Justices take up expert testimony question in “blind mule” drug-trafficking case

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SCOTUS NEWS

The court added Diaz v. United States to its 2023-24 term docket on Monday. (R Boed via Flickr)

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether prosecutors in a drug-trafficking case can call a government witness to provide expert testimony to rebut the defendant’s assertion that she did not know that she was carrying drugs, a so-called “blind mule.” The announcement came on a list of orders released from the justices’ private conference on Thursday.

The court will hear oral argument sometime next year in the case of Delilah Diaz, who was apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border with 28 kilograms of methamphetamine hidden in her car. Diaz contended that the car belonged to her boyfriend and that she didn’t know that the drugs were there.

Because Diaz could only be convicted of drug trafficking if the government could prove that Diaz knew she was transporting drugs, prosecutors called a Homeland Security agent as an expert witness at her trial. The agent testified that drug couriers generally know when they are carrying drugs across the border. Indeed, he noted, drug traffickers rarely use blind mules to carry large quantities of drugs because they don’t want to risk losing the drugs. Diaz was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.

On appeal, Diaz argued that the admission of the agent’s testimony violated the Federal Rules of Evidence, which bar expert witnesses from stating an opinion about whether a defendant had the proper mental state to commit a crime or to assert a defense. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit rejected her appeal, reasoning that the evidentiary rules only prohibit expert witnesses from specifically stating whether someone knew he was committing a crime. Diaz came to the Supreme Court last summer, asking the justices to weigh in.

Diaz’s case was the only case in which the justices granted review on Monday. The court called for the Biden administration’s views in an antitrust case brought by a U.S.-based soccer promoter against the U.S. Soccer Federation and the Federation Internationale de Football Association (commonly known as FIFA). The promoter, Relevent Sports, contends that FIFA and U.S. Soccer entered into an agreement that bars soccer leagues and teams from playing official league games outside of their home territories. The specific question on which U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar will weigh in is whether an allegation that members of an association agreed to adhere to the association’s rule is enough, standing alone, to plead a conspiracy for purposes of federal antitrust laws. There is no deadline for the solicitor general to file her brief.

Over a dissent from the court’s three liberal justices, the justices denied review in Johnson v. Prentice, in which they had been asked to decide when prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment by continuously depriving an inmate in solitary confinement of exercise. The question came to the court in the case of Michael Johnson, who spent over three years in isolation at a state prison in Illinois. Johnson, who suffers from serious mental illness, including bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression, was initially placed in solitary confinement for violating prison rules. Once there, his access to exercise was severely limited because of further infractions, which included spitting at guards and smearing his own feces around his cell: For a total of about three years, Johnson was only allowed one hour of exercise outside of his cell per month, and he contends that for nearly a year he did not even receive that hour.

Johnson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against prison officials. A federal appeals court in Illinois rejected his claim. It ruled that depriving an inmate of access to exercise does not violate the Eighth Amendment unless it is done so as punishment for a “trivial infraction.” After the full appeals court declined to rehear his case, Johnson came to the Supreme Court, which rejected his appeal on Monday.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented, in an opinion joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Instead of looking at the reasons why Johnson had been deprived of access to exercise, Jackson argued, the lower courts should have focused on whether prison officials had been “deliberately indifferent” to Johnson’s health and safety. And if the court of appeals had done that, Jackson continued, Johnson’s case should have been, “at the very least,” allowed to go to the jury for it to reach a decision.

The justices will hold another private conference on Friday, Nov. 17.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court.

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