State v. Dawkins, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec. 17, 2019)

Using a confidential informant to conduct a controlled buy, law enforcement officers purchased a small crack cocaine rock from the defendant. The rock field-tested positive for the presence of cocaine, and it was subsequently tested at the SBI and confirmed to be cocaine base. The defendant was indicted for sale and delivery of cocaine and possession with intent to sell and deliver cocaine, as well as having attained habitual felon status, and the case went to trial approximately two years later. At trial, the state offered the “rock” purchased from the defendant as State’s Exhibit #6, but the item inside the evidence bag was now a powder. The narcotics detective in the case testified that the substance had been “smashed” but it was otherwise “substantially the same” item he originally recovered from the informant and submitted to the SBI. The SBI analyst likewise testified that the substance in Exhibit #6 was a “rock” at the time she tested it and determined it was crack cocaine, and her lab results and report were admitted as Exhibit #7.

Following his conviction, the defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred by admitting Exhibit #6 because it was not readily identifiable and had been altered, and therefore it could not be authenticated by the state’s witnesses. The appellate court disagreed for several reasons. First, citing case precedent, physical changes to drugs such as smashing or pressing them together “do not amount to material changes raising admissibility concerns.” Second, even if this were a material change, the state presented an adequate chain of custody to show that the substance contained in Exhibit #6 was the same one purchased from the defendant and ultimately tested by the SBI, and the witnesses’ testimony established that whatever caused the rock to be “smashed” must have occurred sometime after it was tested. Third, the defendant failed to demonstrate that any error in admitting Exhibit #6 would be prejudicial, since there was no objection to the introduction of Exhibit #7 or the analyst’s testimony about the testing she performed on that substance, meaning that the same information was before the jury through other evidence. As a result, there was no reasonable possibility that a different verdict would have been reached even if Exhibit #6 had been excluded.