State v. Blagg, 377 N.C. 482 (Jun. 11, 2021)

The defendant was stopped for a traffic violation after leaving a Buncombe County house that officers were surveilling due to complaints of illegal drug activity. Officers recovered from the defendant’s car one large bag and several smaller bags of a white crystalline substance, a bag of a leafy green substance believed to be marijuana, a baggie of cotton balls, several syringes, rolling papers, and a lockbox containing several smoked marijuana blunts and a number of plastic baggies. When he was arrested, the defendant offered to provide information about a woman he was supposed to meet who was involved in heroin trafficking.

The defendant was indicted for several drug charges including possession of methamphetamine and possession with intent to sell or deliver methamphetamine and for attaining habitual felon status. At trial, a forensic analyst from the State Crime Lab testified that that the white crystalline substance in the large plastic baggie was 6.51 grams of methamphetamine. The arresting officer testified that a typical methamphetamine sale for personal drug use was usually between one-half of a gram to a gram, and that two of the smaller baggies containing white crystalline substances (which were not analyzed) weighed 0.6 and 0.9 grams. The officer also testified that the baggies found in the car were consistent with those used in drug sales.

The defendant moved at the close of the State’s evidence to dismiss the charge of possession with intent to sell or deliver methamphetamine on the basis that the search of his person and vehicle yielded no cash, guns, financial records or other evidence to show that the defendant was a drug dealer as opposed to a drug user in possession of drugs. The trial court denied the motion, and the defendant was convicted of this charge and others and of being a habitual felon. The defendant appealed.  Over a dissent, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the possession with intent to sell or deliver charge. The majority opined that “‘[w]hile it is possible that [d]efendant had 13 hits of methamphetamine solely for personal use, it is also possible that [d]efendant possessed that quantity of methamphetamine with the intent to sell or deliver the same’” and that the issue was thus “‘properly resolved by the jury.’” Slip op. at ¶ 8.

On appeal, the Supreme Court considered whether the State presented sufficient evidence that the defendant intended to sell or deliver methamphetamine. The Court applied the following factors from State v. Nettles, 170 N.C. App. 100 (2005), to evaluate whether the defendant’s intent to sell or deliver could be inferred from the evidence: (1) the packaging, labeling and storage of the controlled substance, (2) the defendant’s activities, (3) the quantity of the drugs found, and (4) the presence of cash or drug paraphernalia including plastic baggies. The Court determined that the State’s evidence satisfied every factor and that the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss. Specifically, the court pointed to the following evidence: (1) the packaging of the confirmed methamphetamine and the untested white crystalline substances and the presence of clear plastic baggies in the car; (2) the storage of the methamphetamine in the center console after leaving a house where drug activity was suspected and while having a pending meeting with a drug trafficker; (3) the driving to a suspected drug house, entering and remaining inside for ten minutes, planning to meet with a drug trafficker, and driving a car with a large bag of methamphetamine inside and other items that appeared to be drug-related; and (4) the more than 8 grams of white crystalline substances in the defendant’s car, with 6.51 grams confirmed as methamphetamine (23.3 percent of the threshold amount to establish trafficking in methamphetamine), combined with evidence that the typical packaging of such a substance is one-half of a gram to a gram; and (5) the loaded syringe, bag of new syringes and baggie of cotton balls in the defendant’s car along with a lock box with plastic baggies in the back floorboard of the car. Focusing on the presence of evidence that could reasonably support an inference that the defendant possessed methamphetamine with intent to sell or deliver, the Court concluded that the State presented sufficient evidence of the defendant’s intent to sell or deliver methamphetamine. 

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Hudson, dissented. Justice Earls wrote that the majority had jettisoned the requirement that the State present substantial evidence of the defendant’s specific intent to sell or deliver the controlled substance by relying on evidence that was common to any individual who possesses a controlled substance.