State v. Julius, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2022-NCCOA-135 (Mar. 1, 2022)

Officers responded to a single-car accident in May 2018. At the time of the crash, the defendant was the passenger, and her acquaintance, Kyle, was driving the vehicle with the defendant’s permission. Witnesses at the site told the officers the driver fled the scene and walked into nearby woods because he had outstanding warrants. The defendant told the officers that she knew the driver as “Kyle” but that she did not know his full or last name. One officer searched the SUV to look for Kyle’s driver’s license or ID. The officer found a bag in which he discovered a black box that contained two cell phones, a scale, and two large bags of a clear crystal-like substance, which was later determined to be of methamphetamine.

The officers arrested the defendant then searched the bag she had with her outside of the car. Inside of the defendant’s bag, the officers found a glass smoking pipe, five cell phones, a handgun, a notebook, $1,785 in cash, and a clear container holding several bags of a white crystal-like substance, one of which contained one tenth of an ounce of methamphetamine.

Defense counsel filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence found in both bags, alleging the search of the vehicle violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. During a hearing, the officer testified that he had searched the vehicle to locate the driver’s identification in order to investigate the motor vehicle collision and a potential hit-and-run. The trial court concluded the warrantless search was constitutional because the officer had probable cause to search the SUV and denied the defendant’s motion. The defendant pled guilty of possession of methamphetamine and was convicted of trafficking in methamphetamine by possession by a jury’s verdict. The defendant appealed.

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress evidence found in a warrantless search of her parents’ vehicle without sufficient probable cause. The Court of Appeals concluded that the officers had reasonable suspicion to search the vehicle to verify the claims of another occupant and custodian of the vehicle to determine that alleged driver’s identity. The Court reasoned that Kyle’s identification may not have been inside the vehicle, but there was no other way for the officers to try to find information to identify the driver if the passenger and other witnesses did not know or would not provide his full name, and the identification of the purported driver may have reasonably been determined from looking inside the wrecked vehicle. The Court thus held that the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress.

(2) The defendant also argued that the trial court plainly erred by failing to provide an additional instruction about her actual knowledge of the drugs found inside the vehicle. The Court determined that the trial court adequately advised the jury of the knowledge requirement by stating, “a person possesses methamphetamine if the person is aware of its presence . . . and intent to control the disposition or use of that substance.” Slip op. at ¶ 23. The Court thus concluded the jury was sufficiently instructed that the State had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly possessed methamphetamine, and the defendant could not be convicted if she lacked knowledge of the methamphetamine found inside of her parent’s vehicle.

Judge Inman dissented in part to say that while there may have been probable cause to justify the issuance of a warrant by a magistrate, no exception to the warrant requirement authorized the warrantless search of the vehicle on the scene of the single-car accident in this case. Judge Inman concurred in part to say she would hold that the trial court erred in failing to further instruct the jury about the defendant’s knowledge as prescribed by our pattern jury instructions but did not conclude that the error had a probable impact on the jury’s verdict.