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United States v. Stapleton

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

November 8, 2013



AMUL R. THAPAR, District Judge.

The government hopes to introduce a law enforcement narcotics expert to prove that the defendants used their pain clinic to distribute medically baseless prescriptions in violation of federal law. The defendants raised numerous objections, and the government responded by narrowing the scope of the proposed testimony, rendering several of the defendants' arguments moot. After considering the remaining objections, the Court will limit the expert testimony to one subject: the typical features of the drug conspiracies commonly known as "pill mills."


The defendants are charged with various drug crimes, including conspiring to illegally distribute oxycodone and other controlled substances. It all started when Kentucky police arrested Ray Stapleton for driving under the influence. R. 158 at 1. Officers searched his car and found over a million dollars in cash and thousands of pills. Id. The trail of evidence eventually led the police to the pain clinic that Stapleton and his wife owned and operated. Id. at 1-2. The government says the Stapletons' pain clinic was the hub of a large drug conspiracy where two doctors issued a high volume of medically baseless prescriptions. Id. These doctors, Dr. Stephen Arny and Dr. Emmanuel Acosta, were employees of the Stapletons. All four defendants now stand accused of flooding their community with dangerously powerful and addictive drugs. Id.

To prove that the defendants knowingly distributed unnecessary prescriptions, the government seeks to introduce Kentucky State Police Detective Randy Hunter as an expert. His proposed testimony concerns two basic opinions: 1) the amount of pills and cash found in Ray Stapleton's car is consistent with intent to distribute, and 2) the defendants' pain clinic is consistent with the characteristics of a typical "pill mill." See R. 175 at 2. As defined by Detective Hunter, a "pill mill" is an ostensibly legitimate clinic that unlawfully distributes a large volume of controlled substances without a genuine medical purpose. R. 151-2 at 1. Hunter summarized the bases of his opinions in a written report provided to the defendants. Id.

Relying on that report, the Stapletons and Dr. Emmanuel Acosta separately moved to exclude Detective Hunter's proposed testimony. See R. 127; R. 133. The Court then held a Daubert hearing to discuss the motions. See R. 164. At the hearing, the Court ordered new briefing. Id. at 2-3. And in their renewed motions, the Stapletons and Dr. Acosta raise several objections under Federal Rules of Evidence 702, 703, 704, and 403, as well as the Confrontation Clause. They argue that Hunter's testimony should be excluded because his opinion is: 1) outside his expertise; 2) irrelevant; 3) unhelpful to the jury; 4) unreliable; 5) based on hearsay, prior bad acts, and the opinions of other experts; 6) an explicit opinion about the defendants' intent; 7) impermissible "profile" evidence; and 8) otherwise unduly prejudicial. See R. 167; R. 168.

The government, for its part, has made key concessions rendering some of these objections moot. First, Detective Hunter will only rely on admissible evidence. See R. 175 at 2, 12. As such, he will avoid discussing any of the defendants' prior medical licensing problems, which the prosecution concedes are inadmissible propensity evidence. Id. at 12. This initial concession also moots the defendants' objection to Hunter's reliance on hearsay. Second, Hunter will only testify that the evidence is consistent with intent to distribute and a typical pill mill. Id. at 2. The government originally intended for him to testify that the Stapleton's clinic actually is a pill mill, but later walked that back. Compare R. 159 at 6, with id. at 96-97. This concession moots arguments that Detective Hunter opines directly on the defendants' guilt. And lastly, Detective Hunter will not offer a "medical opinion" or testify as a "medical expert." R. 159 at 32, 42; R. 175 at 2, 4. Hunter admitted that he generally lacks the necessary expertise to reach medical conclusions about the specific treatment practices of the defendants in this case. See, e.g., R. 159 at 44-45. But despite this admission, Hunter will not simply list the characteristics of a typical pill mill. He plans to go further, testifying about what makes particular features of a pain clinic suspicious, including why certain physician behavior is a red flag because it is inconsistent with legitimate pain management. See id. at 36-38; R. 175 at 5-7.


After considering the defendants' remaining objections, the Court will limit Detective Hunter's expert testimony to the features pill mills generally exhibit-the pill mill modus operandi. For the reasons discussed below, Hunter may not opine on: 1) whether the defendants' pain clinic exhibits any of those features, 2) why any of those features are inconsistent with legitimate medical treatment, and 3) whether the cash and drugs seized from Ray Stapletons' car is consistent with intent to distribute.

