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., 06/21/2024
E.g., 06/21/2024
State v. Alvarez, 372 N.C. 303 (June 14, 2019)

The Court per curiam affirmed the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 818 S.E.2d 178 (2018), finding no error in the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to dismiss a felony maintaining a vehicle for keeping or selling controlled substances charge based on insufficient evidence.

The Court of Appeals had held, over a dissent, that the evidence was sufficient to support the defendant’s conviction of maintaining a vehicle for keeping or selling controlled substances. The defendant argued that the State presented insufficient evidence that he kept or maintained the vehicle over a duration of time. The court disagreed. The determination of whether a vehicle is used for keeping or selling drugs depends on the totality of the circumstances and a variety of factors are relevant, including occupancy of the property, possession over time, the presence of large amounts of cash or paraphernalia, and the defendant’s admission to selling controlled substances. Here, the totality of the circumstances supports a reasonable inference that the defendant knowingly kept or maintained the vehicle for the purposes of keeping or selling cocaine. Although the vehicle was registered in his wife’s name, the defendant described it as his truck. He admitted that it was his work vehicle, that no one else used it, and that he built the wooden drawers and compartments located in the back of the vehicle. When searching the vehicle, officers discovered a hidden compartment in the truck bed floor containing 1 kg of cocaine. The cocaine was packaged to evade canine detection. The defendant does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his related trafficking convictions arising from the same incident. Additionally, evidence shows that the defendant knowingly participated in a drug transaction in a Walmart parking lot immediately before his arrest and that this was not an isolated incident. Specifically, evidence indicated that if the transaction worked out, further drug sales could occur in the future. The court concluded:

[T]he evidence showed, generally, that defendant exercised regular and continuous control over the truck; that he constructed and knew about the false-bottomed compartment in which one kilogram of cocaine—an amount consistent with trafficking, not personal use— was discovered . . . ; that he was aware that cocaine was hidden in his truck and willingly participated in the transaction in the Walmart parking lot; and that he held himself out as responsible for the ongoing distribution of drugs like those discovered in the truck.

State v. Rogers, 371 N.C. 397 (Aug. 17, 2018)

On appeal from a decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 796 S.E.2d 91 (2017), the court reversed, holding that the evidence was sufficient to support a conviction of maintaining a vehicle for the purpose of keeping controlled substances in violation of G.S. 90-108(a)(7). The issues before the court were whether the defendant kept or maintained the vehicle and, if so, whether there was substantial evidence that the vehicle was used for the keeping of controlled substances. Considering the first question, the court found that the word “keep” with respect to “keeping or maintaining” “refers to possessing something for at least a short period of time—or intending to retain possession of something in the future—for a certain use.” Here, officers conducted surveillance for about an hour and a half before searching the vehicle and the defendant’s hotel room. During that surveillance, they saw the defendant arrive at the hotel in the vehicle, stay in his room for a period of time, and then leave the vehicle. The defendant was the only person seen using the car. Additionally, a service receipt bearing the defendant’s name was found inside the vehicle and was dated about 2½ months before the defendant’s arrest. From these facts a reasonable jury could conclude that the defendant had possessed the car for at least 2½ months. This was sufficient evidence that the defendant kept the vehicle.

            The court then turned to the second issue: whether there was sufficient evidence that the defendant used the vehicle for the keeping of illegal drugs. The court determined that in this context the word “keeps” refers to storing objects in the vehicle. The court found that here, there was substantial evidence that the defendant was using the vehicle to store crack cocaine, not merely to transport it, noting, among other things, the fact that the drugs were found in a hidden compartment and evidence suggesting that the defendant was involved in selling drugs. The court emphasized however that the statute does not create a separate crime simply because controlled substances are temporarily in a vehicle. It clarified:

In other words, merely possessing or transporting drugs inside a car—because, for instance, they are in an occupant’s pocket or they are being taken from one place to another—is not enough to justify a conviction under the “keeping” element of subsection 90-108(a)(7). Rather, courts must determine whether the defendant was using a car for the keeping of drugs—which, again, means the storing of drugs—and courts must focus their inquiry “on the use, not the contents, of the vehicle.”” (citation omitted)

