State v. Walters, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-72 (Mar. 16, 2021)

In this drug trafficking by possession and transportation case, the defendant fled an attempted traffic stop, was chased by officers for 3-5 miles until the defendant crashed his car, and then was pursued on foot. When the defendant was apprehended, he was searched and officers recovered a backpack containing digital scales, syringes, and small plastic bags. After the defendant was in custody and roughly thirty to forty-five minutes after the chase ended, the officers found two small plastic bags containing a “black tar substance” on the side of the highway roughly one hundred yards from where the car chase began. Collectively, the bags contained 4.66 grams of heroin. Although the bags were found on the route the defendant took, they were located “completely off of the roadway” and no officers testified that they saw anything thrown from the defendant’s vehicle. On appeal, the defendant challenged the sufficiency of the evidence.

(1) The Court of Appeals first addressed the State’s argument that the defendant failed to preserve the sufficiency issue for appellate review when he moved to dismiss the charges based upon a defect in the chain of custody, rather than for insufficiency of the evidence. The Court explained that the N.C. Supreme Court recently ruled in State v. Golder, 374 N.C. 238 (2020) that N.C. R. App. P. 10(a)(3) “does not require a defendant to assert a specific ground for a motion to dismiss for insufficiency of evidence” and the issue is preserved so long as a motion to dismiss is made at the proper time. Slip op. at ¶ 16. Therefore, the defendant preserved the argument on appeal.

(2) The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the charges of trafficking heroin by transportation and possession because the State’s evidence was insufficient to show that the defendant constructively possessed the two bags of heroin found on the side of the road. The court explained:

When the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the State, the bags of heroin were found on the driver’s side of the road approximately one hundred yards from the area where the car chase started. Inside Defendant’s vehicle, officers found scales, baggies, and syringes. Officers did not observe Defendant throw anything from the window while driving during the chase. Defendant was not in control of the area where the drugs were found, and there is no evidence connecting the bags of heroin to Defendant or to the vehicle he was driving. Without further incriminating circumstances to raise an inference of constructive possession, the State has failed to demonstrate substantial evidence that Defendant possessed the controlled substance.