Proving That Larceny of a Motor Vehicle Is a Felony

September 23rd, 2014
By Jeff Welty

In some states, theft of an automobile is a felony regardless of the value of the vehicle. See, e.g., Fla. Stat. § 812.014. Not so in North Carolina. Motor vehicles don’t have any special status under our larceny statute, G.S. 14-72. Therefore, theft of an automobile is a misdemeanor unless the vehicle is worth more than $1,000, or the theft falls under one of the other felony provisions of G.S. 14-72(b).

In this post, I’ll summarize the appellate cases that consider whether there was sufficient evidence that a vehicle was worth more than $1,000.

No presumption that motor vehicles are worth more than $1,000. If the State presents no evidence of a vehicle’s value, that is insufficient to sustain a felony conviction. In other words, there’s no presumption that a motor vehicle is worth more than $1,000. State v. McRae, __ N.C. App. __, 752 S.E.2d 731 (2014) (reversing a conviction based on felony larceny of a vehicle because the State introduced no evidence of the vehicle’s value; the vehicle belonged to a high school student and the indictment alleged that it was worth $2500). Cf. In re Mecklenburg County, 191 N.C. App. 246 (2008) (vacating a juvenile adjudication based on an admission to felony larceny; while the juvenile acknowledged stealing a truck, the “prosecutor’s statement of facts does not contain any statement or evidence that the pickup truck was worth more than $1,000,” so there was no factual basis for the felony admission).

Evidence that an older vehicle is well-kept is not sufficient. In State v. Holland, 318 N.C. 602 (1986), the state supreme court found insufficient evidence of value where “the State offered no direct evidence of the [stolen] Cordoba’s value,” even though there was “evidence tending to show that the victim owned two automobiles and that the 1975 Chrysler Cordoba was his favorite one of which he took especially good care, always keeping it parked under a shed,” and “a picture of this automobile was exhibited to the jury for the purpose of establishing the location of the automobile when discovered after its theft.” Interesting aside: I checked Hemmings Motor News and a couple of other websites, and a 1975 Cordoba in good condition could be worth $10,000 today.

Evidence that a vehicle is shiny and new is sufficient. By contrast, in State v. Dobie, 2014 WL 3824257 (N.C. Ct. App. Aug. 5, 2014) (unpublished), the court of appeals ruled that there was sufficient evidence of felony larceny where photographs of the vehicle in question showed that it was a “late model BMW sedan that ha[d] no exterior defects.” The holding makes sense on the facts presented, but I wonder how far it extends. I have a previous-generation Toyota Camry that looks pretty good except for some scuffing on the trunk lid. Does that count? How about my wife’s minivan, which runs well but has several dents and is missing a hubcap?

The owner’s testimony regarding the vehicle’s value may be sufficient. The owner may testify to the value of a vehicle under State v. Huggins, 338 N.C. 494 (1994). But note State v. Haney, 28 N.C. App. 222 (1975), where the court made clear that value means fair market value, not the price at which the owner would be willing to sell the vehicle. The court suggested that testimony that owner would not sell a vehicle for less than $2000 was “[i]ncompetent,” though sufficient given that defendant did not object to it.

Evidence of the price the owner paid for the vehicle may be sufficient. Evidence of a recent sale above the threshold amount may be adequate. State v. Rascoe, 170 N.C. App. 198 (2005) (evidence of purchase price months or years before the theft may be sufficient evidence of value where there is no reason to believe that “extraordinarily rapid depreciation” had greatly reduced the vehicle’s value).

Blue book value may be sufficient. Finally, under State v. Dallas, 205 N.C. App. 216 (2010), the NADA Guide and similar references are admissible evidence on the value of a vehicle. I glanced at cases from other jurisdictions and it appears that other states generally agree. See, e.g., Walker v. Com., 704 S.E.2d 124 (Va. 2011) (rejecting Confrontation Clause argument because such guides are not testimonial); State v. Erickstad, 620 N.W.2d 136 (S.D. 2000) (collecting cases and ruling that such guides fall within the hearsay exception for market reports and commercial publications). This seems like a sure and simple course for the State in most cases.