The court went on to disavow its statement in State v. Mitchell, 336 N.C. 22 (1994), that keeping of drugs means “not just possession, but possession that occurs over a duration of time.” The court concluded that the statute does not require that the drugs be kept for a duration of time. Rather, “the linchpin of the inquiry into whether a defendant was using a vehicle, building, or other place ‘for the keeping . . . of’ drugs is whether the defendant was using that vehicle, building, or other place for the storing of drugs.” The court continued:

So, for instance, when the evidence indicates that a defendant has possessed a car for at least a short period of time, but that he had just begun storing drugs inside his car at the time of his arrest, that defendant has still violated subsection 90-108(a)(7)—even if, arguably, he has not stored the drugs for any appreciable “duration of time.” The critical question is whether a defendant’s car is used to store drugs, not how long the defendant’s car has been used to store drugs for. As a result, we reject any notion that subsection 90-108(a)(7) requires that a car kept or maintained by a defendant be used to store drugs for a certain minimum period of time—or that evidence of drugs must be found in the vehicle, building, or other place on more than one occasion—for a defendant to have violated subsection 90-108(a)(7). But again, merely having drugs in a car (or other place) is not enough to justify a conviction under subsection 90-108(a)(7). The evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence must indicate, based “on the totality of the circumstances,” that the drugs are also being stored there. To the extent that Mitchell’s “duration of time” requirement conflicts with the text of subsection 90-108(a)(7), therefore, this aspect of Mitchell is disavowed. (citation omitted)

State v. Dunston, 371 N.C. 76 (May. 11, 2018)

The Court per curiam affirmed the opinion below, ___ N.C. App. ___, 806 S.E.2d 697 (2017). Over a dissent, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of maintaining a vehicle for keeping or selling controlled substances. The court disagreed with the defendant’s argument that case law establishes a bright-line rule that one incident of keeping or selling controlled substances always is insufficient to sustain a conviction for maintaining a vehicle. The determination, the court said, is based on the totality of the circumstances. Here, the defendant was in the vehicle at a location known for a high level of illegal drug activity. He was observed by officers unwrapping cigars and rerolling them after manipulating them. Based on the officer’s training and experience, the defendant’s actions were consistent with those used in distributing marijuana. The driver was observed in hand-to-hand exchange of cash with another person. When searched by officers, the driver was discovered to have marijuana and the defendant was no longer in possession of the “cigars.” Additionally, the defendant possessed a trafficking quantity of heroin along with plastic bags, two sets of digital scales, three cell phones, and $155 in cash. Additionally, the defendant’s ex-girlfriend testified that she was concerned about his negative influence on his nephew because she “knew the lifestyle.”

On appeal from an unpublished decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals which had found no error with respect to the defendant’s maintaining a vehicle conviction, the court affirmed per curiam. The defendant was convicted for maintaining a vehicle for the purpose of keeping a controlled substance. Before the Court of Appeals, he unsuccessfully argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss for insufficiency of the evidence. Specifically, the defendant argued that to prove the “keeping” element of the offense, the State must show that the vehicle was used over time for the illegal activity. The Court of Appeals found the cases cited by the defendant distinguishable, noting that here 29.927 grams of marijuana was found in a plastic bag, tucked in a sock, and placed in a vent inside the vehicle’s engine compartment outside of the passenger area and remnants of marijuana were found throughout the vehicle’s interior. The Court of Appeals noted, in part, that a jury may infer “keeping” from the remnants of the controlled substance found throughout the interior space of the vehicle and a storage space in it for the keeping of controlled substances in the engine compartment.

In this Haywood County case, defendant appealed his convictions for trafficking and conspiracy to traffic methamphetamine and maintaining a vehicle for controlled substances, arguing he did not knowingly possess or traffic methamphetamine. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding no error. 

Based on a tip from a known drug dealer, detectives from the Haywood County Sheriff's Office monitored a hotel room in April of 2021. They observed two individuals leaving, and after a traffic stop with a K-9 unit, found methamphetamine. The officers continued monitoring the hotel room, and observed defendant and another person leave. After stopping defendant, they located marijuana and a large amount of currency in his vehicle, but no further meth. While defendant was in jail, he called an associate and gave her instructions on where to remove a portion of his vehicle to find hidden methamphetamine; law enforcement monitored the calls and intercepted the associate after she had removed the meth from the hiding places. This associate cooperated with the detectives and provided what she obtained from the vehicle, which was a large amount of meth. A search of the car taillight turned up additional meth. Defendant was subsequently convicted on all charges. 

