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State v. Escalante

Supreme Court of Arizona

September 14, 2018

State of Arizona, Appellee,
Erick Antonio Escalante, Appellant.

          Appeal from the Superior Court in Yavapai County The Honorable Michael R. Bluff, Judge No. CR201580042

         Opinion of the Court of Appeals, Division One 242 Ariz. 375 (App. 2017)

          Mark Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General, Dominic E. Draye, Solicitor General, Joseph T. Maziarz, Chief Counsel, Criminal Appeals Section, Eric Knobloch (argued), Assistant Attorney General, Phoenix, Attorneys for State of Arizona

          Kennedy Klagge, Yavapai County Public Defender, Michelle L. DeWaelsche (argued), Deputy Public Defender, Prescott, Attorneys for Erick Antonio Escalante

          David J. Euchner (argued), Tucson, Attorney for Amici Curiae Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice and Pima County Public Defender's Office

          JUSTICE TIMMER authored the opinion of the Court, in which CHIEF JUSTICE BALES, VICE CHIEF JUSTICE BRUTINEL, and JUSTICES PELANDER, BOLICK, GOULD, and LOPEZ joined.



         ¶1 When a defendant fails to object to trial error, he forfeits appellate relief absent a showing of fundamental error. Faced with conflicting decisions, we today clarify what that showing entails. A defendant must demonstrate that the error goes to the foundation of the defendant's case, takes away a right essential to the defense, or is of such magnitude that it denied the defendant a fair trial. To warrant reversal, the defendant must then show prejudice. But if the trial is found to have been unfair, prejudice is automatically established, and no further showing is required.

         ¶2 Here, the admission and pervasive use of drug-courier profile evidence during the defendant's trial on drug-related charges constituted fundamental error and prejudiced his ability to receive a fair trial. We therefore reverse and remand for a new trial.


         ¶3 Detectives in multi-agency task forces suspected Erick Escalante of selling methamphetamine in the Verde Valley area. After receiving several tips and surveilling Escalante, detectives obtained a search warrant and placed a GPS tracking device on his truck. On the evening of January 21, 2015, detectives saw that Escalante's truck was in Phoenix and suspected he might be picking up methamphetamine to sell. Anticipating the truck's return to Escalante's home outside Cottonwood, a detective called the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office and asked that deputies attempt to conduct a civil traffic stop.

         ¶4 Two deputies in patrol cars identified the truck near Cottonwood and followed as it exited Highway 260 at Prairie Lane and eventually turned onto Cliff View Drive, a two-lane residential road. The truck veered as if to make a U-turn and stopped perpendicular to the roadway. The deputies blocked the road with their cars and activated their lights to make a civil traffic stop. As a deputy approached the truck, Escalante shifted into reverse and started to back up. The deputy told him to stop, but Escalante shifted into drive saying he intended to "pull to the side of the road." The deputy pulled his gun and repeated his instruction to stop and turn off the truck. Escalante seemed agitated but eventually complied. Later, at a police station, Escalante told officers he had traveled from Camp Verde.

         ¶5 The deputies searched the truck and found a semi-automatic handgun, several knives, and a machete. They also discovered a digital scale, dryer sheets, coffee beans, a flip cellphone with limited data and no provider subscription (a "throw phone"), and $200 (another $150 was found in Escalante's wallet). A K-9 officer came to the scene, and his dog "alerted" on the truck, but no drugs were found.

         ¶6 Within a few hours after Escalante's arrest and removal of the truck, a deputy returned to the scene. He found a sandwich-size plastic baggie containing a white crystalized substance in the middle of Prairie Lane near Highway 260. The bag appeared to have been run over, and some of the contents had spilled onto the roadway. A criminologist later determined that the bag contained 47.8 grams of methamphetamine (about one-tenth of a pound) and that the digital scale found in Escante's truck contained methamphetamine residue.

         ¶7 The State charged Escalante with four drug-related offenses: count one: sale or transport of a dangerous drug (methamphetamine); count two: possession or use of drug paraphernalia (the digital scale); count three: tampering with physical evidence (throwing the bag of methamphetamine out the truck window); and count five: possessing a deadly weapon while committing a felony (transportation of a dangerous drug for sale). He was also charged with four counts of misconduct involving weapons for possessing the handgun, the machete, and two knives as a convicted felon (counts four, six, seven, and eight). The trial court severed the four drug-related counts from the remaining counts.

         ¶8 Before trial, the State moved in limine to introduce evidence that Escalante had engaged in behaviors "indicative of and consistent with drug trafficking," such as driving in a manner designed to avoid police scrutiny ("heat runs"), using surveillance cameras at home, and traveling to areas of "known drug activity." Escalante's counsel did not object. At an evidentiary hearing on this and other motions, he stated only that "I think they're going to be allowed to testify as to in their training and experience what they believe that information means." The trial court ruled that the evidence was admissible as either intrinsic to the charged crimes or as "other act" evidence. See Ariz. R. Evid. 404(b).

         ¶9 At the trial on the drug-related charges, multiple law enforcement officers testified, without objection, about their specialized drug interdiction training and described common drug-trafficking methods and drug-courier habits that were consistent with Escalante's behaviors. Officers also testified about what they were told by third parties concerning Escalante's suspected illegal drug activities. The jury found Escalante guilty on all counts. He waived his right to a jury trial on the remaining weapons charges, and the trial court found him guilty on those counts. The court sentenced Escalante to multiple, concurrent prison terms, the longest of which is fourteen years.

         ¶10 Escalante appealed the drug-related convictions and sentences, and the court of appeals affirmed. See State v. Escalante,242 Ariz. 375 (App. 2017). In doing so, the court reviewed for fundamental error whether the trial court incorrectly admitted drug-courier profile ...

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