State v. Garrett, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-214 (May. 18, 2021)

In this Pasquotank County case, the defendant was convicted of trafficking Fentanyl by possession and possession of Fentanyl with intent to sell or deliver, among other drug crimes. (1) The defendant argued on appeal that the indictment for these offenses was fatally defective because Fentanyl was not covered by the version of G.S. 90-95(h)(4) that was in effect at the time of her offense on December 31, 2006. The Court of Appeals determined that Fentanyl was an “opiate” within the meaning of the statute, which made it unlawful to possess or transport certain quantities of “opium or opiates.” The Court reasoned that though the term “opiate” typically refers to natural drugs derived from opium, like heroin, morphine and codeine, rather than synthetic drugs like Fentanyl, that definition was not universal. It agreed with the State that the General Assembly intended for the term “opiate” to include any drug that produces an opium-like effect by binding to opium receptors in the brain, regardless of whether the drug is naturally derived from opium or is synthetic or semi-synthetic. The Court noted that the common dictionary definition of the term opiate supported this broader reading as did the statutory definition of opiate. The Court rejected the defendant’s contention that the legislature’s 2018 amendment of the statute to replace the terms “opium or opiate” with “opium, opiate, or opioid” indicated that the term opiate did not include opioids, which are partially or wholly synthetic drugs produced in a lab to mimic the effects of opium. The Court held that the amendment was intended to clarify that opium, opiates, and opioids were all prohibited substances rather than to alter the applicability of the statute. 

(2) The defendant also argued on appeal that the trial court’s instructions to the jury, which reported that it was deadlocked on the second day of deliberations, were improper as they did not recite the language from G.S. 15A-1235(b) (the statute that describes how a judge should instruct a deadlocked jury). The defendant did not object to the instruction at trial, so the Court of Appeals reviewed the issue for plain error. The Court compared the instructions given by the trial court to the statutory instruction, and determined that the instructions provided contained “all of the key elements and ideas from § 15A-1235(b).” Slip op. at § 39. Thus, the Court determined that jurors was properly instructed about their duty to deliberate and the defendant did not demonstrate plain error.