State v. Carter, ___ N.C. App. ___, 803 S.E.2d 464 (Aug. 15, 2017)

In this drug case, the court held that although the trial court erred by allowing lay opinion testimony identifying the substance at issue as crack cocaine based on a visual identification, the error was not prejudicial where the State presented expert testimony, based on a scientifically valid chemical analysis, that the substance was a controlled substance. The trial court allowed the arresting officer, a Special Agent Kluttz with the North Carolina Department of Alcohol Law Enforcement, to identify the substance as crack cocaine. Agent Kluttz based his identification on his training and experience and his perceptions of the substance and its packaging. He was not tendered as an expert. The State also introduced evidence in the form of a Lab report and expert testimony by a chemical analyst with the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory. This witness testified that the results of testing indicated that the substance was consistent with cocaine. North Carolina Supreme Court precedent establishes two rules in this area: First, the State is required to present either a scientifically valid chemical analysis of the substance in question or some other sufficiently reliable method of identification. And second, testimony identifying a controlled substance based on visual inspection—whether presented as an expert or lay opinion—is inadmissible. Applying this law, the court agreed with the defendant that Agent Kluttz’s identification of the substance as crack cocaine was inadmissible lay opinion testimony. However given the other admissible evidence that identified the substance as a controlled substance based on a chemical analysis, the defendant failed to demonstrate prejudice and therefore to establish plain error.