Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Friday, October 09, 2020

Iriele: Lay Expert Can Testify About Handwriting Learned During Course of Criminal Investigation

In United States v. Iriele, No. 17-13455 (Oct. 9, 2020) (Ed Carnes, Branch, Tjoflat), the Court affirmed the pharmacist defendant’s convictions stemming from the illegal dispensation of prescription medications.

On appeal, the defendant raised 15 claims of error.  However, the Court addressed only  a few of them because the remainder did not warrant discussion.  The Court “remind[ed] counsel that raising a plethora of issues is not good advocacy.”

First, the defendant challenged the admission of testimony by a non-expert law enforcement agent who investigated the defendant’s schemes and told the jury that a ledger contained the defendant’s handwriting.  The Court upheld the admission of that testimony under Rule 901(b)(2).  Joining every circuit to address the issue, the Court concluded that a lay witness cannot become familiar with someone’s handwriting when he does so solely for the purpose of identifying it at trial; that is the role of an expert.  But a lay witness can become familiar with handwriting during the course of a criminal investigation, even if he later testifies about it at trial.

Second, the Court found the evidence sufficient to support the defendant’s drug conspiracy, drug distribution, and money-laundering convictions.  As to the drug convictions, the Court concluded that sufficient circumstantial evidence established that the defendant personally knew that doctors conspired to issue prescriptions without a legitimate medical purpose, and that he voluntarily joined that conspiracy by filling prescriptions.  The Court also found the evidence sufficient to establish that the defendant conspired to commit promotional money laundering.

Third, and reviewing for plain error, the Court found no reversible error with respect two jury instructions.  On the drug counts, the district court plainly erred by failing to instruct the jury that the pharmacist must know that the doctor issued the prescription without a legitimate medical purpose.  But the defendant could not show prejudice because the evidence was overwhelming in that regard.  On the money-laundering conspiracy count, the court failed to expressly set out the elements of the offense, but the instructions as a whole sufficiently conveyed them.  And although the court did not convey everything to the jury about financial transaction money laundering, he could not show prejudice due to overwhelming evidence of guilt on an omitted element.