The Court of Appeals took up each of defendant’s convictions in turn, beginning with the trafficking by possession charge. Defendant argued that he did not “knowingly possess” the methamphetamine. At trial, the State offered evidence that defendant constructively possessed the meth to show knowing possession. The court explained that to establish constructive possession, the evidence must show defendant’s non-exclusive possession of property where drugs are found, along with “other incriminating evidence ‘connecting the defendant to the drugs.’” Slip Op. at 9, quoting State v. Lakey, 183 N.C. App. 652, 656 (2007). Previous cases established that a “large amount of currency” and conduct showing “knowledge of the presence of a controlled substance” support a finding of constructive possession. Id. Here, evidence showed defendant regularly operated the car where the meth was found, he was driving it when he was arrested and it was impounded, and in the trunk officers found a large amount of currency and digital scales. This evidence combined with the instructions provided in the jailhouse phone call supported the conclusion that defendant had constructive possession of the meth. 

The court then turned to the trafficking by transportation charge, and rejected defendant’s argument that he did not knowingly transport the meth. The court noted transportation “requires a ‘substantial movement’ of contraband. . .[e]ven very slight movement may be real or substantial enough.” Id. at 10, quoting State v. McRae, 110 N.C. App. 643, 646 (1993). Here, detectives observed defendant drive the car with the meth from the hotel to a parking lot where he was arrested and the car was impounded. Although the meth was not immediately discovered, “[t]he fact that all the containers were not discovered until days later does not suggest a lack of knowledge given the hidden location of the packages and the Defendant’s knowledge of the location of and extraction method for the packages.” Id. at 11. 

Moving to defendant’s argument that the State presented insufficient evidence he kept or maintained a vehicle for controlled substances, the court explained that “[w]hether sufficient evidence was presented of the ‘keeping or maintaining’ element [of G.S. 90-108(a)(7)] depends upon a totality of the circumstances, and no single factor is determinative.” Id. at 12. Here, the court pointed to the evidence initially found inside the car along with defendant’s “knowledge and actions to access and dispose of the methamphetamine” later found inside the car as sufficient to support the conviction. Id. at 13. 

Finally, the court noted the evidence showing all the alleged co-conspirators found with meth after leaving the hotel, along with the currency and scales found with defendant, as supportive of the conspiracy to commit trafficking charge. 

In this Johnston County case, defendant appealed his controlled substance related convictions arguing error in (1) the admission of prior bad act evidence, and (2) denying his motion to dismiss some of the controlled substances charges. The Court of Appeals vacated and arrested the judgment for maintaining a dwelling resorted to by persons using methamphetamine, but otherwise found no error.

In March of 2019, Johnston County Sheriff’s Office executed a search warrant on defendant’s home, discovering methamphetamine in small baggies, marijuana, and paraphernalia consistent with selling drugs. Defendant was also noncompliant during the search and arrest, struggling with officers and attempting to flee. At trial, the state admitted certain text messages obtained from defendant’s cellphone, ranging from October 2018 to February 2019, as evidence of prior bad acts; defendant objected under Rule of Evidence 404(b) but the trial court denied his motion.

For issue (1), the Court of Appeals first found Rule 404(b) did not bar admission of the texts, as “knowledge was at issue during trial, [and] the challenged evidence is relevant as it corroborated the [s]tate’s contention that the substance defendant possessed was indeed marijuana and not legal hemp.” Slip Op. at 9. The court then determined under Rule 403 that the trial court performed a sufficient analysis of the evidence and did not commit an abuse of discretion when admitting the texts.

