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., 06/29/2022
E.g., 06/29/2022

Officers responded to a single-car accident in May 2018. At the time of the crash, the defendant was the passenger, and her acquaintance, Kyle, was driving the vehicle with the defendant’s permission. Witnesses at the site told the officers the driver fled the scene and walked into nearby woods because he had outstanding warrants. The defendant told the officers that she knew the driver as “Kyle” but that she did not know his full or last name. One officer searched the SUV to look for Kyle’s driver’s license or ID. The officer found a bag in which he discovered a black box that contained two cell phones, a scale, and two large bags of a clear crystal-like substance, which was later determined to be of methamphetamine.

The officers arrested the defendant then searched the bag she had with her outside of the car. Inside of the defendant’s bag, the officers found a glass smoking pipe, five cell phones, a handgun, a notebook, $1,785 in cash, and a clear container holding several bags of a white crystal-like substance, one of which contained one tenth of an ounce of methamphetamine.

Defense counsel filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence found in both bags, alleging the search of the vehicle violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. During a hearing, the officer testified that he had searched the vehicle to locate the driver’s identification in order to investigate the motor vehicle collision and a potential hit-and-run. The trial court concluded the warrantless search was constitutional because the officer had probable cause to search the SUV and denied the defendant’s motion. The defendant pled guilty of possession of methamphetamine and was convicted of trafficking in methamphetamine by possession by a jury’s verdict. The defendant appealed.

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress evidence found in a warrantless search of her parents’ vehicle without sufficient probable cause. The Court of Appeals concluded that the officers had reasonable suspicion to search the vehicle to verify the claims of another occupant and custodian of the vehicle to determine that alleged driver’s identity. The Court reasoned that Kyle’s identification may not have been inside the vehicle, but there was no other way for the officers to try to find information to identify the driver if the passenger and other witnesses did not know or would not provide his full name, and the identification of the purported driver may have reasonably been determined from looking inside the wrecked vehicle. The Court thus held that the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress.

(2) The defendant also argued that the trial court plainly erred by failing to provide an additional instruction about her actual knowledge of the drugs found inside the vehicle. The Court determined that the trial court adequately advised the jury of the knowledge requirement by stating, “a person possesses methamphetamine if the person is aware of its presence . . . and intent to control the disposition or use of that substance.” Slip op. at ¶ 23. The Court thus concluded the jury was sufficiently instructed that the State had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly possessed methamphetamine, and the defendant could not be convicted if she lacked knowledge of the methamphetamine found inside of her parent’s vehicle.

Judge Inman dissented in part to say that while there may have been probable cause to justify the issuance of a warrant by a magistrate, no exception to the warrant requirement authorized the warrantless search of the vehicle on the scene of the single-car accident in this case. Judge Inman concurred in part to say she would hold that the trial court erred in failing to further instruct the jury about the defendant’s knowledge as prescribed by our pattern jury instructions but did not conclude that the error had a probable impact on the jury’s verdict.

In this trafficking of methamphetamine case, substantial evidence showed that the defendant believed the white substance handed to him during a controlled drug sale was fake, rather than an impure mixture containing methamphetamine, and therefore there was insufficient evidence that the defendant knowingly possessed the methamphetamine.  At a controlled drug sale arranged by law enforcement with the help of an informant, the defendant stated his belief that the substance presented to him as methamphetamine was, contrary to his expectations, “re-rock,” a term that was defined by the State’s witnesses to describe “fake” drugs.  In fact, the substance was a mixture of 1 gram of methamphetamine and at least 28 grams of a cutting agent.  As the defendant and an associate inspected the substance, law enforcement officers entered the room and arrested them.  Finding the case to be controlled by State v. Wheeler, 138 N.C. App. 163 (2000), the court explained that when there is no evidence that a person intends to continue a drug transaction because he or she believes the drugs are fake, handling the drugs for the sole purpose of inspection does not constitute possession.

Judge Berger dissented and expressed his view that there was sufficient evidence that the defendant knowingly possessed the methamphetamine because of his previous dealings in methamphetamine with the informant and because the defendant’s use of the term “re-rock” may have been a reference to impure, rather than fake, methamphetamine.  Judge Berger also distinguished Wheeler on the grounds that the defendant in this case did not affirmatively reject the methamphetamine mixture.

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. 

In a trafficking by possession case there was sufficient evidence of knowing possession where the defendant was driving the vehicle that contained the cocaine.

The evidence was sufficient to establish that the defendant knowingly possessed and transported the controlled substance. The evidence showed that (1) the packages involved in the controlled delivery leading to the charges at issue were addressed to “Holly Wright;” although a person named Holly Wainwright had lived in the apartment with the defendant, she had moved out; (2) the defendant immediately accepted possession of the packages, dragged them into the apartment, and never mentioned to the delivery person that Wainwright no longer lived there; (3) Wainwright testified that she had not ordered the packages; (4) the defendant told a neighbor that another person (Smallwood) had ordered the packages for her; (5) the defendant did not open the packages, but immediately called Smallwood to tell him that they had arrived; (6) after getting off the phone with Smallwood, the defendant acted like she was in a hurry to leave; and (7) Smallwood came to the apartment within thirty-five minutes of the packages being delivered.

There was sufficient evidence to show that the defendant knowingly possessed marijuana in a case where the defendant was convicted of trafficking in marijuana and conspiracy to traffic by possession. Defendant signed for and collected a UPS package containing 44.1 pounds of marijuana. About a half hour later, the defendant helped load a second UPS package containing 43.8 pounds of marijuana into the back seat of a car. Both boxes were found when police searched the car, driven by the defendant. The defendant had once lived in the same residence as his niece, the person to whom the packages were addressed, and knew that his niece frequently got packages like these. Also, the defendant expected to earn between $50 and $200 for simply taking the package from UPS to his niece. Finally the address on one of the boxes did not exist. 

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