On another topic, regular readers may have noticed that there was no post yesterday. I’m sorry. I was caught up in other matters and just didn’t get to it. We should be back on track now.

News Roundup

September 19th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

Lots of interesting news this week, so let’s get right to it:

 

Constitution Day. It was Constitution Day this week, the 227th anniversary of the constitutional convention’s proposal of what became our Constitution. Why not have Constitution Day on the anniversary of ratification? Because, as Kent Scheiddeger notes in this interesting post at Crime and Consequences, the latter date is “hard to pin down.”

 

Criminal law and policy geniuses. The MacArthur Foundation announced the recipients of its genius grants this week. There are 21 new geniuses, including a Stanford psychologist who studies the connection between perceived race and perceived criminality, and a law professor who works to combat domestic violence and sexual abuse against Native American women. The New York Times has the story here.

 

Another bad week for the NFL. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was charged with beating his four-year-old son with a switch so badly that wounds were still visible all over his legs days later, while Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was charged with breaking his wife’s nose after she refused his sexual advances. The league’s defenders say that the NFL is “just a microcosm of society,” with no more bad apples and no fewer, but I am beginning to wonder. In related news, Alabama federal judge Mark Fuller is facing calls for his resignation after his domestic violence conviction, as discussed in this local article. Perhaps the federal judiciary is also a “microcosm of society”?

Moral Monday cases to be dismissed? Wake County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Don Stephens recently ruled that the arrest of a Moral Monday protestor violated his free speech rights. A number of Moral Monday prosecutions have also been dismissed in district court recently, apparently causing acting DA Ned Mangum to think seriously about dismissing most of the remaining cases. MSNBC has the story here.

Police testing facial recognition technology. The News and Observer has a story up this morning about how the Raleigh police will start using facial-recognition software to match crime scene surveillance photographs to “mug shots of people who have been booked into the Wake County jail.” The use of such software seems inevitable and I doubt that it will long be limited to a database of those who have been booked into the local jail. The ACLU and others are calling for a discussion of limits and safeguards.

Judge says he would let an innocent person be executed. Federal Judge Richard Kopf writes about the death penalty and innocence here. The whole post is fascinating but the line that’s garnered the most attention is this: “Hypothetically, if I were confronted with a case where the petitioner was factually innocent of murder and I knew that he was factually innocent of murder and there was no federal legal remedy available to stop the execution, I would probably allow the execution to proceed if I was satisfied that there was precedent that compelled such a result.”

Voluntary death penalty in Belgium? Belgium has abolished the death penalty, but it has just approved euthanasia at the request of a serial murderer and rapist facing life in prison for his crimes. The offender asserts that he is “suffering unbearably,” and the state has agreed to let him end his suffering. Belgium allowed physician-assisted euthanasia in over 1800 instances last year, but this is the first request from an inmate that has been granted. A number of similar requests apparently are now in the pipeline. The fascinating story is here at Sentencing Law & Policy.

You Get What You Get and You Don’t Throw a Fit

September 18th, 2014
By Shea Denning

My daughter is awfully fond of this expression (when applied to one of her brothers, of course). Turns out it also is apropos for this week’s court of appeals decision in State v. Shaw.

Facts. The defendant in Shaw pled guilty to misdemeanor DWI in superior court. The trial court found one grossly aggravating factor, a prior conviction within seven years before the current offense, and imposed a Level Two punishment. Shaw was unhappy with this finding as the State had never provided her with notice of its intent to prove an aggravating factor as required by G.S. 20-179(a1). Thus, Shaw appealed her conviction to the court of appeals.

Holding. The court of appeals dismissed Shaw’s appeal on the basis that she had no statutory right to appeal. G.S. 15A-1444, which affords a defendant convicted of a crime in superior court the right to appeal in certain circumstances, did not apply to the defendant’s appeal from a judgment entered upon her plea of guilty to a misdemeanor impaired driving, an offense sentenced under G.S. 20-179 rather than the Structured Sentencing Act.

