Official may testify on Santa Muerte connection to drug trade

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In United States v. Goxcon-Chagal, (D NM, Aug. 5, 2012), a New Mexico federal district court rejected challenges to proposed testimony by a U.S. Marshall that Santa Muerte materials are tools of the trade of drug traffickers. In addition to finding that the testimony is admissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence, the court found no First Amendment problem with the proposed testimony. In a 67-page opinion, the court concluded:

Almonte’s testimony about the tools of the trade of drug organizations as they relate to individuals who worship Santa Muerte would be helpful to the jury.  Almonte’s proposed expert testimony is sufficiently reliable for the Court to permit him to testify before a jury.  Almonte’s proposed testimony is not improper profile evidence. Neither the Establishment Clause nor the Free Exercise Clause require exclusion of this evidence. Because the risk of unfair prejudice does not substantially outweigh the probative value of Almonte’s testimony, the Court will not exclude his testimony under rule 403….

While the religion associated with Santa Muerte is the only one that is at issue, the introduction of the evidence does not seek to punish Medina-Copete for worshiping Santa Muerte, but only for having drugs in her possession.  While worshipers of Santa Muerte are at a disadvantage because they may be suspected of and successfully prosecuted for drug activity more than nonworshipers of Santa Muerte, the presence of prayers and statutes is not a necessary or sufficient condition for a criminal conviction.  The Court has difficulty saying that the evidence violates the non-preferential principle of the Establishment Clause if the religion is neither a necessary or sufficient reason for a criminal conviction.