Court Rules Indigent Defendant Must Pay for Independent Drug Test

By July 27, 2015Drug Crimes

Drug Crimes Can Come With Added Costs | Fort Worth Drug Crimes Defense Attorneys

In a pre-trial motion, Ehrke requested the trial court to provide for independent testing of the substance. Ehrke’s attorney argued that, because 1.6 grams was so close to the 0.99 gram for a lighter sentence, independent testing was justified.

The trial court agreed it was required to allow Ehrke’s counsel to inspect and examine the substance. However, because Ehrke did not demonstrate the need for the test or any reason why a second test would have different results, the judge denied the motion for independent testing. Ehrke’s counsel’s offer to secure payment for the testing did not change the judge’s decision.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court. The court based its decision on Ehrke’s failure to show a particular need for independent testing or how an independent chemist would arrive at a different result.

On appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the CCA identified two issues: (1) whether Ehrke had a right to inspection of the substance by an independent expert and (2) whether the state was required to pay for such an inspection.

The Court noted the Code of Criminal Procedure provided for a defendant to inspect evidence material to the state’s case, but only if the defendant showed good cause for a request to inspect evidence. However, courts had found inspection mandatory if the evidence is material to the defendant’s case.

The CCA said that in a controlled substance case, if the defendant asks to inspect the substance, the court must allow inspection because the substance will necessarily be material to the defense–no showing of good cause is required.

The CCA addressed the question of what an “inspection” entails. Obviously, simply looking at the substance, which is apparently all the trial court offered Ehrke’s counsel, would not determine either its substance or its weight. The Court stated that in a controlled substance case, the right to pay for an independent chemist to analyze the substance is absolute.

On the second issue, the CCA acknowledged an indigent defendant’s right to a court-appointed (read “court-paid”) expert but said the defendant has the burden to provide specific justification for appointment of the expert. In Ehrke’s case, the CCA said, no specific justification had been provided. Even though Ehrke’s counsel explained the rationale for his request, he did not provide any evidence to question the original analysis by the DPS chemist, did not explain how independent testing was required for his defense and did not provide information regarding the complexity of the testing. According to the CCA, an absolute right to state-funded independent testing would be too great a financial burden to the County; therefore, appointment of an expert is required only if there is some preliminary evidence of a significant issue of fact to justify the appointment.

The Court remanded the case to the trial court for proceedings on the first issue.

The bifurcated decision in this case is perplexing. The Court said chemical analysis of an alleged controlled substance will always be material to a defendant’s case and discarded the Code’s requirement of a showing of good cause, making the right to independent testing absolute.

However, in the second issue, the Court seems to have abandoned its notion of materiality for a standard of affordability. On the part of the defendant, the Court cited case law that the state is not required to provide an indigent defendant with everything a wealthier defendant might be able to afford. More importantly, the Court concluded the financial burden to the County of paying for independent chemical testing in all controlled substance cases would be too great.

Examples abound of wealthy defendants procuring a better defense than an indigent defendant.  However, if an issue is always material to an indigent defendant’s case to the point of making the right to independent testing absolute, it seems odd that the indigent defendant’s right can be defeated by fiscal concerns of the County, which is in a much better position to pay for testing.

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