State v. King, COA23-322, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Nov. 7, 2023)

In this Haywood County case, defendant appealed his convictions for trafficking and conspiracy to traffic methamphetamine and maintaining a vehicle for controlled substances, arguing he did not knowingly possess or traffic methamphetamine. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding no error. 

Based on a tip from a known drug dealer, detectives from the Haywood County Sheriff's Office monitored a hotel room in April of 2021. They observed two individuals leaving, and after a traffic stop with a K-9 unit, found methamphetamine. The officers continued monitoring the hotel room, and observed defendant and another person leave. After stopping defendant, they located marijuana and a large amount of currency in his vehicle, but no further meth. While defendant was in jail, he called an associate and gave her instructions on where to remove a portion of his vehicle to find hidden methamphetamine; law enforcement monitored the calls and intercepted the associate after she had removed the meth from the hiding places. This associate cooperated with the detectives and provided what she obtained from the vehicle, which was a large amount of meth. A search of the car taillight turned up additional meth. Defendant was subsequently convicted on all charges. 

The Court of Appeals took up each of defendant’s convictions in turn, beginning with the trafficking by possession charge. Defendant argued that he did not “knowingly possess” the methamphetamine. At trial, the State offered evidence that defendant constructively possessed the meth to show knowing possession. The court explained that to establish constructive possession, the evidence must show defendant’s non-exclusive possession of property where drugs are found, along with “other incriminating evidence ‘connecting the defendant to the drugs.’” Slip Op. at 9, quoting State v. Lakey, 183 N.C. App. 652, 656 (2007). Previous cases established that a “large amount of currency” and conduct showing “knowledge of the presence of a controlled substance” support a finding of constructive possession. Id. Here, evidence showed defendant regularly operated the car where the meth was found, he was driving it when he was arrested and it was impounded, and in the trunk officers found a large amount of currency and digital scales. This evidence combined with the instructions provided in the jailhouse phone call supported the conclusion that defendant had constructive possession of the meth. 

The court then turned to the trafficking by transportation charge, and rejected defendant’s argument that he did not knowingly transport the meth. The court noted transportation “requires a ‘substantial movement’ of contraband. . .[e]ven very slight movement may be real or substantial enough.” Id. at 10, quoting State v. McRae, 110 N.C. App. 643, 646 (1993). Here, detectives observed defendant drive the car with the meth from the hotel to a parking lot where he was arrested and the car was impounded. Although the meth was not immediately discovered, “[t]he fact that all the containers were not discovered until days later does not suggest a lack of knowledge given the hidden location of the packages and the Defendant’s knowledge of the location of and extraction method for the packages.” Id. at 11. 

Moving to defendant’s argument that the State presented insufficient evidence he kept or maintained a vehicle for controlled substances, the court explained that “[w]hether sufficient evidence was presented of the ‘keeping or maintaining’ element [of G.S. 90-108(a)(7)] depends upon a totality of the circumstances, and no single factor is determinative.” Id. at 12. Here, the court pointed to the evidence initially found inside the car along with defendant’s “knowledge and actions to access and dispose of the methamphetamine” later found inside the car as sufficient to support the conviction. Id. at 13. 

Finally, the court noted the evidence showing all the alleged co-conspirators found with meth after leaving the hotel, along with the currency and scales found with defendant, as supportive of the conspiracy to commit trafficking charge.