A 2013 Laurens drug conviction was overturned this past week by the South Carolina Supreme Court.
In overturning the conviction and five-year sentence of Daniel Herrera, who was convicted in 8th Circuit General Sessions Court, the justices said prosecutors overstepped when offering a Laurens Police officer as an expert witness in the case.
Herrera was arrested after picking up a package, which contained “six bags of suspected marijuana,” from the U.S. Post Office in Laurens in August 2010. He was subsequently charged with trafficking marijuana, 10 pounds or more but less than 100 pounds.
“At trial, the state attempted to qualify Detective Hunnicutt of the Laurens Police Department as an expert in marijuana analysis,” Justice John W. Kittredge wrote in the Supreme Court’s opinion.”
Kittredge also noted that the trial judge was uncomfortable qualifying Hunnicutt as a witness and attempted to narrow his field of expertise for the jury, meaning he could testify as to the identity of the marijuana, but not as a marijuana analyst.
Even so, the opinion said prosecutors continued to broaden the officer’s use as an expert despite the judge’s misgivings.
“This ruling should have ended the matter (of expertise), but the State would not take ‘no’ for an answer and continued to push the issue,” the opinion said.
The crux of the opinion stated that Hunnicutt did not use the bags the marijuana was found in but used bags he determined were of a similar size. The ruling also says the marijuana was weighed at the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office without the officer knowing whether or not the scales were calibrated.
The weight of the marijuana in evidence – a reported 10 pounds, 2.78 ounces – exceeded the limit on a lesser charge by less than three ounces and resulted in the trafficking charge. Had it weighed fewer than 10 pounds, Herrera would have faced a lesser penalty, and the charge would not have been classified as a violent crime and made eligibility for parole tougher.
“We believe Hunnicutt’s method of weighing a single baggie he viewed as similar to the actual bags containing the marijuana was an unreliable means for weighing the marijuana where, as in this case, the charged weight was barely over the ten-pound minimum threshold,” the opinion read.
The justices also said the South Carolina Court of Appeals was mistaken when it denied Herrera’s initial appeal before reversing his conviction and sentence and remanded for a new trial.
The 8th Circuit Solicitor’s Office had no comment on the Supreme Court’s decision.