Supreme Court to hear appeal over expert testimony in Yuma drug case

The Supreme Court said it will consider the appeal of Jason Smith, who is challenging his 2021 Yuma County drug conviction. Smith said he was not able to question the expert witness who tested the drugs in the case, violating his Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers. (File photo by Haley Smilow/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will hear the appeal of an Arizona man who said his right to confront his accuser was violated when the expert witness who tested the drugs in his case was replaced by another expert.

Jason Smith was convicted in part on the testimony of Greggory Longoni, who testified using reports filed by Elizabeth Rast, the Arizona Department of Public Safety forensic scientist who tested the drugs in Smith’s case. Rast had left the department before Smith’s case came to trial.

Courts in Arizona allowed Longoni’s testimony over Smith’s objection. But other courts around the country have interpreted Supreme Court rulings on the issue differently, a discrepancy that Smith’s attorneys said needs to be cleared up by the high court.

Hari Santhanam, who is representing Smith, said the confrontation clause in the Sixth Amendment has always been “an area of law that the Supreme Court has struggled with.”

“Part of that is the confusion, you know when you have a split on the Supreme Court, it doesn’t set out any sort of controlling principle for the lower courts to follow,” Santhanam said. “It’s been a giant mess since 2012, and this is finally an opportunity for the court to sort of clean that up.”

The Supreme Court said on Friday that it would hear Smith’s case.

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“By taking this case, the Supreme Court hopefully is able to express a definitive opinion on the law,” said David Euchner with Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, an organization for defense attorneys. Euchner said the confrontation question “certainly has been difficult for us in Arizona.”

The Arizona attorney general’s office said Monday that the office cannot comment on pending litigation.

The case began on the evening of Dec. 10, 2019, when officers with the Yuma County Narcotics Task Force showed up to execute a search warrant for Smith’s father’s property, where they found a shed with an “overwhelming odor of fresh marijuana and burnt marijuana,” according to court documents.

Smith and two others were inside the shed, where officers said they found marijuana – including nearly 6 pounds on drying racks – methamphetamine, a meth pipe, scales and other paraphernalia. Police estimated the street value of the marijuana at $50,000.

Smith claimed that he was not involved in drug activity, but was only on the property to care for his ailing father, who subsequently died before the trial.

The state charged Smith with five felony counts, including possession of paraphernalia and possession of drugs for sale.

A jury convicted Smith in October 2021 of two counts of possession – one of which the state subsequently dismissed – one count of possession of marijuana for sale and two counts of simple possession of methamphetamine and narcotics. Smith was sentenced to four years in prison.

The Arizona Court of Appeals in July 2022 upheld the conviction, saying Longoni was testifying on his opinion of Rast’s reports and not acting as a “mere conduit” for her opinion. Smith was able to fully cross-examine Longoni, the appellate court said, and could have called Rast to testify if he wanted.

The Supreme Court has not set a date for Smith’s case, but Santhanam said he is “excited that this is an opportunity to finally fix this area of law and bring some clarity to it.”

Euchner said he also looks forward to a ruling on the confrontation question, since “49 other states I’m sure have struggled with it as well.”

“Questions of confrontation of witnesses … does not fall along the traditional party lines,” Euchner said. “On this issue, the Supreme Court doesn’t vote on traditional liberal, conservative lines.”

Renee Romo(she/her/hers)
News Broadcast Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Renee Romo plans to graduate in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in political science. Romo is a White House Correspondents’ Association Scholar, who has interned with Arizona Education News Service. Romo also writes for PolitiFact.