More California Supreme Court guidance on Sanchez hearsay issues: Veamatahau and Perez
In late February 2020 the California Supreme Court handed us some important decisions about Sanchez hearsay issues and it can be very, very important to understand how this works at trial.
To start, per People v. Sanchez ((2016) 63 Cal.4th 665), an expert can “relate to the jury background information that is technically hearsay, including general knowledge and ‘premises generally accepted in his field[,]’” but “cannot ‘relate as true case-specific facts asserted in hearsay statements, unless they are independently proven by competent evidence or are covered by a hearsay exception.’”
Well, that opened the door for us to try and understand what is “case-specific” hearsay. In People v. Veamatahau (2020 Cal. LEXIS 1219, filed February 27, 2020), the issue was the expert using an online drug database website (ie. the arguably single-source, case specific hearsay) to identify an illegal drug. These are similar facts to People v. Stamps ((2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 988), where the expert did the same thing using the Ident-A-Drug website (“[i]nformation from the Ident-A-Drug database—that pills matching a certain description contain opioids—was hearsay but not case-specific.”)
Specifically here, the expert told the jury he identified Defendant’s controlled substance “by comparing the visual characteristics of the pills seized against a database containing descriptions of pharmaceuticals.” “The expert testified that this procedure was ‘the generally accepted method of testing for this kind of substance in the scientific community,’ and his search on the database led him to the conclusion that the pills contained alprazolam, the generic name for Xanax. The expert also revealed the contents of the database, stating that if one looks up a particular imprint number, ‘[the database is] going to tell you that … [a pill bearing such imprint] contains alprazolam, 2 milligrams.’” The jury convicted defendant of possession of alprazolam.
The Supremes ultimately held here the “testimony about the database, while hearsay, was not case specific, but the type of general background information which has always been admissible when related by an expert.” Thus, such testimony does not violate Sanchez.
The Court also gives some other statements of clarification: “The distinction between case-specific facts and background information thus is crucial—the former may be excluded as hearsay, the latter may not.” “By contrast, an expert may not relate inadmissible ‘case-specific facts about which the expert has no independent knowledge.’” “Case-specific facts are those relating to the particular events and participants alleged to have been involved in the case being tried.” “Simply because an expert obtained information from a database—instead of, say, a list of gang symbols maintained by a law enforcement agency—does not metamorphose that information from background knowledge into case-specific facts.”
“[A]n expert may consult specific sources in a case—a textbook, a treatise, or an academic paper—and supply the information found therein to the jury as background information without running afoul of the hearsay rules.” The Court also explains how opposing counsel is free to cross examine using California Evidence Code 721(b) with this same information. In addition, referring to California Evidence Code 801(a), “if an expert is merely parroting hearsay information without understanding the information or otherwise providing explanation to ‘assist the trier of fact’” the so-called expert can be prohibited from testifying altogether.”
All 7 California Supreme Court Justices were in agreement.
In another February 27, 2020 filed decision, the California Supreme held that when Defense failed to object about Sanchez hearsay before Sanchez was decided did not forfeit the objection. The issue here was an objection to Confrontation as it related to what Sanchez was about to become. Basically, we don’t have crystal balls to see into the future and here “defendant need[ed] not predict subsequent substantive changes in law in order to preserve objections.” See People v. Perez, 2020 Cal. LEXIS 1221. Again, all Justices held in agreement.