Firearms Expert’s Prior Weapons Identification is Challenged as Hearsay

Zach Barreto

Written by
— Updated on September 17, 2020

Firearms Expert’s Prior Weapons Identification is Challenged as Hearsay

Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: United States v. Brinson
Citation: 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 31231

Facts

The appellant appealed against his conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He contended that the district court had erred by accepting a firearms expert’s testimony about his previous identification of firearms. The appellant also argued that the district court wrongly refused his petition for acquittal and that the evidence was inadequate to justify his prosecution. He asserted that the state had failed to prove through photographic evidence found on social media that he was actually carrying a firearm.

The Firearms Expert Witness

The firearms expert witness was a retired resident agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). He was currently working as a detective in the violent crimes unit of a sheriff’s department in Florida. The expert held a degree in criminal justice from Florida Atlantic University. He was very experienced in the field of firearms, firearm cyber crime investigations, international and domestic firearms trafficking investigations, and the protocols, laws and rules pertaining to the trade, production and sale of firearms. He had also been involved in a variety of related multi-jurisdictional complex cases, including smuggling in weapons and long-term undercover operations. He was also experienced in multi-agency task forces to investigate and prosecute arms traffickers and terrorists.

Also, in his training with the ATF, the expert toured and researched several firearm manufacturers and firearm reference museums/collections in the U.S. and Europe. The appellant challenged the expert’s testimony on having accurately identified 32 firearms prior to this case.

Discussion

The court noted that relevant evidence can be excluded under Rule 703 of the Federal Rules of Evidence “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” The court also noted that review of plain-error applied in this case because the appellant objected to the details of the firearms expert’s testimony regarding accurate prior identification, but had not objected to the expert’s testimony about making those identifications, citing United v. Vereen’s holding that plain-error review applies to objections not raised in the district court.

The court was of the opinion that there was no error in admitting the challenged opinion because the expert had made it to establish his qualification as a firearms expert witness, which was supported by his experience with the ATF. The court also noted that even if his testimony was prejudicial, its probative value in informing the jury about his experience in gun identification far outweighed the prejudice. Furthermore, the court distinguished the present case from United States v. Scrima, which the appellant had relied on, because Scrima dealt with an expert’s dependence on hearsay to form an opinion, whereas here the opinion was based on the firearms expert’s training and experience in identifying firearms.

Held

The court held that the district court had not erred in admitting the firearms expert’s testimony and denied the appellant’s motion.

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