The case before the N.C. Supreme Court is bizarre, involving a traffic stop, a toilet and a pair of urine-soaked pants. On the other hand, the case is also simple, asking a fundamental legal question: to what extent should people be punished for involuntary crimes?
Last Tuesday that debate played out at the state's highest court, as two lawyers sparred over whether a Wayne County man should be punished for possessing pot inside a jail after officers took him there against his will.
At stake is a man fighting to clear his name after serving eight months in prison for possessing 4 grams of pot—enough to roll about 10 joints—which would typically result in a jail sentence of up to 15 days. Instead, Christopher Barnes, 34, got eight months.
If Barnes had been caught with the weed just five minutes earlier, he would have been charged with a misdemeanor. But because officers discovered the drugs only after they took him to jail under suspicion of driving while impaired, Barnes was slapped with the felony enhancement of "possession of a controlled substance in a local confinement facility."
In the majority of criminal cases whether a defendant involuntarily committed a crime is not an issue. But in this case it is, argued Barnes' lawyer, Paul Green.
"There was no evidence of an act of free will," Green told the seven-member Supreme Court, noting that Barnes was hauled to jail in handcuffs. "We're talking about a moral question."
At 2 a.m. on Jan. 21, 2011, Goldsboro patrol officer Melvin Smith stopped a Honda after it pulled out of a nightclub lot with darkened headlights. Inside the car smelled like alcohol. Barnes, the driver, slurred his words and his eyes were glassy. While trying to balance during a field sobriety test he assumed a "Karate Kid" pose, an officer reported. He was hauled into the Wayne County Detention Center, where he announced that he had to pee.
Sometimes newly arrested inmates attempt to dump hidden drugs in toilets. So after escorting him to the bathroom, Officer Smith readjusted Barnes' handcuffs so he could use the urinal, then stepped back to watch from a distance.
Whether it was because he was intoxicated, or trying to dispose of the drugs, or simply shy—the reason is unclear—Barnes urinated on himself, soaking his pants. Upset, he blamed Smith for the mishap.
Barnes grew combative, and Smith called for assistance. As officers sat Barnes down, a bag containing 4 grams of marijuana fell out of his pants leg.
During the original criminal trial, Barnes' lawyer argued that his client was no drug smuggler, and was not trying to sell contraband to other inmates—the type of person the law is meant to deter, he said. The pot was "way down his pants," the lawyer argued. "I don't believe any good drug dealer would sell ... out of that compartment. He wouldn't get much of a market."
Nevertheless, the jury found Barnes guilty. Last fall in a 2–1 split decision, the state Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's verdict. Because Barnes knew he was in possession of weed inside the jail, he was responsible for it, the judges ruled. They argued that he should have handed over the concealed drugs prior to his arrival to the jail, and that ignorance is no excuse.
But in a dissenting opinion, Judge Linda McGee argued that because Barnes was brought into the jail involuntarily, he was not guilty of the enhanced charge.
Barnes, she wrote, "had no ability to choose his own course of action regarding his location."
Inside the Supreme Court last week Barnes' attorney, Green, addressed the judges like a philosophy professor, claiming that a crime is not committed when the will does not join the act.
"In the words of the old scholars," Green said, " '[criminals] abuse the free will that God gave them.' We need to know that Mr. Barnes did something wrong, and on this factor there's no evidence he did anything wrong. He didn't make a choice."
Responding to the suggestion that Barnes should have coughed up the pot prior to his transport to the jail, Green argued that defendants aren't obliged to voluntarily relinquish concealed drugs, because that would violate their Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination.
But when Assistant Attorney General Laura Parker addressed the judges, she said the language of North Carolina's Controlled Substances Act has no stipulations about free will or intent.
"The evil the legislature meant to prevent is the controlled substance in the facility," said Parker.
If legislators meant to apply the law only to drug smugglers, they would have made it clear, she reasoned.
Parker then suggested that even if the law did require specific intent, Barnes willfully committed the crime because he knew about the pot. "He made a choice to possess the drugs. He made a choice to put them in his pants."
Parker cited numerous cases from other states involving defendants who received felony enhancements after being caught with drugs inside jails after unrelated arrests.
Green rebutted that in all but one of those cases, the arresting officers explicitly warned the defendants prior to their bookings that drug possession inside a jail was a felony. The officers gave the defendants the opportunity to relinquish the drugs. When they didn't—unlike Barnes—the defendants willfully flouted the law, he said.
Parker made a final point questioning Barnes' intentions: "It's reasonable to assume that defendant's request to go to the bathroom, and his fumbling in the bathroom, were due in some part to an attempt on his part to discard that marijuana that was in his pants."
But Green said his client's bathroom mishap was innocent.
"There was no evidence he was trying to dispose of the evidence," he said. "He was highly impaired. And he wet himself."
The judges did not ask any questions. A ruling is expected later this year.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A pot to piss in "