Untangling Admissibility in State v. Gibbs. – North Carolina Criminal Law

Untangling Admissibility in State v. Gibbs. – North Carolina Criminal Law

Is fentanyl an opiate?  That’s the question the prosecutor asked a witness in State v Gibbs.  The trial court overruled the defendant’s objection, and the witness was permitted to testify that fentanyl was both an opioid and an opiate.  In an unpublished opinion (“Gibbs I”), the Court of Appeals ruled this was error, reversing a conviction for trafficking by possession.  Our Supreme Court then reversed the Court of Appeals.  In a concise, per curiam opinion, our Supreme Court declared that whether fentanyl is an opiate is a question of law, and it remanded for reconsideration.  In a subsequent unpublished opinion (“Gibbs II”), the Court of Appeals determined that fentanyl is an opiate as a matter of law.  Reasoning that there was no need for an expert witness to testify on the issue, the Court of Appeals concluded that there was no error in the defendant’s conviction for trafficking.  Of course, whether such testimony is necessary does not resolve whether this particular evidence was admissibleGibbs is an evidence case, but the rule it illustrates is elusive.  This post examines Gibbs to ascertain whether the prosecutor asked a permissible question.

A. Classification of fentanyl.

Opium “is a natural substance extracted from the unripe seed pods of the opium poppy, papaver somniferum.”  State v. Garrett, 277 N.C. App. 493, 497–98, 860 S.E.2d 282, 286, disc. review denied, __ N.C. __, 860 S.E.2d 916 (2021).  “Opiates” are defined as natural analgesic drugs derived from opium, e.g., heroin, morphine, and codeine, whereas “opioids” are a category of drugs either partially or wholly synthetic, designed to mimic the effects of opium.  Id. at 498, 860 S.E.2d at 286.  Fentanyl is wholly manmade with no natural components, hence an opioid.  Id.  These definitions are not, however, universal, and “there is significant variation and overlap.”  Id.

My colleague Phil Dixon has posted previously about simple possession of fentanyl.  As he noted, fentanyl is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance.  N.C.G.S. § 90-90(2)(h).  (The relevant statutes have recently been amended to clarify the criminalization of fentanyl.)  Relevant to Gibbs, Section 90-90 was amended in July 2017.  The list of controlled substances including fentanyl did not change, but whereas it previously encompassed “the following opiates,” it subsequently encompassed “the following opiates or opioids.”  Compare N.C.G.S. § 90-90(2) (2015), with id. (2019).  The defendant’s convictions in Gibbs included possession with intent to sell or deliver a Schedule II controlled substance, i.e., fentanyl.  That charge was not at issue.

Rather, the defendant in Gibbs challenged his conviction for trafficking in “opium or opiate” under Section 90-95(h)(4), which at that time did not include the term “opioid.”  See N.C.G.S. § 90-95(h)(4) (2017).  Opiate is defined by statute as any substance having an addiction-forming or addiction-sustaining liability similar to morphine or being capable of conversion into a drug with such qualities.  N.C.G.S. § 90-87(18) (2017).  Opioid is defined as any synthetic narcotic drug having opiate-like activities but is not derived from opium.  N.C.G.S. § 90-87(18a) (2017).

In Garrett, the Court of Appeals had previously held that fentanyl qualifies as an opiate under Section 90-95(h)(4).  As our Supreme Court noted, however, “Garrett involved the version of the trafficking statute that was in place in 2016, which did not recognize opioids as a class of controlled substances and listed fentanyl as an opiate.”  State v. Gibbs, 384 N.C. 654, 655, 877 S.E.2d 846, 847 (2023).  While Gibbs I was pending, the Court of Appeals allowed supplemental briefing on the effect of GarrettSee 5/28/21 order in Case No. COA20-591.  In Gibbs I, it ultimately distinguished Garrett, explaining that the dispositive issue in that case was whether the indictment was defective, not whether a witness was qualified to opine that fentanyl is an opiate.  State v. Gibbs, No. COA20-591, Slip Op. p. 9 n.2 (N.C. Ct. App. Nov. 2, 2021) (unpublished).