Analysis. G.S. 15A-1444(e) provides that a defendant who pleads guilty or no contest to a criminal charge in superior court generally is not entitled to appellate review as a matter of right. There are exceptions.

  1. A defendant who has filed a motion to withdraw his or her plea of guilty or no contest and whose motion has been denied may appeal to the court of appeals as a matter of right.
  2. A defendant who has pled guilty or no contest to a felony and who is sentenced outside of the presumptive range is entitled to appeal the issue of whether the sentence is supported by the evidence.
  3. A defendant who has pled guilty or no contest to a felony or misdemeanor may appeal the issue of whether the sentence imposed:
  • results from an incorrect finding of the defendant’s prior record level or prior conviction level under the Structured Sentencing Act;
  • contains a type of sentence not authorized by the Structured Sentencing Act for the defendant’s class of offense and prior record or conviction level; or
  • contains a term of imprisonment that is for a duration not authorized by the Structured Sentencing Act for the defendant’s class of offense and prior record or conviction level.

The court of appeals in Shaw concluded that none of these exceptions applied to the defendant. She had not unsuccessfully moved to withdraw her plea. She pled guilty to a felony misdemeanor, not a misdemeanor felony. And she was sentenced under G.S. 20-179 rather than the Structured Sentencing Act.

G.S. 15A-1444(e) provides that a defendant who is not entitled to appellate review as a matter of right may petition the appellate division for review by writ of certiorari.  Shaw requested on appeal that the court review the case under its certiorari jurisdiction.  The court concluded that it did not have the authority to do so under these circumstances, citing the limitations in Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

Thus, unless Shaw can convince the state supreme court to grant certiorari review, or the trial court to grant relief pursuant to a motion for appropriate relief, it appears that she is stuck with the sentence imposed.

Jail, Prison, or SMCP? A Place of Confinement Chart

September 17th, 2014
By Jamie Markham

You know I love a chart. I’ve made sex offender charts, Justice Reinvestment charts, maximum sentence charts, and drug trafficking charts. You should see the charts I make for family vacations! Today’s post presents a new chart detailing the proper place of confinement for all sorts of incarceration that a court might order, either at sentencing or in response to a violation of probation. It is here.

The chart was prepared in response to some changes the General Assembly made to the place-of-confinement rules this year. S.L. 2014-100. Mainly, the legislature expanded the Statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Program (SMCP) to include all impaired drivers (as Shea described here) and all misdemeanor sentences in excess of 90 days (not just those from 91 to 180 days). The DWI changes become effective for sentences imposed on or after January 1, 2015. The non-DWI changes kick in for sentences imposed on or after October 1, which is when you could begin using the chart.

The legislation also changed some of the rules for special probation (a split sentence) imposed at sentencing, as set out in revised G.S. 15A-1351(a). Like the active-sentence changes described above, the main goal of the split sentence change is to shift misdemeanants from prison to jail. The technical details of the change are reflected in the chart. Curiously, the bill did not change the rules for a split sentence imposed as a modification of probation. G.S. 15A-1344(e). Some additional changes related to confinement in response to violation (CRV) and the proper place of confinement for a person’s failure to pay a fine wind up being largely technical in nature, again as reflected in the chart.

Finally, remember that these changes mostly apply to sentences imposed after a certain date. There are still thousands of probationers whose suspended sentences were entered under the old place-of-confinement rules. If those sentences are activated, they should, in general, be administered as entered. It will take a few years for all of the old-rule cases to work their way through the system, and jail and prison officials should not be surprised when they receive revoked probationers who could not be committed to their custody for offenses sentenced today.

The Old Portable Breath Test Ain’t What She Used to Be

September 16th, 2014
By Shea Denning

Portable breath tests don’t go very far anymore in proving whether a suspect is impaired from alcohol.  That’s because the legislature amended G.S. 20-16.3(d) in 2006 to provide that the alcohol concentration results from such a test, termed an alcohol screening test by statute, are not admissible in court— not even for purposes of determining probable cause—and may not be relied upon by a law enforcement officer. An officer may rely upon, and a court may receive evidence of, whether the result from such a test was positive or negative. But since a positive result merely establishes the presence of alcohol, and driving after drinking by a person who is over 21 is not a crime, such evidence doesn’t add much proof of impairment.

