Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

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This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.

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E.g., 09/26/2021
E.g., 09/26/2021

Reversing an unpublished opinion below in this drug trafficking case, the supreme court held that the trial court did not err in its jury instructions regarding the defendant’s knowledge. The court noted that “[a] presumption that the defendant has the required guilty knowledge exists” when “the State makes a prima facie showing that the defendant has committed a crime, such as trafficking by possession, trafficking by transportation, or possession with the intent to sell or deliver, that lacks a specific intent element.” However, the court continued: “when the defendant denies having knowledge of the controlled substance that he has been charged with possessing or transporting, the existence of the requisite guilty knowledge becomes ‘a determinative issue of fact’ about which the trial court must instruct the jury.” As a result of these rules, footnote 4 to N.C.P.I. Crim. 260.17 (and parallel footnotes in related instructions) states that, “[i]f the defendant contends that he did not know the true identity of what he possessed,” the italicized language must be added to the jury instructions:

For you to find the defendant guilty of this offense the State must prove two things beyond a reasonable

doubt:

          First, that the defendant knowingly possessed cocaine and the defendant knew that what he possessed was cocaine. A person possesses cocaine if he is aware of its presence and has (either by himself or together with others) both the power and intent to control the disposition or use of that substance.

The defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to add the “footnote four” language to the jury instructions. The supreme court disagreed, reasoning:

In this case, defendant did not either deny knowledge of the contents of the gift bag in which the cocaine was found or admit that he possessed a particular substance while denying any knowledge of the substance’s identity. Instead, defendant simply denied having had any knowledge that the van that he was driving contained either the gift bag or cocaine. As a result, since defendant did not “contend[ ] that he did not know the true identity of what he possessed,” the prerequisite for giving the instruction in question simply did not exist in this case. As a result, the trial court did not err by failing to deliver the additional instruction contained in footnote four . . . in this case. (citation omitted).

The court went on to distinguish the case before it from State v. Coleman, 227 N.C. App. 354 (2013).

In a case involving trafficking and possession with intent charges, the evidence was insufficient to establish that the defendant Villalvavo knowingly possessed the controlled substance. The drugs were found in secret compartments of a truck. The defendant was driving the vehicle, which was owned by a passenger, Velazquez-Perez, who hired Villalvavo to drive the truck. The court found insufficient incriminating circumstances to support a conclusion that Villalvavo acted knowingly with respect to the drugs; while evidence regarding the truck’s log books may have been incriminating as to Velazquez-Perez, it did not apply to Villalvavo, who had not been working for Velazquez-Perez long and had no stake in the company or control over Velazquez-Perez. The court was unconvinced that Villalvavo’s nervousness during the stop constituted adequate incriminating circumstances.

In a case in which the defendant was convicted of possession of heroin and trafficking in opium or heroin by transportation, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request for an instruction about knowing possession or transportation. The court concluded that the requested instruction was not required because the defendant did not present any evidence that he was confused or mistaken about the nature of the illegal drug his accomplice was carrying.

In a heroin trafficking case where the defendant argued that he did not know that the item he possessed was heroin, the trial court committed plain error by denying the defendant’s request for a jury instruction that the State must prove that the defendant knew that he possessed heroin (footnote 4 of the relevant trafficking instructions). The court noted that knowledge that one possesses contraband is presumed by the act of possession unless the defendant denies knowledge of possession and contests knowledge as disputed fact. It went on to reject the State’s argument that the defendant was not entitled to the instruction because he did not testify or present any evidence to raise the issue of knowledge as a disputed fact. The court noted that its case in chief the State presented evidence that the defendant told a detective that he did not know the container in his vehicle contained heroin; this constituted a contention by the defendant that he did not know the true identity of what he possessed, the critical issue in the case. 

The trial court did not err by declining to give the defendant’s proposed jury instruction on the element that the defendant acted “knowingly.” The instructions given by the trial court adequately contained the substance of the defendant’s proposed instruction. Specifically, it instructed the jury that in order to possess or sell cocaine, the defendant must have been aware of its presence and have had the power and intent to control its distribution or use. These instructions effectively inform the jury that the defendant must have had knowledge of the substance and the crime being committed, and he must have intentionally and voluntarily participated in the crime.

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