State v. Hills, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-310 (Jul. 6, 2021)

The defendant was convicted at trial of trafficking heroin, possession with intent to sell or deliver synthetic cannabinoids, and other various drug offenses in in Brunswick County. (1) During its instructions to the jury, the trial court stated that the jury should determine the guilt or innocence of this defendant and should not be influenced by evidence that other people were also charged in connection with the underlying events (who would get their own days in court). The defendant argued that this was an impermissible expression of judicial opinion on the evidence. Specifically, she argued that this instruction conveyed to the jury that the crime had occurred; that the jury should disregard all evidence that others present in the car may have been responsible; and that the defendant’s defense should be discounted. The Court of Appeals disagreed. First, the trial court expressed no opinion that the crime occurred. There was no argument denying the presence of drugs in the car, and the role of the jury in the case was to determine whether the defendant possessed them. The trial court’s acknowledgement that a crime had occurred was therefore not improper opinion. The instruction also did not command the jury to disregard evidence that others present may have been responsible. “Read in context, the trial court’s statement did not touch on Defendant’s evidence . . . [and] did not refer to the credibility of any evidence.” Hills Slip op. at 9. Finally, the instruction did not denigrate the defendant’s defense. Unlike other cases where a trial court’s statement was found to be improper, the instruction here did not disclaim the involvement of other people. Instead, the instruction specifically informed the jury that others who were charged in the case would have their own days in court. “The trial court’s instruction, therefore, did not reflect an opinion on the credibility of Defendant’s evidence but, instead, reminded the jury it must only consider the evidence presented during the course of the hearing.” Id. at 11. Further, the instruction at issue came after the close of evidence, not during evidence, lessening the risk that the jury would have taken it as an expression of opinion. Finally, the jury was instructed not to assume any opinion based on the trial court’s statements or expressions during trial immediately before receiving the contested instruction. Under the circumstances, the trial court’s instruction did not amount to an improper expression of opinion on the case.

(2) G.S. 90-89(7) lists 18 specific synthetic cannabinoids, but the substance charged in the indictment here—”methyl(2S)-2-{{1-(5-fluoropentyl)-1H-indazol-3-yl]formamido}-3,3-dimethylbutanoate (5F-ADB)”—is not listed there or elsewhere within Chapter 90 as a Schedule I substance. Wikipedia provides that the substance named in the indictment is a synthetic cannabinoid, and the State argued on appeal that this was sufficient to establish that the identity of the substance as a Schedule I drug. The court rejected this argument, pointing out that “[a] court may not look to extrinsic evidence to supplement a missing or deficient allegation in an indictment.” Hills Slip op. at 16. It found that the indictment failed to allege a necessary element of the offense (the controlled substance) and was therefore fatally flawed. The conviction was consequently vacated. Judges Dietz and Zachary concurred.