B. Qualification of an expert.

The qualification of expert witnesses is governed by Evidence Rule 702.  “If scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion.”  N.C.G.S. § 8C-1, Rule 702. The Rule was amended in 2011, adopting the federal standard for the admission of expert testimony, and making North Carolina a Daubert state.  See State v. McGrady, 368 N.C. 880, 884, 787 S.E.2d 1, 5 (2016).  The rule has three parts, each of which must be satisfied before expert testimony is admissible: (1) the evidence must be relevant, (2) the witness must be qualified, and (3) the testimony must be reliable.  As for the witness’s qualification, the rule does not require the witness to have any particular degree or certification, but the trial court may consider such indices of expertise.  In any event, “the trial court has the discretion to determine whether the witness is sufficiently qualified to testify.”  Id. at 889-90, 787 S.E.2d at 8-9.

In Gibbs, the defendant was approached by police and fled, abandoning a backpack.  Inside the backpack, officers found a white powdery substance along with identification cards and pieces of mail showing the defendant’s name.  A forensic chemist with the State Crime Lab identified the substance as fentanyl, but her lab report did not classify fentanyl as either an opioid or an opiate.  The defendant was charged with trafficking in opiates, possession of a Schedule II controlled substance, and possession of drug paraphernalia.  Gibbs, No. COA20-591, Slip Op. pp. 3-4.

Before jury selection, the prosecutor asked the trial court for an “advisory ruling” on whether fentanyl was an opioid or an opiate.  The trial court declined to give an advisory ruling, agreeing with defense counsel that whether trafficking in fentanyl was prohibited at the time would be determined by the expert’s testimony.  Gibbs, No. COA20-591, Slip Op. pp. 4-5.  As noted above, the chemist was permitted to testify that fentanyl was both an opioid and an opiate, but “[i]n this particular instance, fentanyl is considered an opiate.”  Gibbs, COA20-591, Slip Op. pp. 6-7.

Upon review, the Court of Appeals in Gibbs I noted the chemist’s credentials: she held a master’s degree in chemistry; passed the American Board of Criminalistics Certification exam; and worked for the State Crime Lab for about fifteen years.  Further, she had attended three recent trainings on opiates.  The chemist also testified, however, that she didn’t think it was incorrect to classify fentanyl as an opiate; that she received only a general overview of addiction-forming properties of opiates, opioids, and opium; and that her training did not specifically include information about addiction-forming or sustaining liability.  Gibbs, COA20-591, Slip Op. pp. 9‑10.

Given this latter testimony, the Court of Appeals in Gibbs I held the trial court erred by admitting the expert’s opinion on fentanyl.  “Without attending training or having knowledge of the characteristics of an opiate,” it said, the witness “was not qualified to opine fentanyl satisfied the statutory definition of an opiate.”  Gibbs, COA20-591, Slip Op. p. 11.  Based on this error, the majority reversed the defendant’s conviction for trafficking in opiates.  Id. at 15.  Chief Judge Stroud dissented, conferring a right to appeal to our Supreme Court.  See N.C.G.S. § 7A‑30.

C. Testimony on Questions of Law.

“[A]t common law courts do not allow opinion on a question of law, unless the issue concerns foreign law.”  1 McCormick on Evid. § 16 (8th ed. 2022).  Expert testimony on the law is inadmissible under Federal Rules of Evidence 403 and 702.  Thomas E. Baker, The Impropriety of Expert Witness Testimony on the Law, 40 U. Kan. L. Rev. 325, 337 (1992).  The adoption of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence in 1984 did not change the rule that an expert may not testify that a particular legal conclusion or standard has been met, “at least where the standard is a legal term of art which carries a specific legal meaning not readily apparent to the witness.”  State v. Smith, 315 N.C. 76, 100, 337 S.E.2d 833, 849 (1985); accord State v. Fisher, 336 N.C. 684, 703, 445 S.E.2d 866, 877 (1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1098, 130 L. Ed. 2d 665 (1995); cf. State v. Parker, 354 N.C. 268, 289, 553 S.E.2d 885, 900 (2001) (“Testimony about a legal conclusion based on certain facts is improper.”), cert. denied, 535 U.S. 1114, 153 L.Ed.2d 162 (2002).