I. Detective Hunter May Testify About Typical Pill Mills

Although Detective Hunter's drug enforcement credentials are quite impressive, the defendants raise some legitimate concerns with his testimony about pill mills. Because comparing the defendants' pain clinic to a typical pill mill is unduly prejudicial, Hunter may only discuss pill mills in general. And since Hunter is not a doctor, he lacks the requisite medical expertise to explain why certain physician behavior is inconsistent with legitimate pain management. Detective Hunter is otherwise free to discuss the features law enforcement officers usually find in pill mills.

A. Hunter's Testimony About the Usual Features of Pill Mills Satisfies Rule 702

The government may introduce Detective Hunter's expert testimony on the usual characteristics of pill mills. Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence charges the Court with a "gatekeeping role" in screening expert testimony. Tamraz v. Lincoln Elec. Co., 620 F.3d 665, 668 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 597 (1993)). Such testimony satisfies Rule 702 only if it meets three requirements: 1) the witness is qualified, 2) the expert's testimony will assist the jury, and 3) the testimony is reliable. In re Scrap Metal Antitrust Litig., 527 F.3d 517, 528-29 (6th Cir. 2008). As the proponent of the expert testimony, the government must establish its admissibility by a preponderance of the evidence. Nelson v. Tenn. Gas Pipeline Co., 243 F.3d 244, 251 (6th Cir. 2001) (citing Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592 n.10). Detective Hunter's testimony about the typical features of pill mills satisfies all three of Rule 702's requirements, and thus may pass through the courthouse gate.

1. Hunter is Sufficiently Qualified

To offer his expert opinion Detective Hunter must be qualified based on his "knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education." Fed.R.Evid. 702. Formal training is not necessarily required. Cf. United States v. Winkle, 477 F.3d 407, 415-16 (6th Cir. 2007) (finding an employee of an accounting firm with extensive banking experience qualified to testify even though he had no formal accounting education). Repeated firsthand observations may provide a witness the specialized knowledge and experience he needs to testify as an expert. See Berry v. City of Detroit, 25 F.3d 1342, 1349-50 (6th Cir. 1994). Whether Detective Hunter's law enforcement experience is sufficient thus depends, at least in part, on "the nature and extent of that experience." United States v. Cunningham, 679 F.3d 355, 379 (6th Cir. 2012).

Given Detective Hunter's impressive narcotics credentials, he is amply qualified to discuss the features drug investigators usually find in pill mills. The Stapletons suggest the clinical nature of pill-mill conspiracies makes their inner workings entirely a matter of medical expertise, see R. 168 at 7, but Hunter does not need to be a medical expert to know their basic signs. Those signs are well within the competence of law enforcement. The factors relevant to Hunter's qualifications thus include his time as a narcotics investigator, his field experience, and his drug training. See United States v. Johnson, 488 F.3d 690, 698 (6th Cir. 2007); United States v. List, 200 F.App'x 535, 545 (6th Cir. 2006); United States v. Anderson, 89 F.3d 1306, 1312 (6th Cir. 1996). All strongly count in his favor. Hunter has extensive drug training and nearly fourteen years of drug enforcement experience, including "coordinat[ing] the largest prescription drug round-up" in United States history. See R. 151-1 at 1-2; see also R. 159 at 15 (discussing 12 years with the KSP Drug Enforcement Section). Assigned to the Appalachia High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), his regular duties include "identifying and developing large scale narcotics distributors within the Commonwealth of Kentucky." R. 151-1 at 2. And Hunter is presently leading or consulting on four pill mill investigations in the Eastern District. Id. at 3. He is also active in the field, making undercover purchases and working with confidential informants. R. 159 at 15, 23. Detective Hunter even trains other officers in pill mill investigations, and he has lectured locally and nationally on the subject. Id. at 19-21. Given this extensive experience, it is not surprising that Hunter has already testified several times as an expert on the illegal distribution of prescription narcotics. R. 151-1 at 4.

Compared to other officers deemed qualified to offer similar expert testimony, Detective Hunter has at least as much law enforcement experience, if not much more. See Johnson, 488 F.3d at 698 (approving expert testimony of police officer who "worked on narcotics investigations nearly his entire fourteen-year career"); Anderson, 89 F.3d at 1312 (finding an agent with nine years' experience qualified); United States v. Bender, 265 F.3d 464, 471-72 (6th Cir. 2001) (approving testimony by an officer who had been with city police department for fourteen years and a member of the vice/narcotics division for nine of those years, had received extensive training in drug crimes and drug trafficking, and had taught classes on drug enforcement and drug ...

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