Is a positive drug test, by itself, sufficient to convict someone of drug possession under N.C. law? The answer, according to the N.C. Supreme Court, is no. In reaching its decision, the court upheld an earlier ruling by the state’s second highest court, though for somewhat different reasons.

Early on Aug. 20, 2004, Renetta Bryant arrived at a friend’s house and found Darian Harris sitting in a chair in the front room. Bryant observed Harris snorting cocaine and bought a rock of crack cocaine from him. Bryant reported that she fell asleep, and then later got up and when to the bathroom. Bryant testified that when she returned to the front room, Harris poured alcohol on her and set her on fire with a cigarette lighter. She was transferred by ambulance to the hospital hours later with second- and third-degree burns.

Harris’ probation officer obtained a urine sample from him four days later, which tested positive for cocaine and marijuana. Harris was charged with a variety of crimes, including assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to kill inflicting serious injury, assault inflicting serious bodily injury, sale and delivery of cocaine, possession of cocaine, and possession of marijuana.

At trial, a jury convicted Harris only of cocaine possession and marijuana possession. He was sentenced under the state’s habitual-felon laws to 132 to 168 months in prison on the cocaine possession charge and received a concurrent 20-day sentence for marijuana possession.

Upon appeal, the N.C. Court of Appeals overturned the marijuana possession conviction, holding that a positive drug test by itself is not enough to support a conviction for drug possession. The appeals court upheld the far more serious cocaine possession conviction because there was additional evidence — Bryant’s testimony that she had seen Harris use cocaine — for that charge.

The state appealed the dismissal of the marijuana possession charge to the N.C. Supreme Court, hoping that the high court would overturn the lower-court ruling to allow for future prosecutions for drug possession based upon drug tests alone.

Though not required to, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. It, however, ruled that more than a positive drug test was required for a drug possession conviction.

The high court, in a decision handed down June 28, noted that drug possession requires that a defendant have the “power and intent to control” the “disposition or use” of the substance.

“Without more, the presence of marijuana metabolites found in defendant’s urine sample only raises a suspicion or conjecture that defendant had the power and intent to control the substance’s disposition,” Justice Edward Brady wrote for a unanimous Supreme Court.

“The State asserted both in its brief and at oral argument that a positive drug test gives rise to an inference that defendant knowingly possessed marijuana. However, the only reasonable inference that may be drawn from these test results is that marijuana was somehow introduced into defendant’s system. This inference, in itself, is insufficient to permit a jury to find that defendant had the power and intent to control the substance.”

The high court rejected the state’s attempts to draw an analogy between the case and probation revocation hearings, where a positive drug test can be enough to establish that a violation has occurred. Probation revocation hearings, however, require a lower standard of proof than that which applies in criminal trials.

“Thus, what might be sufficient evidence to reasonably satisfy a judge is not necessarily sufficient evidence to allow a rational jury to find defendant committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” (Emphasis in decision.)

The Supreme Court also noted that the N.C. law applies only to actions committed within its borders. It is a violation of N.C. law to possess marijuana. It’s not a violation of North Carolina law to possess marijuana in, say, South Carolina; South Carolina could, of course, prosecute in such a case. As marijuana lingers in the body for up to 45 days, establishing which jurisdiction marijuana was consumed in could become a critical issue had the court adopted the position advanced by the state.

The state did not present any evidence of Harris’ movements.

“It would be pure speculation to assume that defendant knowingly consumed the marijuana at issue while he was in North Carolina,” Brady wrote.

“Moreover, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for defendant to present credible evidence in his defense as to his alleged lack of knowledge of such possession due to the elusiveness of the alleged offense and the time periods involved. Additionally, the duration marijuana metabolites can be present in one’s system renders it nearly impossible to pinpoint an offense date with positive urinalysis evidence alone.”

The case is State v. Darian Jaquan Harris, (472PA06).

Michael Lowrey is associate editor ofCarolina Journal.