Our Supreme Court has discerned “two overriding reasons” for excluding expert testimony on questions of law:

The first is that such testimony invades not the province of the jury but the province of the court to determine the applicable law and to instruct the jury as to that law.  It is for the court to explain to the jury the given legal standard or conclusion at issue and how it should be determined. To permit the expert to make this determination usurps the function of the judge. The second reason is that an expert is in no better position to conclude whether a legal standard has been satisfied or a legal conclusion should be drawn than is a jury which has been properly instructed on the standard or conclusion.

HAJMM Co. v. House of Raeford Farms, Inc., 328 N.C. 578, 587, 403 S.E.2d 483, 489 (1991) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

From Gibbs I, the State appealed to our Supreme Court based on Chief Judge Stroud’s dissent, “which would have held that it was not an abuse of discretion to allow the expert to testify that fentanyl is an opiate.”  State v. Gibbs, 384 N.C. at 655, 887 S.E.2d at 847.  Beyond reciting the factual and procedural history, our Supreme Court’s opinion consists largely of the following: “The trial court erred in concluding that whether fentanyl is an opiate is a question of fact.  Instead, whether fentanyl was an opiate for purposes of the trafficking statute in 2018 is a question of law.”  Id.  This was the premise from which our Supreme Court succinctly concluded: “Because it is a legal question of statutory interpretation, it was not necessary to have expert testimony to establish whether fentanyl is an opiate and it was not necessary to have what otherwise may have been appropriate discovery by the defense of the basis for the expert’s opinion on that question.”  Id.  Our Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals’ opinion in Gibbs I and remanded to that court for consideration of whether fentanyl was an opiate at the time of the defendant’s possession.  Id.

Upon remand, our Court of Appeals in Gibbs II relied upon the reasoning in Garrett and concluded that, for purposes of the appliable statutes, “fentanyl is an opiate as a matter of law.”  State v. Gibbs, No. COA20-591-2, Slip Op. p. 7 (N.C. Ct. App. Sep. 9, 2023) (unpublished).  Echoing the Supreme Court’s opinion, the Court of Appeals declared: “there was no need for an expert witness to testify at Defendant’s trial regarding whether it was an opioid or opiate.”  Id.  “Accordingly,” it said, “we conclude there was no error regarding Defendant’s conviction for trafficking by possession of an opiate.”  Id.

D. Conclusion.

Gibbs is an evidence case.  Indeed, the issue upon which the Court of Appeals in Gibbs I awarded relief – and which conferred a right to appeal to our Supreme Court – is whether the trial court erred by admitting expert testimony “that fentanyl was an opiate.”  Gibbs, No. COA20-591, Slip Op. p. 15.  Although it is not entirely clear, the evidence rule Gibbs seems to be applying is the prohibition on expert testimony regarding a question of law.  To be sure, neither our Supreme Court nor the Court of Appeals in Gibbs II articulates that rule explicitly or even cites any authority pointing to it.  But that is the rule most directly implicated by the error committed by the trial court and identified by our Supreme Court: “concluding that whether fentanyl is an opiate is a question of fact.”  Gibbs, 384 N.C. at 655, 887 S.E.2d at 847.  Consequently, not only was it unnecessary to have expert testimony to establish whether fentanyl is an opiate, but it was also improper under this rule to allow admission of the testimony.  See e.g., Parker, 354 N.C. at 289, 553 S.E.2d at 900.

Unlike many other evidence cases, however, Gibbs is also a case about the role of the judge and jury.  As our Supreme Court elsewhere explained, it is for the court to determine the applicable law and to instruct the jury as to that law.  HAJMM Co., 328 N.C. at 587, 403 S.E.2d at 489.  The trial court in Gibbs erred by admitting expert testimony on whether fentanyl is an opiate under Section 90-95, as though it was for the jury to determine whether possession was a crime.  But if the trial court erred in that regard, the parties were perhaps complicit.  Questions about the scope of the applicable law should neither be submitted to the trial court for advisory ruling nor proffered as a basis for expert testimony.  Rather, such questions may be litigated and resolved upon motion to dismiss (for failure to allege an offense) or during the charge conference.

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