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State v. Arnold

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

August 14, 2019

STATE OF LOUISIANA Plaintiff-Appellee
STEVEN ARNOLD Defendant-Appellant

          Appealed from the Forty-Second Judicial District Court for the Parish of DeSoto, Louisiana Trial Court No. 16-CR-27869 Honorable Amy Burford McCartney, Judge.




          Before PITMAN, STONE, and COX, JJ.

          COX, J.

         This criminal appeal arises from the 42nd Judicial District Court, DeSoto Parish, Louisiana. Steven Arnold was found guilty as charged of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment at hard labor. Arnold now challenges his conviction on appeal. For the following reasons, we affirm his conviction and sentence.


         On July 8, 2016, the DeSoto Parish Narcotics Task Force executed a search warrant at 127 Quail Trail in Stonewall, Louisiana.[1] No one was at home when the Task Force arrived. During the search of the master bedroom, the agents recovered multiple plastic bags containing a total of 4.7 grams of suspected crystal methamphetamine and a loaded syringe of suspected liquid methamphetamine. The officers also recovered two digital scales, hundreds of extra plastic bags, butane burners, spoons, straws, and pipes. Some items were covered in residue suspected to be methamphetamine. Investigating officers obtained arrest warrants for two persons, Steven Arnold and Helen Meza.[2]

         On August 23, 2016, a Steven Arnold, born July 22, 1962, with an address of 8974 W. Starwood Lane, Greenwood, Louisiana 71033, was charged by bill of information with two counts of distribution of methamphetamine and one count of possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. Helen Meza was also charged on all three counts.

         On September 25, 2017, a Steven Arnold, born July 22, 1962, with an address of 127 Quail Trail, Stonewall, Louisiana 71078, was charged by an amended bill of information with possession of a Schedule II, controlled dangerous substance, methamphetamine, in violation of La. R.S. 40:967(A)(1). The record reflects that, other than a motion for preliminary hearing, no other pre-trial motions were filed.

         The evidentiary portion of the jury trial began before Judge McCartney on July 23, 2018, with opening statements. During the State's opening argument, the defense objected that the State made an improper reference to an envelope observed, but not seized, by investigating officers and asserted that the envelope constituted hearsay evidence. The State responded that the officer would be testifying about his observation of the envelope. Judge McCartney reminded the jurors that the opening statements did not constitute evidence, but did not formally rule on the defense's objection.

         Agent Landon Williamson, with the DeSoto Parish Narcotics Task Force and the Shreveport Drug Enforcement Agency Task Force, testified that a search warrant was executed on July 8, 2016, at 127 Quail Trail, Stonewall, Louisiana. Agent Williamson testified that no one was at the residence at the time the SWAT team entered and cleared the home. Agent Williamson testified that he searched the master bedroom and found butane bottles on top of the nightstand, with burners attached, and razor blades. Inside the nightstand, Agent Williamson found numerous empty plastic bags, syringes, spoons, straws, and two digital scales, all of which had residue believed to be crystal methamphetamine. In the bottom drawer of the nightstand, Agent Williamson found a black case holding more plastic bags containing 4.7 grams of suspected crystal methamphetamine, a capsule with white material inside, and a syringe loaded with .3 milliliters of suspected liquid methamphetamine.

         Agent Williamson testified that his investigation of the home led him to believe that Arnold lived there. Agent Williamson also testified that in the master bedroom of the home, he observed a piece of mail addressed to Steven Arnold at the 127 Quail Trail address. The defense attorney objected and Judge McCartney held a bench conference.

         The defense objected that the envelope was inadmissible hearsay evidence because the envelope contained a "written assertion." The State responded that the envelope was "res gestae" and that the officer was merely testifying as to what he observed during the execution of the search warrant. The State argued that the testimony about the officer's observation of the envelope was to show that Arnold received mail there and that the mail was found on the premises, not to establish that the envelope was evidence that Arnold lived there. The State contended that the envelope created an inference that Arnold was connected with the residence where the drugs and paraphernalia were found. Judge McCartney overruled the hearsay objection and found that the testimony was admissible. The defense attorney objected to the ruling.

         Agent Williamson identified in court all of the items that were seized from the master bedroom (introduced into evidence as State's Exhibits 1, 2, 3, and 4). He stated that the suspected liquid methamphetamine found in the loaded syringe was transferred into a vial for safe transfer to the crime lab.

         Agent Williamson testified that Arnold contacted him by phone and asked what his options were. Agent Williamson stated that he told Arnold he needed to turn himself in, and Arnold replied that he could not do that. There was no indication of whether or not the phone call was recorded. Arnold was later arrested by U.S. Marshals on July 13, 2016. Agent Williamson identified Arnold in court.