The court of appeals applied this rule in two cases decided today:  State v. Overocker and State v. Townsend. In Overocker, the court concluded that evidence that a defendant smelled “faint[ly]” of alcohol, had consumed drinks at a bar, registered a positive result on a portable breath test and backed over a motorcycle in a parking lot that was parked illegally behind his sports utility vehicle were not sufficient to establish probable cause that the defendant was driving while impaired. In Townsend, the court determined that though the trial court erred in admitting the numerical results of the portable breath test at a pre-trial hearing on the defendant’s motion to suppress, other evidence was sufficient to establish probable cause that the defendant was driving while impaired, and the violation did not entitle the defendant to a new trial.

Somewhat oddly, the alcohol concentration results of a portable breath test are admissible for purposes of establishing probable cause in the one context in which evidence of a positive or negative result would be just as probative, namely to prove any of the several zero tolerance offenses under State law.  See G.S. 20-138.2A(b2), 20-138.2B(b2), 20-138.3(b2).  It is unclear why the General Assembly amended G.S. 20-16.3 to preclude reliance upon and admission of alcohol concentration results from portable breath testing instruments at pre-trial hearings for other offenses. The amendments were part of an Act that otherwise facilitated the State’s prosecution of impaired driving offenses and broadened the rules governing the admissibility of evidence by, for example, approving the admission of expert testimony regarding the result of a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test when the test is administered by a person trained in HGN.  Presumably the reliability of portable breath test results was the General Assembly’s concern.  See, e.g.,  People v. Aliaj, 36 Misc. 3d 682, 693 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2012) (noting that “tests given in the field are prone to multiple possibilities for interference which may not exist at police stations” including varying lighting conditions, radio interference, temperature, and the location’s physical layout).

Former G.S. 20-16.3 (2005), like the current statute, required that tests be made on approved devices and in accordance with applicable regulations and permitted the admission of alcohol concentration results only for purposes of determining probable cause.  Other courts have considered those safeguards sufficient. See, e.g., Der v. Connolly, 666 F.3d 1120, 1131 (8th Cir. 2012) (noting that while a portable breath test lacks sufficient reliability to be admitted as substantive evidence, it is admissible to establish probable cause). North Carolina is not, however, alone in further limiting the use of such evidence.  See Greene v. Commonwealth, 244 S.W.3d 128, 134-35 (Ky. Ct. App. 2008) (concluding that though the results of a portable breath test are inadmissible to prove guilt or for sentencing purposes, the pass/fail result of a portable breath test is admissible for the limited purpose of establishing probable cause for an arrest at a hearing on a motion to suppress). Whatever the legislature’s reasoning, the limits exist and they unquestionably diminish the probable value of evidence from portable breath tests.

Overocker highlights the effect of this limitation. Though there was no dispute that the defendant in Overocker had consumed alcohol, he showed no outward signs of impairment and performed satisfactorily on field sobriety tests.  Indeed, he only came into contact with law enforcement officers because of a traffic accident that was not his fault.  Because of the rule in G.S. 20-16.3(d), no evidence appears in the record or was introduced in court of the alcohol concentration result that registered on the portable breath test. One might speculate, based on the officer’s subsequent arrest of the defendant, that the result approached a minimum level of 0.08.  If there was in fact such a result, and it had been admitted, one might have expected a different ruling from the trial court.  Under G.S. 20-16.3(d), however, the precise results were inadmissible, and the positive result revealed nothing that was not already known, i.e. that the defendant had consumed alcohol. Thus, there was no probable cause for the arrest.

