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COA says drug officer could testify about meth yield

 

Even without a chemistry degree, a sheriff’s captain was qualified to testify as to the theoretical yield of methamphetamine from a specific amount of pseudoephedrine, the state Court of Appeals has ruled in a case of first impression.

In its Aug. 15 decision in State v. Mealor, a three-judge panel unanimously found that the trial court did not err by qualifying as an expert a veteran meth investigator who has attended a meth lab training school and manufactured the drug in a controlled crime lab setting.

The defendant, Michael Mealor, had argued that Capt. Chad Brooks lacked the appropriate chemistry education to provide reliable testimony.

Writing for the court, Judge Aphrodite Konduros acknowledged the court’s gatekeeper role regarding the reliability of proffered evidence, and the South Carolina Rule of Evidence 702’s requirement that in order to testify an expert witness must be qualified by “knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education.”

Brooks, the court held, fit the bill.

“Captain Brooks had more knowledge about manufacturing methamphetamine and calculating methamphetamine yield than the jury would have as common knowledge, and his testimony assisted the jury in understanding how methamphetamine labs operate,” Konduros wrote. “This is all that Rule 702 requires.”

The math of meth

According to court records, a Pickens County reserve deputy monitoring a national database noticed a trend of individuals with the same address purchasing pseudoephedrine on the same day or within a few days of each other. The deputy suspected that “smurfing”—the practice of recruiting others to buy pseudoephedrine to sidestep legal purchasing limits—was afoot.

After several months of investigation, Mealor and other suspects were arrested. Many suspects testified that they bought pseudoephedrine for Mealor and that he was going to make meth with it. According to the database, Mealor and his girlfriend bought 138 grams of pseudoephedrine in 2011 and were blocked from purchasing it 12 times.

Brooks, the sheriff’s captain, testified that he had seized more than 200 meth labs, had manufactured meth in a controlled setting, was certified by the DEA as a meth lab site safety officer, and was trained to determine the yield of methamphetamine from the amount of precursor elements.

“It’s basically a mathematical equation,” he testified.

According to solicitors, Mealor’s purchases combined with pseudoephedrine given to him by witnesses totaled 243 grams. That, according to Brooks’s calculations, could potentially yield between 97 and 223 grams of meth.

Testifying in his defense, Mealor claimed that all the ephedrine he and his wife (also a defendant) bought was used to treat their sinus and allergy problems. Mealor said that since he had no way to get around, he would buy pseudoephedrine whenever someone would drive him to the store.

Mealor also said that he and his wife bought pseudoephedrine at the same stores at the same time because they “never left each other’s side,” and the fact that he bought the product from the same pharmacy or nearby pharmacies around the same time as some of the witnesses was simply coincidence.

The jury convicted Mealor of trafficking more than 28 grams, but less than 100 grams. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Objection: speculation

According to Mealor, internet research suggests that experts disagree on the actual conversion measurements, and the yield is different depending on how the meth is cooked, who cooks it, and what’s done with it.

Relying heavily on the state Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling in State v. Cain, Mealor’s appellate attorney, Ryan Andrews of Cobb Dill & Hammett in Mount Pleasant, argued that where the state doesn’t establish the level of efficiency a defendant can achieve in manufacturing meth, the jury must speculate as to whether he could actually produce the requisite quantity.

“There wasn’t any testimony at trial how good a cook Mr. Mealor actually was, his environment, or the products he could use,” Andrews said.

The court, however, found that Brooks explained that those factors are what cause a range of yields rather than a specific percentage that would be the yield in any situation. Brooks didn’t develop the calculation, Konduros wrote, he “simply utilized it as he was trained.”

“As numerous courts have held, this is a widely accepted calculation,” she added.

The appeals court also held that it was not necessary for the witness to have certain degrees, and that issue went to credibility rather than admissibility. Mealor had unsuccessfully renewed his objection when Brooks began testifying about the yield, calling it “basically, chemistry testimony.”

An email sent to the state Attorney General’s office seeking comment was not returned.

The 23-page decision is State v. Mealor (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-081-18). An opinion digest is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @SCLWHamacher

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