State v. Figueroa, COA23-313, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Dec. 19, 2023)

In this Guilford County case, defendant appealed her conviction for trafficking methamphetamine, arguing (1) plain error in admitting testimony from an expert without a sufficient foundation for reliability under Rule of Evidence 702, and (2) error in failing to intervene ex mero motu when the prosecutor made improper remarks during closing argument about her past convictions. The Court of Appeals found no plain error in (1), and no error in (2). 

In November of 2018, law enforcement officers set up an undercover investigation of a suspected drug dealer. At a meeting set up by an undercover officer to purchase methamphetamine, defendant was the driver of the vehicle with the drug dealer. After officers found methamphetamine in the vehicle, defendant was charged and ultimately convicted of trafficking methamphetamine by possession. 

Looking to (1), the Court of Appeals found error in admitting the State’s expert testimony under Rule 702, as “the court failed to exercise its gatekeeping function” when admitting the expert’s testimony. Slip Op. at 7. Although the expert offered testimony about the type of analysis she performed to identify the methamphetamine, “she did not explain the methodology of that analysis.” Id. However, the court noted that this error did not rise to the level of plain error as the expert “identified the tests she performed and the result of those tests,” and she did not engage in “baseless speculation.” Id

Turning to (2), the court noted that defendant testified on her own behalf and opened the door to character evidence about her past convictions, and that she did not object at trial to the improper argument. The court found the majority of the closing argument to be unobjectionable, but did agree that the prosecutor “improperly suggested that Defendant was more likely to be guilty of the charged offenses based on her past convictions.” Id. at 9. However, this improper suggestion was only “a few lines of the prosecutor’s eighteen-page closing argument” and “was not so grossly improper that it warranted judicial intervention.” Id