Under issue (2), the court found error with one of defendant’s convictions, maintaining a dwelling resorted to by persons using methamphetamine under G.S. 90-108(a)(7), as the state did not offer sufficient evidence to show any other person actually used defendant’s residence for consuming methamphetamine. The court noted that “the [s]tate failed to establish that anyone outside of defendant, used defendant’s home to consume controlled substances . . . [d]efendant cannot ‘resort’ to his own residence.” Id. at 18. The court rejected defendant’s arguments with respect to his other controlled substance convictions, and arrested judgment instead of remanding the matter as defendant’s convictions were consolidated and he received the lowest possible sentence in the mitigated range.

In this keeping or maintaining a vehicle for the keeping or sale of controlled substances case, there was insufficient evidence that the defendant kept or maintained a vehicle or did so for the keeping or selling of controlled substances.  Officers had received information from another agency indicating that the defendant was selling drugs.  During a traffic stop and weapons frisk following 20-25 minutes of surveillance of the defendant driving, approximately 56 grams of methamphetamine and 7 grams of heroin were discovered on the defendant’s person, and an officer later testified that neither amount was consistent with personal use.  The defendant was driving a vehicle registered to his wife and mother-in-law. 

Noting that North Carolina courts have defined the words “keep” and “maintain” separately, the court explained that they are similar terms, “often used interchangeably, to establish a singular element of the offense” and that whether a vehicle is “kept or maintained” for the keeping or selling of controlled substances depends on the totality of the circumstances.  Finding that the State presented no evidence that the defendant “maintained” the vehicle because there was no evidence that the defendant had title to or owned the vehicle, had a property interest in it, or paid for its purchase or upkeep, the court turned to whether there was sufficient evidence that the defendant “kept” the car within the meaning of G.S. 90-108(a)(7).  Reviewing relevant caselaw, which establishes that the “keep or maintain” language of the statute “refers to possessing something at least for a short period of time—or intending to retain possession of something in the future—for a certain use,” the court determined that evidence of the defendant’s possession of the vehicle for approximately 20-25 minutes, standing alone, was insufficient to prove that the defendant “kept” the vehicle.  

The court then turned to whether, assuming there had been sufficient evidence of the defendant’s keeping or maintaining the vehicle, the State presented sufficient evidence that the defendant’s purpose in doing so was the “keeping or selling” of controlled substances.  Again reviewing relevant caselaw, the court determined that the discovery on the defendant’s person of single bags containing approximately 56 grams of methamphetamine and 7 grams of heroin was insufficient to prove the purpose of keeping or maintaining the vehicle was the keeping or selling of controlled substances.  The court noted that the State presented no evidence that cell phones, cash, scales, baggies or other paraphernalia had been discovered in the vehicle.  There also was no evidence that the vehicle had been modified to conceal drugs or that drugs had been discovered in the vehicle itself, hidden or otherwise.

Judge Berger dissented and expressed his view that there was sufficient evidence of the offense and that the majority erroneously conflated “keeping” and “maintaining” in its analysis of whether the defendant kept or maintained the vehicle.  In Judge Berger’s view there was sufficient evidence that the defendant “kept” the vehicle based on his possession of the vehicle while engaging in drug activity.  He also would have found sufficient evidence that the defendant’s purpose in doing so was the keeping or selling of controlled substances based on the defendant’s use of the vehicle to transport drugs, the discovery of a purported drug ledger in the vehicle, and other evidence that the defendant was involved in the sale of drugs.

The defendant’s conviction for maintaining a vehicle for keeping or selling drugs was supported by sufficient evidence.

The determination of whether a vehicle . . . is use for keeping or selling controlled substances will depend on the totality of the circumstances. . .While no factor is dispositive, ‘[t]he focus of the inquiry is on the use, not the contents, of the vehicle. Slip op. at 11 (citations omitted).

Here, the defendant hid a trafficking amount of methamphetamine in a tire-sealant can in his car and possessed paraphernalia. In the light most favorable to the State, this was sufficient evidence from which a jury could infer that the car was kept for purposes of keeping drugs. The defendant’s motion to dismiss this charge for insufficiency of the evidence was therefore properly denied and the convictions unanimously affirmed.

