State v. Farah, Minn.Ct.App., 9/29/2014. An undercover cop bought 5.5 grams of cocaine from Mr. Farah. The cop wrote in his report that the drugs were a “white, powdery substance.” A few days later the BCA received 4.869 grams of a “rock-like material/powder.” The BCA tester said that the “rock-like material” contained cocaine. The undercover cop, when he got the stuff back from the BCA, wrote that he placed the “rock-like material” into an evidence locker.
Powder or rock? That’s what defense counsel for Mr. Farah wanted to know. She filed a pretrial motion asking for the chain of evidence records; actually, asking how does 5.5 grams of “white, powdery substance” become 4.869 grams of a “rock-like material”? That’s one hell of a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry machine. The trial court held a hearing on the motion at which the prosecutor characterized the motion as a challenge to probable cause. The judge, however, said, no, that the hearing was about an evidentiary issue: the chain of custody foundation for admission of the evidence. Eventually, the trial court excluded the evidence.
So, can the trial judge make a chain of custody determination before trial? Turns out the judge can. Evidence rule 103(a) says that the trial court may make a ruling to admit or exclude evidence “either at or before trial.”
The remaining question, then, is whether the trial court correctly ordered the exclusion of the drugs. Just as the trial judge called it, this is an evidentiary issue so it’s a discretionary call. The officer who bought the drugs described them initially as a “white powdery substance” but after that the description became “rock-like material”. The state never explained this morphing of the drugs. On that record, the trial judge did not abuse its discretion by ordering the exclusion of the drugs.