State v. Burgess, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (May. 5, 2020)

At the defendant’s trial for drug charges, a witness who purchased drugs from the defendant testified for the State. After the witness testified, the trial court expressed concern that the witness appeared to be impaired by drugs or alcohol. The court ordered the witness’s probation officer to drug-test the witness. The test was positive for amphetamines and methamphetamine. The probation officer testified before the jury about the testing of the witness and the positive results.

The defendant moved for a mistrial and to disqualify the witness under Rule of Evidence 601(b) and strike his testimony. The trial court denied both motions. The defendant was convicted of several drug charges and appealed.

The Court of Appeals found no error.

(1) Impairment by drugs does not render a witness incompetent if the witness is able to express himself well enough to be understood and is able to understand the obligation to testify truthfully. The Court of Appeals determined that the defendant failed to demonstrate that the witness did not meet this standard. The witness’s testimony was corroborated by other evidence, which, while not directly showing his competency, indicated that he was able to recall dates and events. The trial judge, who was in the best position to assess the competency of the witness, determined that he could understand the witness’s testimony and that the witness was generally understandable by the jurors. Given the trial court’s ample opportunity to observe the witness, it was not required to conduct a voir dire to assess the witness’s competency. Finally, the Court of Appeals noted that evidence of the witness’s impairment was presented to the jury, and jurors were free to determine whether they found the witness’s testimony credible. The Court of Appeals thus concluded that the trial judge did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to exclude and strike the witness’s testimony.

(2) A mistrial is a drastic remedy warranted only for serious improprieties that make it impossible to obtain a fair and impartial verdict. The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that the giving of testimony by a key witness for the State who was impaired met this standard. The witness was competent to testify despite his impairment and the jury was informed of his impairment. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendant’s motion for a mistrial.