfied its burden of establishing that the evidence presented at trial is in substantially the same condition as it was when initially recovered. Here, the defense made a timely demand pursuant to Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-1003. Thereafter, the State offered evidence to support the establishment of chain of custody, which included the testimony of the seizing officer and the state chemist who analyzed the substance. Petitioner avers that the State did not establish chain of custody because the State did not produce the packaging officer as required under Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-1003, thereby precluding the trial court from ascertaining whether the integrity of the drugs was maintained. The State responds by asserting that it demonstrated that the evidence was substantially in the same condition as when recovered, and presented sufficient evidence to demonstrate the absence of tampering, including the testimony of the seizing officer and the chemist.

         To determine whether the chain of custody was properly established, we must first review the common law principles that governed the admission of evidence prior to the enactment of Cts. & Jud. Proc. §§ 10-1001, 10-1002, and 10-1003. Then, we must determine how Maryland Rule 5-901, which governs the requirement of authentication or identification as a condition precedent to the admissibility of evidence, discussed infra, affects the establishment of chain of custody. As we will demonstrate, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the evidence.

         The admission of suspected drug evidence at common law

         At common law, suspected controlled dangerous substances were admissible at trial upon a showing that the evidence was what it purported to be. In this regard, the State called all the persons who handled the evidence to substantiate its validity. A trial court then determined whether the evidence was substantially in the same condition to negate the reasonable possibility of tampering. Finally, if the burden was satisfied, the court would admit the evidence. See, e.g., Nixon v. State, 204 Md. 475, 482, 105 A.2d 243, 247 (1954) (holding that it is necessary or desirable that the evidence remains in the same condition as originally found and that a challenge to the validity of a piece of evidence is a question of reasonable probability not certainty); Cooper v. State, 434 Md. 209, 227, 73 A.3d 1108, 1119 (2013) (holding that "[w]hen determining whether a proper chain of custody has been established courts examine whether there is a 'reasonable probability that no tampering occurred'").

         Typically, the defense was free to argue that the evidence was unreliable, but such challenges did not prevent the admission of the evidence. See Graham v. State, 239 Md. 521, 528, 212 A.2d 287, 291 (1965). In Graham, we found that where the chain of custody is established, arguments that sought to undermine the evidence did not prevent its admission, but rather go to the weight given by the trier of fact. Id. See also Lingner v. State, 199 Md. 503, 507, 86 A.2d 888, 890 (1952) (holding that when evaluating the connection between a defendant and a particular piece of evidence "probability is the only requirement. If there is any doubt, the decision is on the weight of the evidence, not on any question of admissibility"). Thus when seeking to admit evidence at common law, the State only needed to establish beyond a degree of reasonable probability that the evidence was what it purported to be.

         This manner of evidentiary admission functioned until 1974, when the Legislature enacted Laws 1974, chapter 794, now codified as Cts. & Jud. Proc. §§ 10-1001, 10-1002, and 10-1003. In creating these rules, the legislature created procedural mechanisms that shortcut the admission of evidence by removing the requirement that all persons linked in the chain of custody be called to testify. Where the statutory scheme is comprehensive, trial courts need only apply the statutes to the particular facts at issue.

         Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-1001 provides:

For the purpose of establishing that physical evidence in a criminal or civil proceeding constitutes a particular controlled dangerous substance under Title 5 of the Criminal Law Article, a report signed by the chemist or analyst who performed the test or tests as to its nature is prima facie evidence that the material delivered to the chemist or analyst was properly tested under procedures approved by the Maryland Department of Health, that those procedures are legally reliable, that the material was delivered to the chemist or analyst by the officer or person stated in the report, and that the material was or contained the substance therein stated, without the necessity of the chemist or analyst personally appearing in court, provided the report identifies the chemist or analyst as an individual certified by the Maryland Department of Health, the Department of State Police, the Baltimore City Police Department, or any county police department employing analysts of controlled dangerous substances, as qualified under standards approved by the Maryland Department of Health to analyze those substances, states that the chemist or analyst made an analysis of the material under procedures approved by that department, and also states that the substance, in the opinion of the chemist or analyst, is or contains the particular controlled dangerous substance specified. Nothing in this section precludes the right of any party to introduce any evidence supporting or contradicting the evidence contained in or the presumptions raised by the report.

(Emphasis added).

         Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-1002 provides:

(a) In this part:
(1) "Chain of custody" means:
(i) The seizing officer;
(ii) The packaging officer, if the packaging officer is not also the seizing officer; and (iii) The chemist or other person who actually touched the substance and not merely the outer sealed package in which the substance was placed by the law enforcement agency before or during the analysis of the substance; and
(2) "Chain of custody" does not include a person who handled the substance in any form after analysis of the substance.
***
(b)(1) For the purpose of establishing, in a criminal or civil proceeding, the chain of physical custody or control of evidence consisting of or containing a substance tested or analyzed to determine whether it is a controlled dangerous substance under Title 5 of the Criminal Law Article, a statement signed by each successive person in the chain of custody that the person delivered it to the other person indicated on or about the date stated is prima facie evidence that the person had custody and made the delivery as stated, without the necessity of a personal appearance in court by the person signing the statement.
(2) The statement shall contain a sufficient description of the material or its container so as to distinguish it as the particular item in question and shall state that the material was delivered in essentially the same condition as received.
(3) The statement may be placed on the same document as the report provided for in § 10-1001 of this part.
(4) Nothing in this section precludes the right of any party to introduce any evidence supporting or contradicting the evidence contained in or the presumption raised by the statement.

(Emphasis added).

         Finally, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-1003 provides:

(a)(1) In a criminal proceeding, the prosecution shall, upon written demand of a defendant filed in the proceedings at least 5 days prior to a trial in the proceeding, require the presence of the chemist, analyst, or any person in the chain of custody as a prosecution witness.
(2) The provisions of ยงยง 10-1001 and 10-1002 of this part concerning prima facie evidence do not apply to the ...

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