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In-court marijuana field test ruled error, but not reversible

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An appeals court panel ruled that a deputy’s in-court field test to prove a substance was marijuana should not have been allowed, but it declined to use the error as a basis to reverse a man’s misdemeanor conviction.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a conviction and one-year suspended sentence for Class A misdemeanor possession of marijuana in Kyle L. Doolin v. State of Indiana, 32A01-1111-CR-545, but it agreed with Doolin’s argument that Hendricks Superior Judge David Coleman should not have allowed a sheriff’s deputy to conduct a test on the evidence during a bench trial.

At trial, Hendricks County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Petree testified about a search of a vehicle in which Doolin was a passenger after a traffic stop on Interstate 70 when the vehicle changed lanes without a proper signal. Petree found what appeared to be marijuana concealed in a locked glove box. Doolin admitted after his arrest that it was his and he wished to take responsibility for it.

The court allowed Petree to perform a field test during the trial on the evidence over Doolin’s repeated objection. Petree placed a small amount of the green, leafy substance in a glass bottle into which Petree dropped a capsule and shook the bottle to break the capsule, releasing a chemical that turned blue when in contact with THC, the active compound in marijuana.

The first test failed, and Coleman allowed a second test over Doolin’s objections that there was no foundation for the reliability of the test and that Petree was not a chemist.

“The State simply presented no foundational evidence of the test used. Because of this dearth of evidence regarding this field test, we find the State failed to establish the test’s reliability under Rule 702(b), and the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the results into evidence,” Judge James Kirsch wrote in a unanimous opinion.

But the court said the error would not likely have invalidated Doolin’s conviction. He acknowledged possessing the marijuana, and Petree’s training, observation and circumstantial evidence were sufficient to determine that the substance was marijuana.

“Accordingly, we conclude that while it was error for the trial court to admit the in-court field test, the error was harmless in light of the other independent evidence of the identity of the substance,” Kirsch wrote.

The opinion also said the judges’ findings should not be read too broadly and hinted at guidance in terms of when such tests may be admissible during court.

“We note that our holding today does not represent a conclusion that all field tests of marijuana conducted in the courtroom are, per se, inadmissible; nor do we find that in-court field tests on marijuana may never be used as substantive evidence of guilt, as Doolin asks us to do. Rather, we hold that under the facts and circumstances of this case, the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted the results of Deputy Petree’s in-court field test because of the lack of foundation as to its reliability,” Kirsch wrote.
 

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