State v. Jones, 591PA03.

Citation598 S.E.2d 125,358 N.C. 473
Decision Date25 June 2004
Docket NumberNo. 591PA03.,591PA03.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Norman Wayne JONES.

Roy Cooper, Attorney General, by Daniel P. O'Brien, Assistant Attorney General, and William P. Hart, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State.

Staples Hughes, Appellate Defender, by Constance E. Widenhouse, Assistant Appellate Defender, for defendant-appellee.

Marshall Hurley, PLLC, by Marshall Hurley, Greensboro, for Families Against Mandatory Minimums; and Charles E. Daye, Chapel Hill, and Paul M. Green, Durham, for the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, amici curiae.

BRADY, Justice.

The sole issue presented for review is whether the North Carolina General Assembly classifies the offense of possession of cocaine as a misdemeanor or a felony under N.C.G.S. § 90-95(d)(2). For the reasons stated in this opinion, we conclude that possession of cocaine is a felony and therefore reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals holding otherwise.

The underlying facts are as follows: Defendant Norman Wayne Jones1 was indicted on 26 November 2001 for possession with intent to sell and deliver cocaine and for being an habitual felon. Defendant's habitual felon indictment was supported by three underlying felonies, one of which was a 12 November 1991 conviction for possession of cocaine.2 On 24 May 2002, defendant pled guilty to possession with intent to sell and deliver cocaine and to attaining habitual felon status. Based upon defendant's stipulation to a prior record level of IV for felony sentencing purposes, defendant received a minimum sentence of 107 months to a maximum sentence of 138 months' imprisonment.3 Pursuant to his plea agreement, defendant preserved a right to appeal the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress, motion for writ of habeas corpus, and motion to dismiss his habitual felon indictment.

Defendant appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Defendant contended that his habitual felon indictment was insufficient because one of the convictions supporting the indictment, the 1991 conviction for possession of cocaine, was classified as a misdemeanor under N.C.G.S. § 90-95(d)(2). A panel of the Court of Appeals unanimously agreed based upon its conclusion that in 1991 N.C.G.S. § 90-95(d)(2) "plainly" classified possession of cocaine as a misdemeanor. State v. Jones, 161 N.C.App. 60, 67, 588 S.E.2d 5, 11 (2003). Accordingly, the court held that because defendant's habitual felon indictment was improperly supported by a misdemeanor conviction, the indictment was invalid and did not convey jurisdiction on the trial court. Id. As a result, the Court of Appeals vacated defendant's guilty plea to attaining habitual felon status.4Id. The case is now before this Court pursuant to the State's petition for discretionary review of the portion of the decision of the Court of Appeals which held that possession of cocaine is a misdemeanor.

Under N.C.G.S. § 14-7.1,

Any person who has been convicted of or pled guilty to three felony offenses in any federal court or state court in the United States or combination thereof is declared to be an habitual felon. For the purpose of this Article, a felony offense is defined as an offense which is a felony under the laws of the State or other sovereign wherein a plea of guilty was entered or a conviction was returned regardless of the sentence actually imposed.

N.C.G.S. § 14-7.1 (2003). To determine whether defendant's 1991 conviction for possession of cocaine properly served as an underlying felony for his habitual felon indictment, we must decide whether the offense of possession of cocaine is a felony or a misdemeanor.

We conclude that possession of cocaine is a felony and therefore can serve as an underlying felony to an habitual felon indictment. The language of N.C.G.S. § 90-95(d)(2), the statute's legislative history, and the terminology used in other criminal statutes all indicate the General Assembly's intent to classify possession of cocaine as a felony offense. Moreover, for nearly twenty-five years, our criminal justice system has treated possession of cocaine as a felony pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 90-95(d)(2). If the General Assembly had not intended such an interpretation of section 90-95(d)(2) to continue, it could have amended the statute to end this long-standing practice. Because it did not, and in light of other factors discussed below, we conclude that possession of cocaine is a felony.

I.

The North Carolina Controlled Substances Act categorizes cocaine as a Schedule II controlled substance. N.C.G.S. § 90-90(1)d. (2003); accord N.C.G.S. § 90-90(a)4. (1990) (renumbered as N.C.G.S. § 90-90(1)d. (1999)) (providing, at the time of defendant's 1991 conviction for possession of cocaine, that cocaine was a Schedule II controlled substance). Under N.C.G.S. § 90-95(a)(3), it is generally unlawful to possess a controlled substance. N.C.G.S. § 90-95(a)(3) (2003).

