A federals appeals court affirmed convictions against three defendants based in part on lay witness testimony about the meaning of slang words used in drug sales such as "tweezy."
"Tweezy" means crack cocaine, and "step up a yard" means turning powder into crack, the witness testified in United States of America v. Dunston. The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals said Timothy Boyle, a DEA agent who had reviewed hundreds of undercover recordings of crack cocaine deals, was well qualified to testify about the meaning of drug slang.
"Where malefactors try to mask their criminal activities by using codes, a law enforcement officer who is equipped by knowledge, experience, and training to break those codes can help to inform the factfinder's understanding," wrote Judge Bruce M. Selya, who is also known for his particular manner of expression.
"So it is here: the government provided the district court with ample reason to conclude that Boyle was knowledgeable about the idiom of the drug trade and, in particular, the vernacular of this group of miscreants."
What Do You Really Mean?
The case began when DEA agents began investigating James Dunston, Sergio Hernandez, and Anthony Wooldridge on suspicion of drug trafficking. The agents set up seven controlled buys in 2012, involving 44 grams of crack cocaine.
The agents also wiretapped about 30,000 calls and text messages, building evidence that the trio were regularly dealing crack and converting powder into crack. As Seyla put it in the unanimous opinion, the enterprise and the investigation ended with a traffic stop.
"It is said that all good things come to an end and, in July, Wooldridge was arrested during a traffic stop after police officers conducted a pat-frisk and found ninety-three grams of crack cocaine in his possession," the judge said.
The defendants were later charged with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute. Hernandez was also charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. They plead guilty.
"Slang and Jargon"
On appeal, the debate was primarily about how much time they got based on the amount of cocaine they had. Dunston got 144 months; Wooldridge, 132 months; and Hernandez 162.
The appeals court affirmed the convictions, but remanded Hernandez's case for recalculation based on his prior convictions.
As for the lay testimony, the court said the DEA witness reviewed all 30,000 calls and texts messages of the defendants. Boyle was well qualified to interpret "the slang and jargon that permeated in the recordings," Selya said.
"He not only drew on his extensive experience to inform his understanding of specific slang terms but also took into account the context in which those terms were used," the judge wrote.
- The Linguistic Talents of Judge Bruce Selya (Wall Street Journal)
- 'For Want of a Comma, We Have This Case' (FindLaw's U.S. First Circuit Blog)
- Judge Dinged for Using Force on Counsel Who Objected to an Objection (FindLaw's U.S. First Circuit Blog)