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State v. Sweet - 374 S.C. 1, 647 S.E.2d 202 (2007)

Rule:

A party offering into evidence fungible items such as drugs or blood samples must establish a complete chain of custody as far as practicable. Where an analyzed substance that has passed through several hands, the identity of individuals who acquired the evidence and what was done with the evidence between the taking and the analysis must not be left to conjecture. Accordingly, if the identity of each person handling the evidence is established, and the manner of handling is reasonably demonstrated, no abuse of discretion by the trial court is shown in admitting the evidence absent proof of tampering, bad faith, or ill-motive. Testimony from each custodian of fungible evidence, however, is not a prerequisite to establishing a chain of custody sufficient for admissibility. Where other evidence establishes the identity of those who have handled the evidence and reasonably demonstrates the manner of handling of the evidence, South Carolina courts have been willing to fill gaps in the chain of custody due to an absent witness.

Facts:

Police officers wired a confidential informant (CI) for sound and sent him to buy drugs from defendant Tony T-juan Sweet at a motel room. The officers testified to hearing only the CI's voice and one other voice through the wire. The CI left the motel room and gave the officers crack cocaine from the apparent drug purchase. Other officers arrested Sweet when he left the motel; they found more crack on his person. Sweet was arrested and charged with offenses related to the distribution and possession of crack cocaine within the proximity of a school. At trial in South Carolina state court, Sweet objected to the admission of the crack received from the CI, arguing that as the CI was unavailable to testify, the State had not established a proper chain of custody. The trial court rejected Sweet's argument and held that the drug received from the CI was admissible. A jury convicted Sweet of several drug-related offenses, and the trial court sentenced him to consecutive sentences of 15 years and 5 years for the distribution charges, and concurrent sentences of 15 years and 10 years on the possession charges. Sweet appealed. The case was certified to the Supreme Court of South Carolina from the court of appeals.

Issue:

Under the circumstances, did the State sufficiently establish the chain of custody?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The state supreme court reversed the trial court's judgment. The court held that the State was not able to establish a proper chain of custody of the drugs provided by the CI. The court noted that none of the chain of custody witnesses had seen who was in the motel room making the alleged purchase. Additionally, none of those witnesses, who heard only one other voice over the CI's body wire, could affirmatively identify that voice as being Sweet's voice. As the officers' testimony did not fill the gap in the chain of custody left by the unavailable CI, the trial court erred in admitting the drug evidence received by the CI. The CI's possession of the drug evidence could not be reduced to an issue of mere credibility based solely on the officers' knowledge of his name.

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