Home / Fulltext Opinions / Supreme Court of Virginia / HARRIS v. COMMONWEALTH

HARRIS v. COMMONWEALTH



NOTICE: The opinions posted here are
subject to formal revision. If you find a typographical error or
other formal error, please notify the Supreme Court of Virginia.


HARRIS

v.

COMMONWEALTH


January 12, 2001

Record No. 000589

Present: Carrico, C.J., Lacy, Hassell, Keenan,
Koontz, and Kinser, JJ., and Compton, S.J.

ERIC LIN HARRIS

v.

COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA


OPINION BY SENIOR JUSTICE A. CHRISTIAN COMPTON

In this criminal appeal involving a conviction
for dealing in narcotics, the sole question is whether the Court
of Appeals of Virginia erred in determining that the prosecution
sufficiently established the chain of custody of the drugs in
question.

Indicted in the Circuit Court of the City of
Hampton for possession with intent to distribute cocaine, in
violation of Code ? 18.2-248, and for possession of a
firearm while in possession of cocaine, in violation of Code
? 18.2-308.4(B), defendant Eric Lin Harris was convicted of
the offenses in a bench trial in February 1999. During trial, the
court overruled defendant’s objection to receipt in evidence of
the certificate of analysis of the cocaine. In admitting the
certificate, the trial judge ruled, contrary to defendant’s
contention, that the prosecution properly established the chain
of custody of the drugs.

In April 1999, the court sentenced defendant to
a suspended term of five years on the possession with intent to
distribute charge and to three years’ imprisonment on the firearm
charge.

Subsequently, the Court of Appeals affirmed the
convictions in an unpublished opinion. Harris v. Commonwealth,
Record No. 0909-99-1 (March 7, 2000). We awarded defendant an
appeal to consider the chain of custody issue.

The facts relevant to the issue presented are
undisputed. In September 1998, Hampton police officer Jimmie
Wideman observed defendant operating a motor vehicle in excess of
the speed limit in a school zone. Following a traffic stop, the
officer recovered from defendant’s person a loaded pistol, a bag
containing what was later found to be cocaine, and $1,730 in
currency.

After leaving the scene of the arrest, Wideman
took the recovered items to the Hampton Police Station. According
to the officer’s testimony, the items were assigned "the
appropriate case and identification numbers," the numbers
were placed on tags, the tags were affixed to the items, and the
items placed in an "evidence envelope." The
"suspected cocaine" was assigned "item number
five."

Wideman then placed on "Item 5"
identifying marks, which included the case number; defendant’s
name; the officer’s name; and the time, date, and location of
recovery. After sealing the envelope with tape, upon which the
officer placed his initials, he handed the envelope
"directly" to B. Ronnie Staton, a property and evidence
custodian at the police department.

Upon receipt of the sealed evidence bag from
Wideman at "the counter" of the property and evidence
division office, Staton placed his name and the date
("9-21-98") on the bag, put it in an evidence locker,
and locked it. No other person had access to the locker, Staton
possessing the only two keys.

Three days later, on September 24, 1998, Staton
delivered Item 5 to a person at the Tidewater Laboratory of the
Commonwealth’s Division of Forensic Science in Norfolk, and
"tagged it in" under a specific "forensic lab
number" assigned to the item.

At trial, Wideman testified that the evidence
bag and contents were "in substantially the same condition
as when" initially deposited with Staton, except that the
forensic tape had been removed from the bag. Staton likewise
identified the bag and contents at trial as the same as handed to
him by Wideman and, in turn, delivered to the forensic
laboratory.

Over defendant’s objection, the trial court
received in evidence the "Certificate of Analysis"
relating to "Item 5." The certificate is dated November
9, 1998, refers to the police case number and to the
"Lab" number, names the defendant as the
"Suspect," shows the "Date Received:
09/24/98," states "Evidence Submitted By: B. R.
Staton," and describes Item 5 as "Sealed Packaging
containing off-white chunky solid material." The certificate
shows the results of the analysis to be "Cocaine
. . . 12.963 grams of solid material."

A forensic scientist signed the certificate,
stating "that I performed the above analysis or examination
as an employee of and in a laboratory operated by the Division of
Forensic Science, and that the above is an accurate record of the
results of that analysis or examination."

Code ? 19.2-187.01 authorizes a trial
court to receive a certificate of analysis as evidence of the
chain of custody of the material tested. As pertinent here, the
statute provides that a "report of analysis duly attested by
the person performing such analysis or examination in any
laboratory operated by . . . the Division of Forensic
Science or any of its regional laboratories . . . shall
be prima facie evidence in a criminal . . . proceeding
as to the custody of the material described therein from the time
such material is received by an authorized agent of such
laboratory until such material is released subsequent to such
analysis or examination. . . ."

These provisions relate, of course, to the
custody of the contraband while it is in the testing laboratory.
The statute "relieves the Commonwealth of having to present
testimony regarding the chain of custody of an analyzed or
examined substance, provided certain safeguards are met." Dunn
v. Commonwealth
, 20 Va. App. 217, 220, 456 S.E.2d 135, 136
(1995).

The defendant’s sole contention on appeal is
that the prosecution failed to prove the cocaine seized by
Wideman and held by Staton was received by an "authorized
agent" of the laboratory, as required by the foregoing
statute. Consequently, the defendant argues, because the chain of
custody of the cocaine was not established, the Court of Appeals
erred in affirming the trial court’s action in receiving the
certificate, and both charges should be dismissed. We disagree.

Under the uncontradicted evidence, the trial
court clearly was entitled to infer that Staton delivered Item 5
to an "authorized agent" of the laboratory, as required
by statute. Stated differently, the prosecution established,
prima facie, that the contraband was received by such an agent;
there is no hint that it was received, for example, by some mere
non-employee bystander who happened to be loitering on the
laboratory’s premises.

At the moment Staton handed Item 5 to the
person at the laboratory, the bag immediately was assigned a
specific "forensic lab number." Certainly, this is an
act one would expect to be performed by an authorized agent of
the laboratory. And, reasonably to be inferred from the evidence
is the fact that the number was assigned by the person receiving
the material from Staton.

This same forensic number appears on the
certificate in question along with the police department case
number, the defendant’s name, and the date of receipt of the
material. These facts support the conclusion that the examiner
analyzed the same material received by the person to whom Staton
delivered it. Moreover, this latter conclusion is buttressed by
the examiner’s attestation on the certificate that she, in fact,
analyzed the substance in Item 5.

Accordingly, we hold that the Commonwealth
complied with the statute and established, prima facie, that the
material in question was received by an authorized agent of the
laboratory. Parenthetically, we note that defendant had the
opportunity to rebut this prima facie showing, but failed to do
so. See Code ? 19.2-187.1 (accused has right to call
as adverse witness, at cost of Commonwealth, person performing
analysis "or involved in the chain of custody").

Consequently, the judgment of the Court of
Appeals will be

Affirmed.

Scroll To Top