         On cross-examination, Agent Williamson testified that the envelope he saw addressed to Arnold at 127 Quail Trail was not seized and not logged into evidence. Agent Williamson testified that a photograph was taken of the envelope, but the photograph was not brought to court. He could not recall the sender or the postmark date on the envelope. Agent Williamson also testified that he did not observe or seize any other evidence from inside the residence that had Arnold's name on it. He confirmed that the officers did not find any vehicle at the residence registered in Arnold's name. The officers did not attempt to obtain fingerprints or DNA because that was not commonly done when executing search warrants. Agent Williamson testified that the only physical evidence he had linking Arnold to the residence was the envelope that he observed but did not seize.

         Donna Richardson testified that she knew Arnold through her employment and she identified Arnold in court. Richardson also testified that she was aware that Arnold resided at 127 Quail Trail because she verified it through her employment. On cross-examination, Richardson testified that she began working for her current employer in 2002 and that she became an agent in 2011. Richardson testified that she personally met Arnold at 127 Quail Trail one time and there was a car in the driveway, but she did not know who owned the vehicle. Richardson testified that she concluded that Arnold lived there because there were four to five dogs there and that Arnold told her that the dogs belonged to him.

         Deputy Jason Goff, with the DeSoto Parish Sheriff's Department narcotics division, testified that he prepared the evidence transfer sheet that accompanied the evidence sent to the North Louisiana Crime Lab for testing of the suspected crystal methamphetamine. Deputy Goff identified State's Exhibits 5 and 6 as the evidence transfer sheets. Deputy Goff did not participate in the raid.

         Bruce Stentz, with the North Louisiana Crime Lab, was accepted as an expert in forensic chemistry. Stentz identified State's Exhibits 1 and 3, the items that he tested and found positive for methamphetamine. The items tested included multiple resealable plastic bags containing a white powder; a clear capsule containing white material; and, a plastic bottle with a vial inside that contained liquid. Stentz identified State's Exhibit 7 as the certified lab report that he prepared after his tests and analysis. Stentz testified that the drugs were not weighed because the amount of the drugs seized was not above a specific threshold amount and he was not required to weigh the drugs. At the time of Arnold's 2016 offense, the threshold was 28 grams because that was the point at which the penalty increased.

         On the second day of trial, the defense attorney moved for a mistrial on grounds that if the envelope was determined to be hearsay evidence on appeal, then the State's reference to the envelope during the opening arguments was an improper reference to inadmissible evidence that would trigger a new trial. The State again asserted that the testimony about the envelope was only offered as evidence of what the officer observed during the execution of the search warrant. Judge McCartney denied the motion for mistrial, noting that she had already addressed the issue of whether or not the envelope constituted hearsay evidence.

         Carl Townley, a former supervisor with the Caddo-Shreveport Task Force, was accepted as an expert in narcotics investigation and packaging and the use and sales of narcotics. Townley testified that he had reviewed the reports and evidence seized in the case. Townley reviewed the items seized in court and noted drug paraphernalia common to distribution: the multiple small bags containing methamphetamine, the two digital scales, and 224 unused plastic bags (for use as packing materials). He also noted the straws, the spoons with residue on them, the butane bottles with burners, and the syringe that had been loaded with liquid methamphetamine.

         Townley opined that it was not unusual to find personal drug use items in a dealer's house because the methamphetamine users usually deal drugs to support their habit and there are usually customers who will purchase the drugs and use them there. However, he also noted that it would be unusual to find scales and such a large number of extra bags in a house where there was only personal drug use and not also distribution. Townley testified that the scales and the extra bags were indicators of selling drugs. He also testified that there was no cash seized at the scene, but noted that the absence of cash could be due to the fact that they just purchased more drugs to sell or because dealers have learned not to keep their cash with their drugs. Townley testified that the amount of methamphetamine found at the house could be for personal use or for distribution, depending on a person's tolerance and the purity of the product.

         In Townley's expert opinion, the evidence found at 127 Quail Trail indicated possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute, based on the presence of the methamphetamine found in multiple bags, the two sets of digital scales, and the large number of unused bags. Townley stated that the syringe loaded with liquid methamphetamine could have been for personal use or could have been for sale.

         Helen Meza testified that at the time of the raid on July 8, 2016, she lived at 127 Quail Trail with her boyfriend, Arnold. Meza pled guilty to possession of methamphetamine and was sentenced to serve two years in prison, with one year probation. Meza testified that she served nine months and had been released on parole, but recently failed a urine test and was remanded to jail. Meza testified that she was not offered any deal by the prosecution in exchange for her testimony. Meza testified that the methamphetamine recovered at the residence belonged to both her and Arnold, and that they both used and sold drugs. Meza confirmed that people would come to the residence to buy and use drugs. She stated they weighed the drugs using the scales and they packaged the drugs using the empty bags.

         On cross-examination, Meza testified that she was 49 years old, had graduated high school, and had worked for several years in the coding and admitting department at Willis-Knighton. After a brief residency in Michigan, she returned to Louisiana and began living in Stonewall. The trailer located at 127 Quail Trail was on her mother's property. Meza testified that she began using methamphetamine at age 15 and, except for a short time while her children were young or when she was incarcerated, she used methamphetamine daily. Meza testified that she had one dog at the residence, while her mom had three dogs.

