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Patel v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

July 26, 2019

PATEL
v.
THE STATE

          DILLARD, P. J., GOBEIL and HODGES, JJ.

          Dillard, Presiding Judge.

         Following a jury trial, at which he proceeded pro se, Amul Patel was convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, possession of marijuana more than one ounce, and possession of cocaine. On appeal, now represented by counsel, Patel argues that there was insufficient evidence to sustain his conviction for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [1] the record shows that on March 3, 2015, Sheriff Kyle Walker with the Banks County Sheriff's Office, was on duty patrolling an area on and near Interstate 85 around 4:00 p.m. And while he was traveling north on I-85, Walker observed a silver Nissan Maxima, which was traveling in the far left lane, "jump[ ] from the fast lane through the slow lane and into [an] exit lane . . ., causing several people to apply their breaks so [as] not to hit the car." According to Walker, this conduct constituted an unsafe illegal lane change, so he activated his patrol car's blue lights and conducted a traffic stop of the Maxima. And as soon as Walker made contact with the driver of the car (later identified as Patel), he noticed Patel was speaking rapidly about how he was following too close to another vehicle. Walker could also smell a strong odor of marijuana emanating from the car.

         Given these circumstances, Walker asked Patel to exit the vehicle and stand by the rear of the car. Walker then took "an exaggerated sniff" inside the car, at which point Patel admitted that he had "smoked a joint." Patel did not deny that there was more marijuana inside the car, but instead claimed that it did not belong to him. Other officers then arrived on the scene to assist Walker, and due to the smell of marijuana and Patel's admission to smoking it, they conducted a search of the vehicle. In the backseat area, officers discovered a brown paper bag containing two separate plastic bags of marijuana. Additionally, in the floorboard area of the driver's seat, the officers discovered a multi-colored bag containing even more marijuana. In total, the marijuana collected by the officers had a gross weight of 1, 327 grams, which is roughly 2.9 pounds. And without the packaging, the marijuana found in Patel's car weighed 15.65 ounces, which is .978 pounds, and had a "street value" of $26, 540. Following the search, law-enforcement officers arrested Patel, and when they conducted a "pat-down search," they discovered he was also in possession of a "quantity of cocaine" in a clear plastic bag.

         Thereafter, Patel was charged, via accusation, with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, possession of more than once ounce of marijuana, and possession of cocaine. Following a jury trial, at which Patel proceeded pro se, he was convicted of all charged offenses. Then, represented by counsel, Patel filed a motion for a new trial, which was ultimately denied.[2] This appeal follows.

         In his sole enumeration of error, Patel contends that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. We disagree.

         We review a denial of a motion for directed verdict under "the same standard as that for determining the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction."[3]Furthermore, when a criminal conviction is appealed, the evidence must be viewed "in the light most favorable to the verdict, and the appellant no longer enjoys a presumption of innocence."[4] And in evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction, we do not weigh the evidence or determine witness credibility but only resolve whether "a rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt."[5] Accordingly, the jury's verdict will be upheld so long as "there is some competent evidence, even though contradicted, to support each fact necessary to make out the State's case."[6] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to Patel's specific challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence.

          OCGA § 16-13-30 (j) (1) provides that "[i]t shall be unlawful for any person to possess . . . with intent to distribute marijuana." And to support a conviction for this offense, the State must prove "more than mere possession or intent for personal use."[7] Instead, the evidence must show "an intent to distribute."[8] As a result, when a conviction hinges on circumstantial evidence, the evidence "must exclude every reasonable hypothesis except guilt."[9] Thus, if no additional evidence of intent to distribute is offered, "such as scales, drug paraphernalia, large amounts of cash, division of drugs into individual packages, or a prior conviction of possession with intent to distribute, . . . expert testimony is critical, and the conviction cannot be sustained without it."[10] In sum, there must be "competent evidence" linking the possession of the drugs to "the enterprise of sale."[11]

         Here, while Patel did not possess drug paraphernalia or large sums of cash, and there was no evidence that he had any prior drug convictions, he did posses nearly one pound of marijuana separated into three individual bags, which was worth $26, 540. Additionally, the State elicited testimony at trial that Sheriff Walker encounters marijuana on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis; has over 1, 000 hours of law-enforcement training; and is a certified K-9 handler.[12] And he testified that, based on his training and experience, the amount of marijuana Patel possessed was not consistent with personal use. Further, in cases without drug paraphernalia or large sums of cash, expert testimony-such as Walker's-is often critical. That said, the requirements for qualification as an expert witness are minimal; "generally, nothing more is required to qualify an expert than evidence that the person has been educated in a particular trade, science, or profession."[13] Formal education or training in an area of expertise, then, is not necessary, "provided the witness possesses the qualifications of such area of expertise through skill and experience."[14] And here, the State easily satisfied this standard through Walker's testimony at trial. Nevertheless, Patel complains that no witnesses testified as to his intent to sell the marijuana and that his conviction was based solely on circumstantial evidence.[15] This argument is a nonstarter. The circumstantial evidence presented by the State below-especially when viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict-linked Patel's possession of the marijuana to "the enterprise of sale"[16] and authorized the jury to reject a hypothesis that the marijuana was for personal use, rather than distribution.[17]

         For all these reasons, we affirm Patel's convictions.

         Judgment affirmed.

          Gobeil and ...


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