State v. Royster, ___ N.C. App. ___, 822 S.E.2d 489 (Dec. 4, 2018)

aff’d by an equally divided court, ___ N.C. ___, 834 S.E.2d 388 (Nov. 1, 2019)

In this drug trafficking case, the court held, over a dissent, that the evidence was insufficient to establish that the defendant knowingly possessed cocaine found in a black box in a wooded area approximately 18 hours after the defendant allegedly produced the same box in exchange for his kidnapped father. After the defendant’s father Mr. Royster was kidnapped, the kidnappers called the defendant; during that call Mr. Royster told the defendant that he needed to come and talk with the kidnappers. The next day, the defendant and a man named Cates went to the location. The defendant produced a black box that was given to one of the kidnappers and Mr. Royster was put in the defendant’s car. A shooting then broke out and one of the kidnappers, holding the box, ran into the woods behind the trailer park area. The defendant, Cates and Mr. Royster departed. One of the kidnappers died from gunshot wounds. Approximately 18 hours after the shooting, officers searched the woods behind the trailer park. 50 to 75 yards into the woods they found a black box containing a large amount of cocaine. The box was dry, despite heavy rain the previous night. A mason jar containing additional cocaine was found nearby; it also was dry. The defendant moved to dismiss the trafficking charge on the basis that the State failed to prove that he possessed the drugs in question. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, he was convicted and he appealed. The court agreed that the evidence was insufficient to establish that the defendant possessed the controlled substances at issue. It concluded that the evidence established merely a suspicion that the defendant possessed the drugs at issue.