         Meza admitted that her testimony contradicted her earlier statement made to law enforcement officers after her arrest, when she stated that Arnold was not involved with the drugs. Meza testified that she and Arnold made a deal-since she did not have any prior felonies, she would "take the fall" for this offense.

         The State rested. The trial court informed Arnold of his Fifth Amendment rights, and he elected not to testify.

         The defense began its case in chief with testimonies from Sergeant Travis Chelette and Sergeant Cody Bailey, both from the DeSoto Parish Sheriff's Department. Both officers were a part of the SWAT team that cleared the residence before the narcotics team entered. Both officers testified that no one was home when they arrived at the residence. Sgt. Chelette testified that the SWAT team was there to locate people and secure the scene, but did not participate in the search of the residence.

         Agent Casey Hicks, a narcotics investigator with the DeSoto Parish Sheriff's Department, testified that he was part of a three-person team that assisted with the search of the residence. Agent Hicks testified that he found a methamphetamine pipe in a back bedroom and two methamphetamine pipes in pool sticks. He stated that although he did not read the search warrant or see any names at the residence, he believed the house belonged to Arnold. Agent Hicks testified that he did not search the same area as Agent Williamson.

         Agent Chato Atkins, also a narcotics investigator with the DeSoto Parish Sheriff's Department, testified that he participated in the search of the home, which he considered to be in a "junkie" state. He stated that during the search, he saw narcotics, men's clothing, and a letter addressed to Arnold in the master bedroom. Agent Atkins testified that he believed that Meza and Arnold owned the house.

         Agent Landon Williamson was recalled and testified that the only thing that he observed during his search that was specifically personal to Arnold was the envelope addressed to Arnold at 127 Quail Trail. He stated that he did not seize the envelope as evidence during the search. On cross-examination, Agent Williamson testified that he had personal knowledge of Arnold being at that residence and residing there because he had observed Arnold there on multiple occasions and had observed that Arnold was present in the master bedroom.

         The defense rested and both sides presented their closing arguments. The State asserted that the methamphetamine and drug distribution paraphernalia found at 127 Quail Trail, where Arnold was living with his girlfriend Meza, was sufficient evidence to prove that Arnold was guilty of possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. The defense argued that the State failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt because there was no physical evidence presented to establish that Arnold lived at 127 Quail Trail. The defense argued that Meza was not credible because she was admittedly addicted to methamphetamine and gave testimony that completely contradicted the statement she gave to law enforcement after her arrest. The defense further argued that testimony by Donna Richardson was not credible because she assumed that Arnold lived at the Quail Trail home based on the presence of eight dogs, while Meza testified that there was only one dog.

         On rebuttal the State argued that Richardson had actually testified that she saw four to five dogs. The State also asserted that the lack of physical evidence linking Arnold to the residence was because as a methamphetamine user and dealer, Arnold did not live like everyone else. On September 24, 2018, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty as charged.

         On November 5, 2018, Arnold filed a motion to recuse Judge McCartney. Arnold's defense attorney asserted that Judge McCartney should recuse herself due to the fact that she ruled in the pre-trial meeting in chambers that the State could avoid the issue of presenting other crimes evidence by instructing Donna Richardson that she could simply state that she knew Arnold and she knew where Arnold lived "through her employer." The defense attorney asserted that the State could not lay a proper foundation for the basis of Richardson's knowledge without disclosing that Richardson only had the knowledge through her role as Arnold's probation and parole officer, which would constitute "other crimes evidence."

         The defense attorney further asserted that allowing Richardson to testify that she knew Arnold's living situation "through her employer," impeded his ability to effectively cross-examine Richardson because it would have "opened the door" to allow other crimes evidence. The defense attorney contended that "through the cooperation of the trial court and the district attorney, the State was allowed to finesse the requirements of La. C.E. 404(B)," and this resulted in the jury being misled.

         At the November 8, 2018 hearing on the motion, the defense attorney acknowledged that he made no contemporaneous objection about Richardson's testimony at trial and that the motion was untimely filed, but argued that he could not raise an objection without "opening the door" to other crimes evidence. He asserted that Judge McCartney should voluntarily recuse herself under La.C.Cr.P. art. 672 because she "actively assisted the State in prosecuting" Arnold.[3] The defense attorney also complained that the State failed to lay a proper foundation for Richardson's testimony.

         In opposition, the State argued that under La.C.Cr.P. art. 674, the motion to recuse was untimely filed; that under La.C.Cr.P. art. 671, the motion failed to state a valid ground for recusal; and, that under La.C.Cr.P. art. 841, there was no contemporaneous objection made at trial to Richardson's testimony.[4] The State also argued that Richardson's testimony that she knew Arnold through her employment and knew where Arnold lived, did not fall under "other crimes ...

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