State v. Storm, COA22-685, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jun. 6, 2023)

In this Guilford County case, defendant appealed his conviction for felony conversion of property by bailee, arguing he did not qualify as a bailee under the law. The Court of Appeals agreed, vacating the judgment. 

In 2017, defendant accepted a check for $17,500 from an acquaintance (the alleged victim), and promised to invest the money on her behalf. Defendant had previously told the acquaintance that he was a financial advisor, and the agreement to invest the money was memorialized in a promissory note between the parties. After several months, defendant stopped responding to the victim’s communications about the money. The victim reported the issue to the Greensboro Police Department, and a detective conducted an investigation, including an interview with defendant. The investigation determined that defendant had never created an investment account for the money, and defendant no longer had the funds. Defendant was tried in February of 2022 for several charges, but after the trial court dismissed a computer access charge and an embezzlement charge, he was only convicted of felony conversion of property by bailee. 

Taking up defendant’s argument that he was not a bailee, the Court of Appeals first looked to the language of G.S. 14-168.1 and relevant caselaw. The court noted that “[t]raditionally, the object of bailment is a specific item of real property,” and that older North Carolina caselaw used the term “chattel” in this context. Slip Op. at 7. Normally the court would look for a relationship where a bailee controlled property for a limited purpose and had agreed to return that specific property. Because the nature of a bailment agreement is usually one party holding and returning a specific item of property (in the same or some altered form), money is not normally the subject of bailment. Caselaw supported the principle that “whether a bailment relationship has been created with respect to money depends on whether the agreement requires the use of ‘exact funds’ as opposed to treating the money as fungible.” Id. at 9. Here, the financial advisor relationship did not satisfy that test, as “[d]efendant was neither obligated nor expected to return the exact check given to him,” and “he was entrusted with a complex series of decisions concerning the investment of the funds as a fungible asset.” Id. at 11. Because defendant was not a bailee, he could not be convicted under the applicable statute. 

Judge Arrowood concurred in the judgment only by separate opinion, recommending the Supreme Court of North Carolina revisit the concept of bailment and the return of “exact funds.” Id. at 12.