State v. Osborne, ___ N.C. ___, 831 S.E.2d 328 (Aug. 16, 2019)

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 821 S.E.2d 268 (2018), the Supreme Court concluded that the Court of Appeals misapplied State v. Ward, 356 N.C. 133 (2010), when it held that the absence of a scientifically valid chemical analysis meant that the State had not established beyond a reasonable doubt that the seized substance was heroin, and that the trial court therefore erred when it denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss for insufficiency of the evidence. Ward, the Supreme Court clarified, was a case about the admissibility of evidence under Rule of Evidence 702, not sufficiency. In this case, the defendant did not object to officers’ trial testimony that they found the defendant with syringes, spoons, and a rock substance that officers visually identified and twice field tested as heroin. An officer also testified without objection that when the defendant regained consciousness, she confirmed that she had ingested heroin. The Supreme Court concluded that the Court of Appeals erred by applying Ward’s high bar for the admissibility of evidence relating to the identity of a controlled substance to a motion to dismiss for insufficiency of the evidence. The court emphasized that

[F]or purposes of examining the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction, it simply does not matter whether some or all of the evidence contained in the record should not have been admitted; instead, when evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence, all of the evidence, regardless of its admissibility, must be considered in determining the validity of the conviction in question. 

The court also disapproved of language in State v. Llamas-Hernandez, 363 N.C. 8 (2009), which had suggested that expert testimony is required to establish the identity of a controlled substance in the context of a motion to dismiss.

Applying the appropriate standard of review, and assuming without deciding that some of the evidence might have been excluded if the defendant had objected to its admission, the court determined that there was ample evidence showing that the substance the defendant allegedly possessed was heroin. The court therefore reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for consideration of the defendant’s remaining arguments.

Justice Earls wrote a concurring opinion questioning whether the Good Samaritan law in G.S. 90-96.2, which came into effect in 2013, placed a limit on the trial court’s jurisdiction to prosecute the defendant in this case.