New Case Limits Cell Phone Records “Expert” Testimony

Expert witnesses receive a lot of attention in the media and in TV shows. As such, the public is often familiar with the importance that expert witnesses play. But most people never give thought to the question of who can be an expert witness. Surprisingly, expert witnesses aren’t always high level doctors, scientists, or professors. And the question of who can be an expert witness can often make or break a case.

Officer Testifies as an Expert in Recent Case

In 2007, officers discovered human remains on fire. Through the course of their murder investigation, the police obtained cell phone records of certain people. The cell phone records eventually aided the police investigation, which ultimately lead to the arrest of the defendants, Joseph Payne and Jason Bond.

The phone records were thousands of pages. As part of the investigation, the officer narrowed calls by time frame, which calls the officer considered pertinent, and which calls were relevant based upon cell tower ID numbers. The officer said he could tell by the cell record which calls were inbound or outbound, and when each call was made.

The officer said he then matched cell phone data points with a map on a website to get the exact longitude and latitude of each call. This way, he could track which of the defendant’s cell calls bounced off which cell tower, and pinpoint his location.

The State used this information to argue to the jury that the defendant was in the correct location to have committed the murders. The defendant’s attorney objected to the officer’s testimony regarding the cell phone records, stating that the officer was not qualified to testify as an expert witness on the cell phone records. But the officer’s testimony was admitted, and the jury convicted the defendants of first-degree murder and kidnapping.

Appeal Narrows Definition of Expert Testimony

The defendants appealed the conviction, contending that the officer was not an expert witness qualified to interpret the cell phone records, and thus couldn’t render the expert testimony regarding the cell records and their significance related to the murder.

Normally, a non-expert is limited in what kind of opinions can be provided at trial. A non-expert’s testimony can generally only be based on the witness’ perception. For example, a regular witness could say a car he observed was going “fast,” if he saw it, but could not render an opinion that a car was going “100 mph,” an exact figure that would take data, scientific knowledge, and calculations to make.

The state argued to the appellate court that the officer wasn’t actually providing any expert testimony; he was just reading from cell records or maps. But the appellate court disagreed, finding that the officer engaged in a process, and gave testimony, that was beyond the ordinary and common knowledge of a non-expert.

The records the officer relied upon were not the normal cell records that a regular individual ordinarily gets in the mail. The data extracted from them wasn’t normally available to a regular individual who wasn’t trained to interpret it. Thus, the court believed that call detail records contain information not decipherable by a non-expert. Rather, doing so requires requisite experience, skill or knowledge.

Thus, the officer was required to have been qualified as an expert witness by the judge. The conviction was overturned, and the case sent back to the trial court for a new trial.

Evidence issues can be the difference between guilty and not guilty. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience with all evidentiary issues that arise in criminal trial law. If you or someone you know was charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.