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., 11/27/2021
E.g., 11/27/2021

In this Buncombe County case, the defendant was convicted of possession with intent to sell or deliver cocaine. The defendant sold two white rocks to an undercover officer in a parking lot. When the defendant gave the drugs to the officer, he placed them in the officer’s bare hands without any packaging. The rocks were later tested and found to contain cocaine. (1) At trial, the defendant moved to dismiss for insufficient evidence. He pointed out that the officer had handled other cocaine with his bare hands earlier in the day and had stored other cocaine in his car console where the cocaine obtained from the defendant was later stored. According to the defendant, this rendered the laboratory result unreliable and insufficient to prove possession of cocaine. The court rejected this argument, finding the handling and storing of the rocks was an issue going to the weight of the evidence and not its admissibility. While the jury was free to consider the contamination argument, there was sufficient evidence that the substance was cocaine when viewed in the light most favorable to the State.

(2) The defendant did not object to the authentication of the cocaine at trial but argued on appeal that the trial court plainly erred in admitting the evidence due to the potential contamination issue. The court again disagreed. “The possibility that physical evidence has been contaminated does not, by itself, bar that evidence from being authenticated and admitted.” Slip op. at 6. Just as with the sufficiency issue, the question of the authentication of the cocaine here went to the weight of the evidence and not admissibility.

(3) After one day of deliberations, the jury sent a note to the trial court indicating it was deadlocked. The trial court instructed the jury pursuant to G.S. 15A-1235 before dismissing the jury for the day. The next morning, the trial judge stated that the jury should resume deliberations “with a goal of reaching a unanimous decision as to each charge.” The defendant complained that this language improperly coerced the jury to render a unanimous verdict. The court disagreed:

The trial court properly gave the required Allen instructions to ensure that jurors understood they were not compelled to reach a unanimous verdict. In light of those instructions, the trial court’s decision, when deliberations resumed, to inform the jury that they should have the goal of reaching a unanimous verdict did not compel any juror to surrender his well-founded convictions or judgment to the views of the majority. It simply reinforced that the jury’s charge was to deliberate and reach a unanimous verdict if possible. Jackson Slip op. at 9.

The case was therefore affirmed in all respects.

Using a confidential informant to conduct a controlled buy, law enforcement officers purchased a small crack cocaine rock from the defendant. The rock field-tested positive for the presence of cocaine, and it was subsequently tested at the SBI and confirmed to be cocaine base. The defendant was indicted for sale and delivery of cocaine and possession with intent to sell and deliver cocaine, as well as having attained habitual felon status, and the case went to trial approximately two years later. At trial, the state offered the “rock” purchased from the defendant as State’s Exhibit #6, but the item inside the evidence bag was now a powder. The narcotics detective in the case testified that the substance had been “smashed” but it was otherwise “substantially the same” item he originally recovered from the informant and submitted to the SBI. The SBI analyst likewise testified that the substance in Exhibit #6 was a “rock” at the time she tested it and determined it was crack cocaine, and her lab results and report were admitted as Exhibit #7.

Following his conviction, the defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred by admitting Exhibit #6 because it was not readily identifiable and had been altered, and therefore it could not be authenticated by the state’s witnesses. The appellate court disagreed for several reasons. First, citing case precedent, physical changes to drugs such as smashing or pressing them together “do not amount to material changes raising admissibility concerns.” Second, even if this were a material change, the state presented an adequate chain of custody to show that the substance contained in Exhibit #6 was the same one purchased from the defendant and ultimately tested by the SBI, and the witnesses’ testimony established that whatever caused the rock to be “smashed” must have occurred sometime after it was tested. Third, the defendant failed to demonstrate that any error in admitting Exhibit #6 would be prejudicial, since there was no objection to the introduction of Exhibit #7 or the analyst’s testimony about the testing she performed on that substance, meaning that the same information was before the jury through other evidence. As a result, there was no reasonable possibility that a different verdict would have been reached even if Exhibit #6 had been excluded.

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