State v. Alvarez, 372 N.C. 303 (Jun. 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.