FBI Agent’s Expert Testimony On Gang Lingo Was Proper

US v. Smith:Smith and his codefendants, members of the Black Guerilla Family, were only trial for racketeering, conspiracy to distribute drugs, and attempted murder. Among the evidence admitted at trial was several recorded phone calls which “took place in code – an assortment of slang, nicknames, and substituted words meant to prevent an outside listener from deciphering their meaning.” To decipher those calls for the jury, the Government presented testimony from an FBI agent. The jury was cautioned on keeping in mind the difference between opinion and fact testimony. The defendants were convicted.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed their convictions. Primarily, the defendants argued that the district court abused its discretion by admitting the FBI agent’s testimony. The court disagreed, rejecting the argument that the agent’s “experience-based linguistic opinions were not the product of a reliable methodology,” likening his inability to “always point to a specific experience that informed each opinion” as being similar to language-translators who “do not translate based on any one piece of information . . . but analyze and synthesize an array of information learned over the years.” The court also approved of the district court’s safeguards for ensuring that the jury didn’t impermissibly blend opinion testimony with fact, including an instruction and having the agent testify twice, once as an expert and once as a fact witness. The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that the district court improperly handled potential bias on the jury when several jurors (who were excused) expressed fear of the defendants based on the fearsome reputation of the Black Guerilla Family.