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Judicial wordplay: N.C. drug case turns on meanings of ‘keep’

RALEIGH, N.C. — In relationships, exactly what constitutes “a keeper” is different for everyone. Even within a single North Carolina statute, there are two distinct meanings.

Unfortunately for the defendant in State v. Rogers, the Supreme Court of North Carolina held recently that his acts fit nicely within both contexts. Possessing a vehicle for more than an hour and a months-old receipt found in the passenger compartment suggested that he “kept” the vehicle. Cocaine hidden near the gas cap showed that he was “keeping” illegal drugs. Together, that violates a specific statute.

The high court’s ruling reinstated Antwarn Young’s conviction for keeping or maintaining a vehicle used for the keeping or selling of controlled substances. After being found guilty in New Hanover County Superior Court, the state Court of Appeals reversed Young’s conviction, finding insufficient evidence that he kept or maintained the Cadillac at issue or that he used it “on any prior occasion for the purpose of keeping or selling a controlled substance.”

According to Chief Justice Mark Martin, however, Young’s guilt all comes down to the plain meaning of “keeping.”

Signs, signs

In 2013, authorities say, a months-long drug investigation familiarized narcotics officers with Young. On Aug. 13 of that year, detectives set up surveillance at a local hotel where they believed Young to be, and on a white Cadillac they believed him to be driving, while they obtained a search warrant. A sheriff’s lieutenant says that he watched the Cadillac drive up to the hotel and that Young – the car’s only occupant – got out and went into the room. About 45 minutes later, Young left the hotel room, got into the Cadillac, and drove away.

Assisting officers who tailed Young, and who were aware that he was wanted on outstanding warrants, pulled over the Cadillac and arrested Young. Court records say that while Young was in custody, his phone received several calls and messages from contacts whose names suggested drug activity (eg. “Mexican Friend Lick” and “Surf City Lick”). “Lick,” detectives testified, is slang for a drug-buyer. Further, officers could read portions of the messages on the phone’s lock screen that “could be consistent with a customer’s asking if a drug delivery was forthcoming.”

Back to the hotel

Officers took Young and the Cadillac back to the hotel, where detectives were waiting with a search warrant. The search, they say, yielded two purple bags of cocaine in the car’s gas cap compartment and, inside the vehicle, a marijuana cigarette, $243 in cash and a two-month-old service receipt with Young’s name printed on it. Inside the room, officers found two more purple bags – the same type found in the car – containing “a much larger amount” of crack cocaine, several Ziploc bags, and a digital scale disguised to look like an MP3 player.

Officers also noted that the car was registered to someone else, the hotel was checked out in someone else’s name, and that Young left no personal luggage in the room. All indications, the state contended, that drug sale activity was afoot.

Ultimately, Young was convicted of possession with intent to manufacture, sell, and/or deliver cocaine; keeping or maintaining a vehicle which is used for the keeping or selling of a controlled substance; possession of drug paraphernalia; possession of up to one ounce of marijuana; and having attained habitual felon status.

Records show that he is serving nearly 17 years in prison.

Young was represented by Wyatt Orsbon of the Office of the Appellate Defender in Raleigh. Emails seeking comment were not immediately returned.

Am I my drug’s keeper?

In determining the meanings of “keep” and “keeping,” the high court noted, words in a statute “must be given their common and ordinary meaning, nothing else appearing.” Referencing a dictionary, the court defined “keep” as “have or retain possession of” or “retain or reserve for use in the future.” Given the aforementioned evidence, especially the dated receipt the court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that Young possessed the car for at least two-and-a-half months. Therefore, he “kept” the vehicle.

Considering whether Young used the Cadillac for the “keeping” of illegal drugs, Martin noted the exception to the rule – words used in one place in a statute generally have the same meaning everywhere else in the statute – applies here.

“In the second instance,” Martin wrote, “the word ‘keeping’ is used to refer to keeping drugs in (in this case) a car. When someone ‘keep[s]’ an object in his car, that word does not refer to possessing something for a designated use; it refers to storing that object in his car.”

Simply, to the high court, Young was using the Cadillac to store crack cocaine.

Evidence, Martin wrote, indicated that Young used the hotel room to split up large amounts of crack that he would break up into smaller portions to store inside the car until he sold them.

Matter of time

Before this decision, the Supreme Court had discussed this specific subsection only once, in 1994. Martin wrote the trial court reached the correct decision in that case, but added that part of its reasoning was inconsistent with the statute’s language. Specifically, Mitchell found the “keeping” of drugs means not just possession, but possession “over a duration of time.”

For example, Martin wrote, where a defendant possesses a car for a short period of time and begins to store drugs inside the car just before his arrest, he is keeping drugs.

“The critical question is whether a defendant’s car is used to store drugs, not how long the defendant’s car has been used to store drugs for,” Martin wrote.

A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s office declined to comment on the ruling.

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