Drug Trafficking Defendant did not Know Drug He Transported was Heroin

Drug crimes are aggressively prosecuted in North Carolina, and penalties can vary greatly depending on the type of drug possessed. But what happens if a defendant thought he was transporting one type of drug, but then is arrested and charged for another with a more severe penalty?

The North Carolina Court of Appeals case of State v. Coleman discussed this scenario.

Transporting Drugs... But What Kind of Drugs?

The defendant was stopped by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers for a traffic violation. When questioned by police, the defendant allegedly admitted he was carrying marijuana. The police found a baggie with marijuana inside the car, and a search of the trunk revealed six bags of marijuana and 45 grams of heroin. The defendant was convicted of drug trafficking for possession and transportation of heroin and sentenced to 225 to 279 months.

The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court had failed to give the jury an instruction on "the law of guilty knowledge"-that is, the defendant claimed he did not know the drug he was carrying was heroin, the trafficking of which led to a much stiffer sentence.

Was the Jury Improperly Instructed?

The North Carolina Court of Appeals noted that the penalties for trafficking in marijuana or cocaine were significantly less severe than those for heroin, with the former allowing for a sentence of approximately 220 months, while heroin sentences started at 225 months and extended up to 282 months.

During the earlier court proceedings, the trial court indicated it would instruct the jury, and the defendant's counsel asked if the judge would give the "usual instruction about knowing." However, when the instruction was given, the trial court did not include the language in the jury instruction which covered the situation in which a defendant argues that he did not know the true substance he possessed.

During the defendant's interview with police, he explained that he thought the box he was transporting contained only marijuana and cocaine. This interview had been recorded and was played for the jury. Thus, even though the defendant had not testified during the trial, the defendant had essentially contended that he did not know he possessed heroin. In addition, both the prosecution and the defense during closing arguments were in agreement that the defendant's knowledge was the contested issue.

This evidence made it necessary for the trail court to provide the jury instruction, and its failure to do so was plain error, since it went to the defendant's sole defense to the criminal charges. Therefore, the defendant's conviction was reversed and he was granted a new trial.

Building a Strong Defense

If you are charged with a drug crime, you should seek an attorney who will review the evidence and, if possible, consider options such as diversionary programs or reduced charges to avoid jail time. However, if you must go to court, you need an aggressive legal team who understand the law and will work hard to build a strong case in your defense.