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State v. Blais

Court of Appeals of Utah

January 3, 2020

State of Utah, Appellee,
v.
Ronald Alan Blais, Appellant.

          Third District Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Linda M. Jones No. 171906926

          Wendy Brown, Attorney for Appellant

          Sean D. Reyes and Lindsey L. Wheeler, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge Kate Appleby authored this Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K. Orme and Ryan M. Harris concurred.

          APPLEBY, JUDGE.

         ¶1 Ronald Alan Blais was convicted of distributing a controlled substance and possessing a controlled substance with intent to distribute, both of which were enhanced to first-degree felonies due to a prior conviction. He also was convicted of giving false personal information to a peace officer, a class C misdemeanor. Blais challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to convict him of the felonies, alleges the district court abused its discretion in denying his motion to reduce the degrees of his felony convictions, and claims he was given an illegal sentence for the misdemeanor. We affirm his convictions, but we reverse the sentence for the misdemeanor count and remand for correction of that sentence.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 Blais was arrested after a police officer (Officer One) observed him and two other individuals, a man (Man) and Blais's daughter (Daughter), selling drugs on a street. Officer One, who was four stories above Blais and his cohorts in a building across the street from them, used a spotting scope to survey the suspicious activity. The spotting scope gave Officer One "a clear view of what was going on below," including "details of faces." He observed buyers giving Daughter or Man money. Daughter "would then put [the money] in a backpack and then direct [the buyers] to" Blais, who "would give them some sort of object from his backpack or mouth." Occasionally, Daughter "would pull a pill bottle out of her backpack and dump what appeared to be small objects, [that Officer One] believed to be twists, [[1] into [Blais's] hand, and he would either place them into his mouth or into his backpack." Two officers later testified that the pill bottle had a strong vinegar odor, which in their training and experience indicated "it was used to store heroin." There were two backpacks at the scene. One was on the ground between Blais and Daughter, and the other, which was "black and gray [and] had a [sporting goods] symbol," was on Blais's lap.

         ¶3 Officer One observed "about a dozen" transactions in which he could see twists. After Officer One saw Blais hand a buyer (Buyer) a black twist from his backpack, Officer One called in another officer (Officer Two) to arrest Buyer. After Officer Two informed Officer One that Buyer was in custody and that Officer Two found a black twist in Buyer's possession, Officer One gave other nearby officers descriptions of Blais, Man, and Daughter, and of the suspects' locations. Using his spotting scope, Officer One "had eyes on [them] the whole time" and confirmed the officers detained the correct people. He also testified that none of the suspects left the area and no one else "looking like them" entered the area during his surveillance. The arresting officers later testified that the descriptions Officer One provided of the suspects were "spot on." Upon arrest, Blais did not produce identification and told the arresting officer multiple times that his name was spelled "Ronald Blaze."

         ¶4 After Officer One dismantled his surveillance equipment, he went to the scene where all three suspects were handcuffed and the other officers were in the process of searching the backpacks. Officer Two searched the backpack that was on the ground between Blais and Daughter and found a pill bottle with Daughter's name on it and "a large amount of cash" that, in his training and experience, was "indicative of . . . sales of drugs." Officer One searched the black and gray backpack that was on Blais's lap and found "two [white] twists of what appeared to be crack cocaine" inside. Blais was arrested and charged with distribution of a controlled substance (heroin), possession of a controlled substance (cocaine) with intent to distribute, each second-degree felonies, and providing false personal information to a peace officer, a class C misdemeanor.[2]

         ¶5 The officers seized and booked into evidence the cash, the white twists, and the black twist. Officer Two testified that booking evidence consists of packaging each piece of evidence, printing a receipt that is affixed to the package, taping the package closed, and signing the tape "so it can show that it hasn't been tampered with." Officer Two personally booked the evidence in this case and testified that he followed standard procedure in doing so.

         ¶6 At trial, Officer One positively identified a "white twist containing crack cocaine" that he found in the black and gray backpack. Officer Two then identified the black twist found on Buyer, and testified it was the only narcotic in Buyer's possession. A senior forensic scientist testified that he performed a "screening test and a confirmation test" on each twist and positively identified the substance in the white twists as cocaine and the substance in the black twist as heroin. He also testified that another person in the lab reviewed his results and confirmed his conclusions.

         ¶7 The forensic scientist testified about the crime lab's process of receiving and testing drugs and said applicable protocol had been followed in this case. Therefore, he was "confident that those results [we]re the correct results." The State also introduced into evidence the lab report from "this case," which included the case number, the lab's case number, and the forensic scientist's signature. The report also identified the substances as heroin and cocaine. On cross-examination, Blais asked the forensic scientist whether any DNA or fingerprinting tests were performed on the evidence and the scientist responded in the negative. Blais did not object to any alleged deficiency in the chain of custody.

         ¶8 Blais testified in his own defense. He claimed Daughter "might have asked" him to hold the black and gray backpack, that he was there only to "convince" her to leave her drug-addicted lifestyle, and that he did not sell heroin or possess crack cocaine. Blais emphasized that no drugs were found on him when he was arrested. The jury convicted Blais on all three counts. After the guilty verdict, the district court found that Blais's prior conviction of ...


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