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State v. Royster

Supreme Court of North Carolina

November 1, 2019

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
RONTEL VINCAE ROYSTER

          Heard in the Supreme Court on 30 September 2019.

          Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, 822 S.E.2d 489 ( N.C. Ct. App. 2018), vacating a judgment entered on 4 October 2016 by Judge James E. Hardin, Jr. in Superior Court, Alamance County.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Kristin J. Uicker, Assistant Attorney General, for the State-appellant.

          Jay H. Ferguson, Geeta N. Kapur, and James D. Williams, Jr., for defendant-appellee.

          EARLS, JUSTICE.

         Defendant Rontel Vincae Royster was convicted by a jury on 30 September 2016 of trafficking in cocaine by possession pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 90-95(h)(3)(c). Here we consider whether defendant waived appellate review of his sufficiency of the evidence argument by failing to raise it in the trial court and whether the trial court erred in denying defendant's motion to dismiss on the basis of insufficient evidence. The Court of Appeals concluded that the State failed to present substantial evidence that defendant possessed 400 grams or more of cocaine and vacated defendant's conviction. State v. Royster, 822 S.E.2d 489 ( N.C. Ct. App. 2018). We conclude that defendant did not waive his sufficiency of the evidence argument by failing to raise it in the trial court. As to the issue of whether the State presented sufficient evidence that defendant possessed 400 grams or more of cocaine on the date in question, the members of this Court are equally divided; accordingly, the holding of the Court of Appeals with respect to this issue is left undisturbed and stands affirmed without precedential value.

         I. Background

         On 28 December 2013, at around 7:00 p.m., eighteen-year-old Humberto Anzaldo was visiting friends at the Otter Creek Mobile Home Park in Green Level, North Carolina, when he saw two acquaintances, Polo and Scrappy, having an argument. According to Anzaldo, Polo was "mad" and "was screaming and arguing at Scrappy about losing $150, 000." Shortly thereafter, Anzaldo observed Polo, Scrappy, and another man, Hector Lopez, leave the mobile home park in a gray two-door BMW.

         At approximately 8:30 p.m. that evening, defendant's father, Ronald Royster, was at his apartment in Burlington, North Carolina, when, hearing a knock on his door, he opened it to find several men outside, one of whom he recognized. Upon entering the apartment, one of the men asked Mr. Royster whether he had spoken with defendant. According to Mr. Royster, after he responded that he had not spoken with defendant, the man stated, "[w]ell, if you haven't talked to your son, come on with us," and proceeded to point a gun at Mr. Royster's head and bind his hands with a cord. The men then walked Mr. Royster to a grey, two-door BMW, blindfolded him, and drove him to the Otter Creek Mobile Home Park. Upon arrival, Mr. Royster heard a phone being placed by his ear and recognized defendant's voice on the other end of the call. Mr. Royster told defendant, "I don't know what's going on; you need to come and talk to them."

         The following morning, 29 December 2013, Anzaldo, having left the Otter Creek Mobile Home Park the previous evening not long after Polo and Scrappy departed, returned to the mobile home park at around 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. After ten or fifteen minutes, Anzaldo was walking toward his car to leave when he heard a whistle and saw Polo standing in front of a nearby mobile home. Anzaldo spoke with Polo and, through the door of the mobile home, saw Mr. Royster inside tied up with what appeared to be rope. According to Anzaldo, he told Polo "[y]ou can't be doing this; this ain't Mexico." Anzaldo was still speaking with Polo outside of the mobile home when a white Acura arrived at the mobile home park.

         When defendant and another man, Demarcus Cates, got out of the Acura, Polo, Anzaldo, and Lopez went to meet them. Meanwhile, Scrappy led Mr. Royster, now untied and with his blindfold removed, out from behind the mobile home. Defendant told Mr. Royster to "get in the car" and Mr. Royster got in the back seat of the Acura. Defendant then handed Cates a black box, which was in turn passed to Polo, Scrappy, and Anzaldo, before being passed back to Scrappy. Anzaldo described the box as "pretty heavy" and testified that no one looked inside the box during the encounter and that he did not know what was in it.

         Following this exchange, Cates and Polo began arguing and then started yelling and shoving each other. Anzaldo turned around to leave, at which point he heard approximately four or five gunshots and ran behind a nearby mobile home. Anzaldo saw Scrappy, still holding the black box, run into the woods. After defendant, Cates, and Mr. Royster drove away in the Acura, Anzaldo saw Polo lying dead on the ground. Polo had been shot four times, including multiple gunshot wounds to his head.[1]

         At approximately 9:30 on the following morning, officers from Alamance County's K-9 unit performed a grid search for guns and drugs in the woods behind the mobile home park. Behind a tree located about fifty to seventy-five yards into the wooded area, officers discovered a black box containing a large amount of cocaine. Although there was heavy rain the previous evening, the box was completely dry. In the woods, about seventy-five yards away, officers also discovered a dry mason jar containing an additional amount of cocaine. Defendant presented evidence tending to show that the grid search was prompted by a police interview with Anzaldo on the morning of 30 December 2013, during which Anzaldo gave the "precise location[]" of the black box and stated that the box contained "two (2) kilos of cocaine."

         On 6 July 2015, defendant was indicted pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 90-95(h)(3)(c) for trafficking in cocaine by possession of 400 grams or more on 29 December 2013. Defendant moved to dismiss the trafficking charge based on insufficient evidence. The trial court denied defendant's motion. At the close of all evidence, defendant renewed his motion to dismiss, which was again denied. After the jury returned a ...


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