SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KGET) — The state’s highest court, in reviewing a Kern County case, has ruled prosecutors can’t use hearsay testimony from an expert witness to prove a requirement necessary for gang enhancements.
“We hold that the commission of such crimes…must be proven by independently admissible evidence,” the California Supreme Court said in its ruling filed July 1.
To secure a conviction on gang enhancements, which can add years to a prison term, a prosecutor must, among other things, establish the suspect is part of a group that has committed “predicate offenses” — earlier crimes showing a pattern of criminal activity by alleged gang members.
In the Kern case, a police officer testified as a gang expert in a 2014 Arvin trial. The officer testified to three prior offenses committed by a gang of which the two defendants were alleged members.
The officer’s only knowledge of those crimes came from conversations with other officers and a review of police reports, according to the court filing. He was not directly involved in the investigations.
The jury convicted the defendants on multiple charges, including the gang-related ones.
But an appellate court overturned the gang convictions and enhancements after finding the officer’s testimony constituted inadmissible hearsay.
The Supreme Court agreed and upheld the ruling.
Expert witnesses are given some leeway, and are allowed to testify to information acquired through training and experience, even if that information resulted from conversations with others or lectures they attended.
The high court, however, drew a line between between testifying to general background information and the specific facts of a case.
General information such as a gang’s territory, graffiti or colors can be provided by an expert witness, even if it’s through hearsay, the court said. But case-specific evidence regarding particular events and their alleged participants must be proven by more than an expert’s hearsay testimony.
“Competent evidence of those particulars is required,” the court said.
In the Arvin case, no independent proof was given to support the testimony of the officer, the filing says. The court found the jury was allowed to rely on the officer’s hearsay testimony alone.
“Without independent admissible evidence of the particulars of the predicate offenses, the expert’s hearsay testimony cannot be used to supply them,” the court said.