State v. Glover, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec. 18, 2020)

Officers investigating complaints of drug activity at a home where the defendant lived with several others discovered methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine in a small yellow tin in a dresser in the alcove near defendant’s bedroom, an area that the defendant claimed as his personal space. The defendant had allowed officers to search the area, acknowledging that he had used methamphetamine and prescription pills, and that his bedroom likely contained needles and pipes (which were in fact found by the officers), but telling the officers that he did not think they would find any illegal substances. Without the defendant’s knowledge, another resident of the home, Autumn Stepp, had placed the yellow tin, which she referred to as her “hard time stash,” in the dresser before leaving the home earlier that day.

The defendant was charged with possession with intent to sell and deliver methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine and with maintaining a dwelling house for the sale of controlled substances. He also was indicted for having attained the status of an habitual felon. At the close of the State’s evidence, the trial court dismissed all charges except for simple possession of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine. The State requested, and the judge delivered over the defendant’s objection, a jury instruction on the theory of acting in concert in addition to constructive possession. The jury convicted the defendant of simple possession of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine and determined that he had attained the status of an habitual felon. The trial court imposed two consecutive sentences of 50 to 72 months of imprisonment. Defendant appealed. 

In a divided opinion, the court of appeals determined that the instruction was proper as it was supported by the evidence. The defendant appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

The state supreme court noted that to support a jury instruction on the theory of acting in concert, the State must produce evidence that the defendant acted together with another who did the acts necessary to constitute the crime pursuant to a common plan or purpose to commit the crime. Mere presence at the scene of the crime is insufficient to support such an instruction. The supreme court agreed with the dissent below that there was no evidence that the defendant acted together with Stepp pursuant to a common plan or purpose; therefore, the supreme court concluded that the trial court erred by giving the instruction. The court reasoned that the discovery of the tin in the defendant’s personal area could indicate his capability to maintain dominion and control over it, thereby supporting a theory of constructive possession, but did not show a common plan or purpose in which the defendant acted in concert with Stepp to protect her “hard time stash.” Likewise, defendant’s admission that he had used illegal drugs on the day of the search and with Stepp in the past could support a theory of constructive possession, but did not demonstrate a common plan or purpose between defendant and Stepp as to the substances in the yellow tin.

Because the State’s evidence supporting the theory of constructive possession was controverted and not exceedingly strong and given the prospect of confusion presented by proceeding on a theory of possession by acting in concert and constructive possession, the court concluded there was a reasonable possibility that had the trial court not instructed on acting in concert a different result would have been reached. The state supreme court thus reversed the decision of the court of appeals, vacated the defendant’s convictions and ordered a new trial.

Justice Newby dissented based on his view that the majority failed to consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the State. Through that lens, he would have found sufficient evidence to support the theory of acting in concert.