State v. Teague, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2022-NCCOA-600 (Nov. 1, 2022)

In this Wake County case, a drug investigator was working at a local FedEx facility and noticed a package from California with the seams taped shut and with an apparently fake phone number for the recipient. The officer removed the package from the conveyor belt and searched law enforcement databases for information on the sender and the recipient. He discovered that the telephone number for the sender listed on the package was incorrect, that the telephone number for the recipient was fictitious, and that the package had been mailed from a location other than the listed shipping address. The package was placed alongside several other similar packages and was examined by a drug dog already present in the facility. Following an alert by the canine, officer obtained a search warrant for the package. Inside, officers discovered packages of around 15 pounds of suspected marijuana, along with a GPS tracker. Officers visited the address of the recipient, where they noticed the defendant in the driveway. They also noted the presence of a storage unit facility nearby and later learned the defendant rented a unit there. A man (apparently the sender) called the FedEx facility to inquire about the status of the package. An officer called him back, first verifying the intended address and recipient of the package and then identifying himself as law enforcement. The man on the phone cursed and ended the call. The next day, officers visited the storage facility near the defendant’s home with a canine unit, which alerted to a certain unit. While officers were obtaining a search warrant for the unit, the defendant arrived on scene holding a bag. Officers saw what they believed to be marijuana extract or “wax” inside the bag and placed the defendant under arrest. Once the search warrant for the storage unit was approved, officers discovered more apparent marijuana and marijuana extract inside. Search warrants for the defendant’s house were then obtained, leading to the discovery of marijuana paraphernalia and a substance used to produce marijuana extract. 

The defendant was charged with conspiracy to traffic marijuana, possession with intent to sell/deliver marijuana and possession with intent to sell/deliver THC (among other related offenses). The defendant moved to suppress, arguing that the seizure of the package at the FedEx facility was unconstitutional. The trial court denied the motion, and the defendant was convicted of trafficking and other offenses at trial. On appeal, the defendant challenged the denial of his suppression motion, the denial of his motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence, the admission of lay opinions identifying the substances in the case as marijuana, marijuana wax, and THC, and the admission of the phone call between the officer and the man who called the FedEx facility inquiring about the package. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

(1) The court rejected the argument that the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the seizure of the package and canine sniff at the FedEx facility. “[W]e do not accept Defendant’s initial contention that the mere removal of the target package from the conveyor belt for a drug dog sniff was a ‘seizure’ implicating his Fourth Amendment rights. Neither was the drug dog sniff a ‘search. . .’” Teague Slip op. at 13. While both the sender and recipient of a mailed package have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of a package, the temporary detention and investigation of the package in a manner that does not significantly delay its delivery does not amount to a Fourth Amendment seizure. Officers here had reasonable suspicion to justify a brief investigation and dog sniff of the package. From there, officers properly obtained search warrants of the package, which led to additional search warrants supported by probable cause. Thus, the acts of removing the package for investigation and subjecting it to a canine sniff did not implicate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights and the motion to suppress was properly denied. 

(2) Assuming arguendo that the seizure and canine sniff of the package did implicate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, he failed to preserve those arguments for appellate review. While the defendant filed a pretrial motion to suppress and fully litigated those issues (including objecting to the canine alert evidence at trial), he failed to object to testimony at trial about the removal of the package from the conveyor belt for additional investigation. Appellate review of that issue was therefore waived. The dog sniff on its own did not amount to a search, given it took place at the FedEx facility while the item was “still in the mail stream” and was completed within ten minutes. “…Defendant’s renewed objection at trial to the introduction of . . . the dog sniff was insufficient to resurrect any prior unpreserved Fourth Amendment argument for appellate review.” Id. at 25. The trial court also did not plainly err by denying the suppression. Because the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were not implicated, no error occurred, much less any plain error in the trial court’s denial of the suppression motion. 

Regarding the defendant’s other challenges, the court noted the continued ambiguity surrounding the impact of hemp legalization on marijuana prosecutions, citing State v. Parker, 277 N.C. App. 531 (2021). The court opined that the now-defunct Industrial Hemp Act did not impact the State’s burden of proof in criminal proceedings “to the degree the Defendant contends,” while also acknowledging that “our appellate courts have yet to fully address the effect of industrial hemp’s legalization on . . . the various stages of a criminal investigation and prosecution for acts involving marijuana.” Teague Slip op. at 28 (citation omitted). 