In this maintaining a dwelling case on remand from the state Supreme Court for reconsideration in light of State v. Rogers, __ N.C. __, 817 S.E.2d 150 (2018), the court held that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction. The State’s evidence showed that the drugs were kept at the defendant’s home on one occasion. Under Rogers, “the State must produce other incriminating evidence of the ‘totality of the circumstances’ and more than just evidence of a single sale of illegal drugs or ‘merely having drugs in a car (or other place)’ to support a conviction under this charge.” Here, the State offered no evidence showing any drugs or paraphernalia, large amounts of cash, weapons or other implements of the drug trade at the defendant’s home. The State offered no evidence of any other drug sales occurring there, beyond the one sale at issue in the case. It stated: “Under ‘the totality of the circumstances,’ ‘merely having drugs in a car [or residence] is not enough to justify a conviction under subsection 90-108(a)(7).’” It concluded, stating that Roger was distinguishable because it involved keeping of drugs in a motor vehicle, where other drugs and incriminating evidence of ongoing drug sales were present.

The evidence was sufficient to sustain a conviction for maintaining a dwelling. Officer recovered from the home a Schedule I controlled substance, marijuana, a glass jar that had the odor of marijuana, Garcia y Vega cigar wraps, a marijuana roach, digital scales, sandwich bags, and a security camera set up in the living room that observed the front yard. The defendant, a convicted felon, had constructive possession of a handgun. And an officer observed traffic at the residence over several days consistent with illegal drug trade and observed a confidential source successfully buy a controlled substance from the residence.

The evidence was insufficient with respect to the maintaining a dwelling charge. There was no evidence that the defendant was the owner or lessee of the residence, there was no evidence that he paid for its utilities or upkeep, there was no evidence that he had been seen in or around the dwelling and there was no evidence that he lived there. 

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of maintaining a dwelling. The court first held that the evidence established that the defendant kept or maintained the dwelling where it showed that he resided there. Specifically, the defendant received mail addressed to him at the residence; his probation officer visited him there numerous times to conduct routine home contacts; the defendant’s personal effects were found in the residence, including a pay stub and protective gear from his employment; and the defendant placed a phone call from the Detention Center and informed the other party that officers had “come and searched his house.” Next, the court held that the evidence was sufficient to show that the residence was being used for keeping or selling drugs. In assessing this issue, the court looks at factors including the amount of drugs present and paraphernalia found. Here, a bag containing 39.7 grams of 4-methylethcathinone and methylone was found in a bedroom closet alongside another plastic bag containing “numerous little corner baggies.” A set of digital scales and $460.00 in twenty dollar bills also were found. 

The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of maintaining a vehicle for use, storage, or sale of a controlled substance. The statute provides two ways to show a violation: first, that the defendant knowingly allowed others to resort to his vehicle to use drugs; and second, that the defendant knowingly used the dwelling for the keeping or selling of drugs. The court reasoned that the defendant could not be convicted under the first prong because of his own use of drugs in his vehicle and that the State presented no evidence as to the second prong. [Author’s note: the court does not explain why the State’s evidence that the defendant’s acquaintance also “got[] high” with the defendant in the defendant’s vehicle was insufficient to prove the first prong.] 

There was sufficient evidence to support a conviction of maintaining a dwelling. The defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence that he knew about the drugs found in the home. However, the court held that its conclusion that he constructively possessed the drugs resolved that issue in favor of the State. 

The evidence was sufficient to support a conviction for maintaining a vehicle. Drugs were found in a vehicle being transported by a car carrier driven by the defendant. The evidence showed that the defendant kept or maintained the vehicle where the bill of lading showed that the defendant picked it up and maintained possession as the authorized bailee continuously and without variation for two days. Having stopped to rest overnight at least one time during the time period, the defendant retained control and disposition over the vehicle and resumed his planned route with the car carrier.

State v. Craven, 205 N.C. App. 393 (July 20, 2010) rev’d on other grounds, 367 N.C. 51 (Jun 27 2013)

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of maintaining a vehicle where the evidence was sufficient to establish that the defendant had possession of cocaine in his mother’s vehicle over a duration of time and/or on more than one occasion.

There was insufficient evidence to establish that the defendant “maintained” the dwelling. Evidence showed only that the defendant had discussed, with the home’s actual tenant, taking over rent payments but never reached an agreement to do so; a car, similar to defendant’s was normally parked at the residence; and the defendant’s shoes and some of his personal papers were found there.

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