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Hawthorne v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

June 13, 2018

Melvin Douglas Hawthorne, Appellant,
State of Florida, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Santa Rosa County. Ross M. Goodman, Judge.

          Andy Thomas, Public Defender, Maria Ines Suber, Assistant Public Defender, Tallahassee, for Appellant.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Kaitlin Weiss, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, for Appellee.

          B.L. Thomas, C.J.

         Appellant was convicted of driving under the influence causing death, driving under the influence causing serious personal injury, and driving under the influence causing property damage. Although Appellant was charged and found guilty of vehicular homicide and driving without a valid license, the State dismissed those counts. Appellant was sentenced to a lengthy term of imprisonment. The charges were based on a traffic accident in which the State's expert witness testified Appellant was driving approximately 79 miles per hour when he drove into the victims' car. The impact of the accident killed one 13-year-old victim and seriously injured another young victim.

         The tragic events began twelve hours after Appellant was released from the county jail. Appellant struck a vehicle but did not stop, and the driver of that car pursued Appellant in an attempt to obtain his tag number. Appellant then ran a stop sign, hit a guard rail, and crashed into the victims' car, causing the death and injuries. Appellant's blood test showed .90 milligrams of methamphetamine and .10 milligrams of amphetamine per liter of his blood.

         The State presented the expert testimony of Dr. Bruce Goldberger, Director of Toxicology and Chief of the Division of Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine. The defense objected to Dr. Goldberger's testimony, arguing that the evidence was not admissible under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).

         During the pretrial Daubert hearing, Dr. Goldberger testified that methamphetamine impacts on human physiology have been known for "more than a century, " but most studies analyzing amphetamine and methamphetamine are "case-type" studies, because doctors cannot ethically give human subjects impairing doses of amphetamine or methamphetamine. He testified that epidemiologic studies have been conducted of drug impacts on traffic accidents. Dr. Goldberger published four books, including the "Handbook of Workplace Drug Testing, " which contained a chapter on methamphetamines. Dr. Goldberger testified that if he is informed of details from before, during, and after a crash, including any relevant blood samples tested for drug consumption, he can form an accurate opinion on whether that person was impaired. He further testified that he had utilized this analytical method "maybe thousands of times, " and it is a method commonly accepted in the field of forensic toxicology.

         Dr. Goldberger testified that there is no set amount of amphetamine that would necessarily constitute impairment. He testified that a person who had been incarcerated for "a period of time" with no access to amphetamines would have no tolerance to the substance upon leaving incarceration.

         Dr. Goldberger testified that he tested Appellant's blood sample and that "this concentration is a very significant . . . [i]ndividuals will die as a consequence of ingesting this much methamphetamine." Based on his tests and studies of the effects of methamphetamine on the body and on a person's driving, many of the details of the episode - speeding, running a stop sign, crashing into a guardrail, rear-ending a car, having dilated pupils, glassy eyes, rambling speech, cottonmouth, being restless and scratching himself in a hospital bed - were consistent with someone who was impaired by methamphetamine. Dr. Goldberger testified that the method proposed by the State - whereby the prosecutor would pose a hypothetical situation identical to the facts of the present case, and he would testify as to whether those facts were consistent with someone impaired by methamphetamine - was a method that is generally accepted in the field of forensic toxicology. The trial court found the testimony proffered by the State was relevant and necessary to assist the jury in understanding the issue, and that the method proposed by Dr. Goldberger was admissible under Daubert.

         At trial, Dr. Goldberger testified that the facts in evidence were consistent with impairment caused by the ingestion of methamphetamine. He also testified that, because giving test subjects impairing amounts of methamphetamine is "too dangerous, " there is not a generally accepted method of extrapolation to determine time of ingestion for methamphetamine and the time within which impairment would occur. On cross-examination, Dr. Goldberger testified that he could not determine whether the ingestion of the drug occurred two, five, or eight hours before the crash.

         The State submitted into evidence Appellant's certified driving record, to which Appellant objected, asserting the record was prejudicial under section 90.403, Florida Statutes. The trial court ruled that the record of active suspensions of Appellant's driver's license (with previous convictions redacted) was relevant to prove that Appellant drove while he knew his license was suspended. The partially redacted driving record was admitted into evidence over Appellant's objection.

         Appellant asserts reversible errors based on the admission of Dr. Goldberger's testimony under Daubert, the admission of Appellant's redacted driving record, and the evidence of his release from county detention shortly before the traffic accident. We hold that the trial court ...

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