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State v. Sawyers

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

November 7, 2017


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 16 May 2017.

         Appeal by defendant from judgments entered 28 July 2016 by Judge Eric C. Morgan in Stokes County Superior Court Nos. 15 CRS 716; 700386-87.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Ronald D. Williams, II, for the State.

          Parish & Cooke, by James R. Parish, for defendant-appellant.

          CALABRIA, JUDGE.

         Jason Lee Sawyers ("defendant") appeals from judgments entered upon jury verdicts finding him guilty of driving while impaired, driving while license revoked, reckless driving, possession of up to one-half ounce of marijuana, and possession of marijuana paraphernalia. After careful review, we conclude that defendant received a fair trial, free from error.

         I. Background

         At approximately 5:30 p.m. on 11 February 2015, defendant and his girlfriend, Martha Goff ("Goff"), were driving southbound on Old Highway 52 in King, North Carolina. They were traveling at a high rate of speed in Goff's Dodge Charger, and the driver lost control of the car through a sharp curve. After swerving several times, the car spun off the road, hit a tree, and landed in a ditch. Volunteer firefighter William Tedder ("Tedder") heard the "horrendous" crash from a nearby cemetery where he was working, and he immediately reported to the scene. Several other drivers who witnessed the accident also pulled over, provided assistance, and called law enforcement.

         Approximately five minutes after defendant's car landed in a ditch, Sergeant Kevin Crane ("Sergeant Crane") of the King Police Department arrived. Sergeant Crane discovered that the Charger was severely damaged: the passenger's side door would not open, and one of the front wheels was missing. Defendant, seated in the driver's seat, appeared very fidgety and nervous while speaking with Tedder. Goff was seated in the passenger's seat. Sergeant Crane detected an odor of alcohol emanating from the vehicle.

         Emergency Medical Services arrived and examined defendant and Goff to determine whether they sustained injuries. Meanwhile, Sergeant Crane investigated the vehicle. Goff's purse was on the passenger's side floorboard, and some of its contents had scattered on the floor during the crash. Sergeant Crane discovered a brass pipe laying on the driver's side floorboard, near the base of the seat. When he inspected the pipe, he detected an odor of marijuana on it. Based on his training and experience, Sergeant Crane concluded that the brass pipe was drug paraphernalia.

         Defendant and Goff were seated in the ambulance when Trooper Kevin Johnson ("Trooper Johnson") of the North Carolina Highway Patrol arrived at approximately 5:46 p.m. Sergeant Crane gave the brass pipe to Trooper Johnson, and Tedder advised that defendant had been behind the wheel when Tedder first arrived to the scene. After investigating the Charger, Trooper Johnson approached the ambulance to interview defendant and Goff.

         At first, defendant denied driving, but upon further questioning, he admitted that he was the driver. However, defendant denied that he had been drinking prior to the accident. When Trooper Johnson asked defendant to produce his driver's license, defendant provided an identification card and admitted that his license was revoked. Trooper Johnson subsequently conducted a pat-down search of defendant and discovered a pill bottle containing a small amount of marijuana in his right front pocket.

         Trooper Johnson detected a strong odor of alcohol on defendant's breath and noticed that defendant's eyes were red and glassy, and his speech was slurred. Based on these indicators, Trooper Johnson opined that defendant was appreciably impaired. Trooper Johnson began administering a field sobriety test, but defendant admitted that he was intoxicated and refused to cooperate. Consequently, Trooper Johnson arrested defendant for driving while impaired.

         On 4 January 2016, defendant was indicted by a grand jury in Stokes County Superior Court for habitual impaired driving; driving while license revoked; reckless driving; possession of up to one-half ounce of marijuana; and possession of marijuana paraphernalia. A jury trial commenced on 25 July 2016. At the close of the State's evidence, defendant moved to dismiss all charges for insufficient evidence. Defendant argued that in order to satisfy the driving element of these offenses, the State must prove that the vehicle was actually "moving and running, " and here, the evidence merely showed that the defendant was "sitting in the passenger seat of a wrecked car[.]" After allowing the State to respond, the trial court denied defendant's motion. ...

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