State v. Maddux, 371 N.C. 558, 819 S.E.2d 367 (Oct. 26, 2018)

On discretionary review of a unanimous, unpublished decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 803 S.E.2d 463 (2017), the court held that although the trial court erred in giving an aiding and abetting instruction, the Court of Appeals incorrectly concluded that the error amounted to plain error. The defendant was charged with manufacturing methamphetamine and trafficking in methamphetamine by manufacture and by possession. The trial court instructed the jury—without objection—that it could find the defendant guilty either through a theory of individual guilt or as an aider and abettor. The defendant was convicted and appealed. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in giving the aiding and abetting instruction because it was not supported by the evidence, and that this error constituted plain error. The State sought review. The Supreme Court agreed that the trial court erred in giving the aiding and abetting instruction but held that no plain error occurred. To demonstrate that a trial court committed plain error, the defendant must show that a fundamental error occurred. To show this, a defendant must establish prejudice—that after examining the entire record, the error had a probable impact on the jury’s finding of guilt. Because plain error is to be applied cautiously and only in the exceptional case, the error will often be one that seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings. Here, the Court of Appeals indicated that the lack of overwhelming and uncontroverted evidence required the conclusion that a jury probably would have reached a different result had the erroneous instruction not been given. The Supreme Court found that this was error, clarifying that its precedent does not hold that plain error is shown, and a new trial is required, unless the evidence against the defendant is overwhelming and uncontroverted. Considering the entire record, the court held that ample evidence of the defendant’s individual guilt made it unlikely that the improper instruction had a probable impact on the jury’s finding that the defendant was guilty. Specifically, the court noted all of the items found throughout the defendant’s residence that the State’s witnesses identified as being commonly used in the production of methamphetamine, including immediate precursor chemicals to the manufacture of methamphetamine, and all of the evidence found inside the one-pot meth lab and burn barrel on the defendant’s property, including the plastic bottles that tested positive for methamphetamine and pseudoephedrine. It concluded: “After examining the entire record, we conclude that the erroneous aiding and abetting instruction did not have a probable impact on the jury’s finding that defendant was guilty because of the evidence indicating that defendant, individually, used the components found throughout his house to manufacture methamphetamine in the one-pot meth lab on his own property.”