[A]ny person who violates G.S. 90-95(a)(3) with respect to:
....
(2) A controlled substance classified in Schedule II, III, or IV shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. If the controlled substance exceeds four tablets, capsules, or other dosage units or equivalent quantity of hydromorphone or if the quantity of the controlled substance, or combination of the controlled substances, exceeds one hundred tablets, capsules or other dosage units, or equivalent quantity, the violation shall be punishable as a Class I felony. If the controlled substance is methamphetamine, amphetamine, phencyclidine, or cocaine and any salt, isomer, salts of isomers, compound, derivative, or preparation thereof, or coca leaves and any salt, isomer, salts of isomers, compound, derivative, or preparation of coca leaves, or any salt, isomer, salts of isomers, compound, derivative or preparation thereof which is chemically equivalent or identical with any of these substances (except decocanized coca leaves or any extraction of coca leaves which does not contain cocaine or ecgonine), the violation shall be punishable as a Class I felony.

N.C.G.S. § 90-95(d)(2) (2003) (emphasis added).5

Defendant contends that under the plain language of section 90-95(d)(2), the offense of possession of cocaine is a misdemeanor. Defendant explains that this result is dictated by N.C.G.S. § 90-90(1)d., which classifies cocaine as a Schedule II controlled substance, and the first sentence of section 90-95(d)(2), which states that a person in possession of a "Schedule II, III, or IV" controlled substance is "guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor." N.C.G.S. § 90-95(d)(2). According to defendant, the statute's third sentence, providing that a conviction for possession of cocaine is "punishable as a Class I felony," id., does not serve to classify possession of cocaine as a felony for determining habitual felon status. Rather, that phrase simply denotes the proper punishment or sentence for a conviction for possession of cocaine. Defendant argues that because a conviction for possession of cocaine is not classified as a felony, it cannot serve as a predicate offense for an habitual felon indictment. We disagree with defendant's interpretation of section 90-95(d)(2).

When interpreting statutes, our principal goal is "to effectuate the purpose of the legislature." Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Pennington, 356 N.C. 571, 574, 573 S.E.2d 118, 121 (2002). "When the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, there is no room for judicial construction, and the courts must give it its plain and definite meaning." Lemons v. Old Hickory Council, Boy Scouts of Am., Inc., 322 N.C. 271, 276, 367 S.E.2d 655, 658 (1988). "But where a statute is ambiguous, judicial construction must be used to ascertain the legislative will." Burgess v. Your House of Raleigh, Inc., 326 N.C. 205, 209, 388 S.E.2d 134, 136-37 (1990). Furthermore, "where a literal interpretation of the language of a statute will ... contravene the manifest purpose of the Legislature, as otherwise expressed, the reason and purpose of the law shall control and the strict letter thereof shall be disregarded." State v. Barksdale, 181 N.C. 621, 625, 107 S.E. 505, 507 (1921), quoted in Frye Reg'l Med. Ctr., Inc. v. Hunt, 350 N.C. 39, 45, 510 S.E.2d 159, 163 (1999)

.

As with any other statute, the legislative intent controls the interpretation of a criminal statute. State v. Hearst, 356 N.C. 132, 136-37, 567 S.E.2d 124, 128 (2002). We generally construe criminal statutes against the State. Id. at 136, 567 S.E.2d at 128. However,

"[t]he canon in favor of strict construction [of criminal statutes] is not an inexorable command to override common sense and evident statutory purpose.... Nor does it demand that a statute be given the `narrowest meaning'; it is satisfied if the words are given their fair meaning in accord with the manifest intent of the lawmakers."

United States v. Brown, 333 U.S. 18, 25-26, 68 S.Ct. 376, 380, 92 L.Ed. 442, 448 (1948) (quoting United States v. Raynor, 302 U.S. 540, 552, 58 S.Ct. 353, 359, 82 L.Ed. 413, 420 (1938)), quoted in Hearst, 356 N.C. at 137,

567 S.E.2d at 128; see also United States v. Giles, 300 U.S. 41, 48, 57 S.Ct. 340, 344, 81 L.Ed. 493, 497 (1937).

Defendant's interpretation of section 90-95(d)(2) evinces, at best, an ambiguity in the General Assembly's use of the phrase "punishable as a ... felony," thus making the statute susceptible to more than one interpretation. We believe an interpretation other than the one asserted by defendant controls the meaning of N.C.G.S. § 90-95(d)(2). The first sentence of section 90-95(d)(2), providing that a person found guilty of possession of a Schedule II, III, or IV controlled substance is "guilty of a ... misdemeanor," is a general provision governing convictions for possession of Schedule II, III, or IV controlled substances. N.C.G.S. § 90-95(d)(2). The next two sentences of the statute are exceptions to that general rule, by which the General Assembly chose to treat...

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