(3) The defendant argued that the indictment charging him with possession with intent to sell/deliver THC was fatally defective for failure to state a crime because the indictment failed to specify that the THC possessed by the defendant contained a delta-9 THC concentration of more than 0.3%. The court rejected this argument, finding that the concentration of delta-9 THC is not an element of the crime and that the then-applicable Industrial Hemp Act did not remove THC from the list of prohibited controlled substances under Chapter 90 of the North Carolina General Statues. Moreover, the defendant has the burden under G.S. 90-113.1 to prove lawful possession of a controlled substance, which is an exception to the prohibitions on controlled substances and (again) not an element of the offense. (The prohibition on possession of THC in G.S. 90-94 has since been amended to exclude all THC products containing no more than 0.3% delta-9 THC, which expressly removes delta-9 THC within the legal limit and all other hemp-derived THCs not exceeding the delta-9 THC limit from the list of prohibited controlled substances).

(4) The trial correctly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss the charge of possession with intent to sell/deliver THC for insufficient evidence. The defendant pointed to the lack of any chemical analysis for the brown marijuana “wax” and argued that the State failed to present proof that the substance was an illegal controlled substance given the existence of legal hemp. The court found that the brown material did not qualify as industrial hemp under the then-existing definition but met the definition of THC in place at the time. “The brown material was neither a part nor a variety of the plant Cannabis sativa.” Teague Slip op. at 34 (emphasis in original). Moreover, even if the material did qualify as a part of the plant, “Defendant makes no argument that he was a ‘grower licensed by the Commission’, or that the brown material was cultivated by such a licensed grower, as the statutory definition of ‘industrial hemp’ requires.” Id. at 35. In the light most favorable to the State, there was therefore sufficient evidence that the brown material was THC, and the motion was properly denied. (Industrial hemp is no longer defined under state law and has been replaced by new state definitions for marijuana, hemp and hemp products, as discussed here. Under the new definitions, hemp is defined to include all extracts and derivatives of hemp, and hemp products are defined as anything made from hemp. There is no longer any requirement that hemp be grown by a licensed grower.)

(5) The defendant argued that the legalization of hemp in the state undercut the justifications in the decisions allowing the lay identification of marijuana without the need for a chemical analysis. See, e.g., State v. Mitchell, 224 N.C. App. 171, 179 (2013). He complained on appeal that the admission of lay opinion testimony identifying “marijuana wax,” “THC,” and marijuana as such without a valid chemical analysis violated N.C. Evid R. 702 and was reversible error. The Court of Appeals disagreed. Assuming without deciding that the trial court erred in admitting this testimony, the defendant could not show prejudice. The flower marijuana in the package was properly lab-tested and found to contain illegal levels of delta-9 THC. While the brown wax material was tested only for the presence of delta-9 THC and not for specific levels of THC, the material again did not qualify as industrial hemp under the then-existing definition. While other flower material found in the storage shed was likewise only tested for the presence of THC (and not for quantified THC levels), there was overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt. Given the marijuana that was properly tested, along with the discovery of other drugs and drug paraphernalia at the defendant’s house, storage unit, and in the bag that the defendant was carrying when he encountered officers at the storage unit (among other evidence), there was no reasonable likelihood of a different result at trial had this identification testimony been excluded. 

(6) There was also sufficient evidence supporting the defendant’s conviction for conspiring to traffic marijuana by transportation, and the trial court did not err in admitting a recording of the phone call between the apparent sender of the package and the law enforcement officer. The shipping label accurately named the defendant and his address, and the sender acknowledged that information on the call with the officer. The sender was also upset upon learning that the package had been intercepted by law enforcement. Additionally, the drugs in the package were worth more than $150,00.00 and included a GPS tracking device. This was sufficient to show the defendant and co-conspirator’s “mutual concern for and interest in” the package, thus providing sufficient evidence of the conspiracy. Id. at 44. The phone call between the sender of the package and law enforcement was properly admitted under the hearsay exception for statements of co-conspirators under N.C. Evid. R. 801(d)(E). The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the statement at issue here did not qualify under that exception because it was not a statement made between the conspirators. The court observed:

[W]hen the State has introduced prima facie evidence of a conspiracy, the acts and declarations of each party to it in furtherance of its objectives are admissible against the other members regardless of their presence or absence at the time the acts and declarations were done or uttered. Teague Slip op. at 46 (citation omitted) (emphasis in original). 

There was therefore sufficient evidence of the conspiracy conviction and no error in admission of the phone call between law enforcement and the co-conspirator.