State v. Biber, 365 N.C. 162 (Jun. 16, 2011)

The court reversed a decision of the Court of Appeals and held that probable cause supported the defendant’s arrest for drug possession. In the decision below, the Court of Appeals held that there was insufficient evidence that the defendant had constructive possession of the substance at issue, found in a motel room’s bathroom light fixture while the defendant and two others were present. Although the case was before the Court of Appeals on an adverse ruling on a suppression motion, the court reached the issue of sufficiency of the evidence. The North Carolina Supreme Court concluded that the Court of Appeals applied the wrong analysis, conflating the sufficiency of the evidence standard with the standard that applies when assessing whether officers had probable cause to arrest. The court went on to conclude that unchallenged facts supported the trial court’s conclusion that the officers had probable cause to arrest. Specifically, responding officers knew they were being dispatched to a motel to assist its manager in determining whether illegal drug use was occurring in Room 312, after a complaint had been made. The officers’ initial conversation with the manager confirmed the possibility of suspicious activities. When the door to the room was opened, they saw a woman with a crack pipe and drug paraphernalia next to her. The woman fled to the bathroom, ignoring instructions to open the door while she flushed the toilet. A search of the bathroom revealed a bag of what looked like narcotics in the light fixture. The defendant ignored instructions to remain still. When asked, the defendant claimed the room was his and that a bag containing clothing was his.