State v. Rogers, 371 N.C. 397 (Aug. 17, 2018)

On appeal from a decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 796 S.E.2d 91 (2017), the court reversed, holding that the evidence was sufficient to support a conviction of maintaining a vehicle for the purpose of keeping controlled substances in violation of G.S. 90-108(a)(7). The issues before the court were whether the defendant kept or maintained the vehicle and, if so, whether there was substantial evidence that the vehicle was used for the keeping of controlled substances. Considering the first question, the court found that the word “keep” with respect to “keeping or maintaining” “refers to possessing something for at least a short period of time—or intending to retain possession of something in the future—for a certain use.” Here, officers conducted surveillance for about an hour and a half before searching the vehicle and the defendant’s hotel room. During that surveillance, they saw the defendant arrive at the hotel in the vehicle, stay in his room for a period of time, and then leave the vehicle. The defendant was the only person seen using the car. Additionally, a service receipt bearing the defendant’s name was found inside the vehicle and was dated about 2½ months before the defendant’s arrest. From these facts a reasonable jury could conclude that the defendant had possessed the car for at least 2½ months. This was sufficient evidence that the defendant kept the vehicle.

            The court then turned to the second issue: whether there was sufficient evidence that the defendant used the vehicle for the keeping of illegal drugs. The court determined that in this context the word “keeps” refers to storing objects in the vehicle. The court found that here, there was substantial evidence that the defendant was using the vehicle to store crack cocaine, not merely to transport it, noting, among other things, the fact that the drugs were found in a hidden compartment and evidence suggesting that the defendant was involved in selling drugs. The court emphasized however that the statute does not create a separate crime simply because controlled substances are temporarily in a vehicle. It clarified:

In other words, merely possessing or transporting drugs inside a car—because, for instance, they are in an occupant’s pocket or they are being taken from one place to another—is not enough to justify a conviction under the “keeping” element of subsection 90-108(a)(7). Rather, courts must determine whether the defendant was using a car for the keeping of drugs—which, again, means the storing of drugs—and courts must focus their inquiry “on the use, not the contents, of the vehicle.”” (citation omitted)

The court went on to disavow its statement in State v. Mitchell, 336 N.C. 22 (1994), that keeping of drugs means “not just possession, but possession that occurs over a duration of time.” The court concluded that the statute does not require that the drugs be kept for a duration of time. Rather, “the linchpin of the inquiry into whether a defendant was using a vehicle, building, or other place ‘for the keeping . . . of’ drugs is whether the defendant was using that vehicle, building, or other place for the storing of drugs.” The court continued:

So, for instance, when the evidence indicates that a defendant has possessed a car for at least a short period of time, but that he had just begun storing drugs inside his car at the time of his arrest, that defendant has still violated subsection 90-108(a)(7)—even if, arguably, he has not stored the drugs for any appreciable “duration of time.” The critical question is whether a defendant’s car is used to store drugs, not how long the defendant’s car has been used to store drugs for. As a result, we reject any notion that subsection 90-108(a)(7) requires that a car kept or maintained by a defendant be used to store drugs for a certain minimum period of time—or that evidence of drugs must be found in the vehicle, building, or other place on more than one occasion—for a defendant to have violated subsection 90-108(a)(7). But again, merely having drugs in a car (or other place) is not enough to justify a conviction under subsection 90-108(a)(7). The evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence must indicate, based “on the totality of the circumstances,” that the drugs are also being stored there. To the extent that Mitchell’s “duration of time” requirement conflicts with the text of subsection 90-108(a)(7), therefore, this aspect of Mitchell is disavowed. (citation omitted)