EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Monday, January 26, 2009

Area Of Expertise: Iowa District Court Finds that Experts Can't Render Duress/Coercion Testimony In Drug Trial

The recent opinion of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa in United States v. Ceballos, 2009 WL 105692 (S.D. Iowa 2009), provides a nice illustration of some of the expert testimony that a criminal defendant cannot present regarding her mental condition pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 704(b).

In Ceballos, Heather Marie Ceballos was charged with acting as an interpreter during a drug transaction for her boyfriend and interpreting another drug transaction for Gomez.  Before trial, Ceballos informed the government that she planned to present evidence of Gomez's repeated acts of domestic violence against her to prove that her actions were involuntary and/or the product of coercion/duress.  This evidence was to take three forms: 

     -(1) "family members' testimony regarding the abuse she received from Gomez;"

     -(2) her "testimony about the abuse;" and

     -(3) "expert testimony on her mental condition and domestic violence in general."

The government subsequently submitted a motion in limine seeking to exclude this testimony, and the district court understandably found that this testimony was irrelevant to the issue of whether Ceballos acted voluntarily.  Conversely, the court found that this testimony was relevant on the issue of coercion/duress and admissible, with one notable exception.

That exception was based upon Federal Rule of Evidence 704(b), which states that:

     "No expert witness testifying with respect to the mental state or condition of a defendant in a criminal case may state an opinion or inference as to whether the defendant did or did not have the mental state or condition constituting an element of the crime charged or of a defense thereto. Such ultimate issues are matters for the trier of fact alone."

The district court noted that Ceballos' proposed "expert testimony on her mental condition" consisted of "statements regarding the law on coercion, duress, and voluntariness and statements applying that law to [Ceballos]."  The court correctly found that this proposed testimony was "a clear violation of the Federal Rules of Evidence including Rule 704(b)," rendering it inadmissible at trial.



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