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State v. Steele

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

July 3, 2018


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 30 January 2018.

          Appeal by defendant from judgment entered 2 March 2017 by Judge Susan E. Bray in Forsyth County No. 15CRS051950 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Matthew L. Liles, for the State.

          Nils E. Gerber for defendant-appellant.

          BERGER, Judge.

         On March 2, 2017, a Forsyth County jury convicted Dennis Raynard Steele ("Defendant") of trafficking cocaine. Defendant asserts on appeal that (1) his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses testifying against him was violated, (2) the trial court abused its discretion by admitting out-of-court statements of a confidential informant, and (3) the trial court erred in denying his motion to dismiss for insufficiency of the evidence. We disagree.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On September 16, 2014, Investigator Jeremy Webster with the Forsyth County Sheriff's Department's vice and narcotics unit met with a confidential informant who had previously provided reliable information to the department several times. The informant told Investigator Webster that a black male named "Dennis" was manufacturing and selling cocaine, described Dennis as a stocky, dark-skinned black male in his mid-thirties who was known on the streets as "Black," and provided a phone number at which Dennis could be contacted. According to the informant, Dennis would sell crack cocaine packaged in plastic baggies for twenty dollars. Typically, Dennis would sell one-tenth of a gram of crack cocaine, but had sold as much as one-quarter ounce.

         Investigator Webster set up a controlled purchase of crack cocaine from Dennis. He had the informant call the phone number for Dennis. The call was answered by a male subject, and the informant arranged a meeting on September 17, 2014 to purchase an eight-ball (one-eighth of an ounce or three and one-half grams) of cocaine. Defendant drove a black Hyundai registered to Tyrice Lenard Hauser to conduct the drug transaction with the informant. Following the controlled purchase, the informant provided Investigator Webster with a plastic bag containing three and one-half grams of crack cocaine.

         Members of the narcotics unit subsequently became involved in a multi-agency investigation in a neighboring jurisdiction, and, therefore, made no significant progress in this case until December of 2014 when Investigator Webster observed the black Hyundai from the controlled purchase parked at a home on Hanes Avenue in Winston-Salem. By this time, according to the informant, Dennis continued to sell crack cocaine. However, because Dennis was not accepting new customers, investigators were unable to proceed further with an undercover investigation.

         In January and February 2015, investigators conducted five trash-pulls at 631 Hanes Avenue to gather additional information, and found evidence of drug use and distribution. The trash also contained dry cleaning tags with the name "Dennis Still" and mail addressed to "Dennis Steele."

         Investigators executed a search warrant at the Hanes Avenue location on March 4, 2015. Defendant and Monchea Cunningham were exiting one of the bedrooms when officers first entered the house. Tyjuan Hauser was also found in the residence, along with a two-year-old child. Investigators located digital scales and a razor blade with white residue in the kitchen. Marijuana and a plastic bag containing a capsule with white powder on it were found in a bedroom which also contained mail addressed to Tyrice Hauser.[1] A receipt with Defendant's name on it to a local pawn shop was found in the dining room.

         When investigators searched the bedroom of Defendant and Cunningham, they observed an unlatched padlock on the door. Defendant and Cunningham had the only keys to the padlock, and used it to prevent others from accessing the bedroom. A search of the room uncovered marijuana, mail addressed to Defendant, two cell phones, a wallet containing Defendant's driver's license, and more than $400.00 in cash. A box located near the nightstand contained latex gloves, a pair of goggles, and two boxes of plastic baggies.

         Three plastic bags containing cocaine and crack cocaine were found in a dresser drawer, along with oxymorphone tablets. One bag contained eighteen individual baggies of crack cocaine packaged for sale. The total weight of the drugs and packaging was 65.8 grams. Chemical analysis of the materials showed 53.78 grams of cocaine were recovered from the residence.

         A Ford Crown Victoria registered to Defendant and the black Hyundai registered to Tyrice Hauser that had been observed by officers at the controlled buy were parked at the residence. A medical invoice was found in the Crown Victoria addressed to Defendant at 631 Hanes Avenue, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

         Following the search of the premises, Defendant and Cunningham were arrested. Defendant declined to speak with investigators. However, while being processed at the jail, Defendant was asked for his address. Defendant was unable to provide an address, stating, "The one on my license. 5919 or 5919 - 5939 Clemmons - 5909 - whatever is on my license." Defendant also told Corporal Michael Hudak that he wanted to send a letter from the jail to his home, and asked Corporal Hudak if he could write down the address listed on his license because he was unable to remember the address.

         While waiting in the magistrate's office, officers overheard Defendant speaking with another arrestee. The two discussed a heroin dealer in Mocksville, and Defendant told the other individual he had been arrested for a little crack, but "he wasn't concerned because it was just a little over two ounces." At the time, officers had not weighed the cocaine, and could not have communicated to Defendant that 53.78 grams, or 1.9 ounces, had been recovered from the residence.

         Cunningham waived her Miranda rights and told officers she had known Defendant for more than ten years. She admitted that Defendant had keys to the residence at 631 Hanes Avenue, and testified at trial that Defendant lived at the residence. She also stated that she and Defendant had the only keys to the padlock on the bedroom door, but denied knowledge of any controlled substances in the residence, except marijuana. Regarding the cocaine found in the bedroom, Cunningham told investigators, "I didn't put it there."

         On August 17, 2015, the Forsyth County Grand Jury indicted Defendant for trafficking in cocaine and possession of a Schedule II controlled substance. Defendant was tried in Forsyth County Superior Court, and the jury convicted Defendant of trafficking cocaine. Defendant was sentenced to thirty-five to ...

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