Evidence and Arguments about Prison Life in Capital Cases

September 15th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

During the second phase of a capital trial, the jury must decide whether to sentence the defendant to death or to life in prison. The jury’s perception of prison life may influence that decision. If the jury believes that prison life is comfortable, it may be more inclined to impose a death sentence, while if it believes that prison life is difficult, it may be more likely to return a verdict of life in prison. But is the quality of prison life relevant to any aggravating or mitigating circumstance? Should the parties be permitted to introduce evidence about, and to argue about, what prison life is like? This post tackles those questions.

What is prison life evidence? Prison life evidence concerns the quality of life in prison, including the amenities and activities that are available, or are not available, to inmates. Either party may seek to introduce such evidence, and the witnesses through whom it might be introduced include correctional officials, prison consultants, and inmates. As noted at the end of this post, prison life evidence is not the same as evidence about the defendant’s ability to adapt to prison life.

Is it admissible? Courts generally have ruled that prison life evidence is not admissible. At a capital sentencing hearing, the rules of evidence don’t apply, and any evidence that is “probative” may be admitted. G.S. 15A-2000(a)(3). The jury’s task is to identify and weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances, so “probative” evidence means evidence that is relevant to one or more such circumstances. Prison life evidence doesn’t bear on any of the enumerated aggravating factors in the statute, so I don’t see any basis for the State to introduce such evidence. Nor does such evidence relate to any of the enumerated mitigating circumstances. And although the statute contains a catchall mitigating circumstance, G.S. 15A-2000(f)(9) (“Any other circumstance arising from the evidence which the jury deems to have mitigating value.”), prison life evidence doesn’t seem to fit there, either. The Supreme Court has held that a defendant is entitled to present, as a mitigating circumstance, “any aspect of a defendant’s character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense” that may serve to support a sentence less than death. Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978). But prison life evidence has nothing to do with the defendant’s character or record or the circumstances of the offense, and so appears to fall outside the scope of mitigation.

I am not aware of a North Carolina case on point, but courts in at least three other states have addressed this issue, and all have ruled that evidence about prison life is inadmissible:

  • State v. Kleypas, 40 P.3d 139 (Kan. 2001) (trial court correctly excluded “evidence regarding the conditions and effects of a life sentence in the Kansas correctional system”; such evidence was not mitigating in itself and was “too far removed” from the defendant’s ability to adapt to prison life to be admissible in support of that mitigating circumstance; the court did note that “[s]uch evidence might be admissible in rebuttal to counter . . . evidence produced by the State showing that life in prison is . . . easy”)
  • People v. Ervin, 990 P.2d 506 (Cal. 2000) (citing previous California precedents and ruling that the trial court correctly excluded testimony from a “prison consultant” concerning “the security, classification, and management of inmates sentenced to prison for life without possibility of parole”)
  • Cherrix v. Commonwealth, 513 S.E.2d 642 (Va. 1999) (defendant sought to introduce evidence regarding “the general nature of prison life” through “an expert penologist, several Virginia corrections officials, a criminologist, a sociologist, and an individual serving a life sentence”; the trial court properly excluded this evidence as “not relevant mitigation evidence”)

A few readers may be interested in this motion in limine by the prosecution in a Colorado case, seeking to exclude prison life evidence.

What about arguments related to prison life? There are a number of North Carolina cases about the propriety of closing arguments referring to the quality of prison life. All of the cases I found concern remarks made by the prosecutor, though the courts’ rulings appear to apply equally to remarks by defense counsel. I’ve summarized the cases below, but in general, (1) arguments about prison life that aren’t supported by the evidence are improper, and (2) absent an objection, they aren’t normally so improper as to require the trial judge to intervene or to require reversal on appeal.

My sense is that the more detailed the arguments are, and the more they refer to specific activities and amenities, or to specific privations and hardships, that are not in evidence, the more troubling they are. General remarks that are obviously true are not very concerning. For example, an argument by the State that “in prison, the defendant will enjoy nutritious meals and an opportunity to interact with other inmates” is relatively benign, as is a defense argument that “in prison, the defendant will be behind bars, locked away from the free world with time to think about what he has done.” On the other hand, detailed and possibly erroneous recitations of leisure activities that will be available to the defendant, or of difficulties that the defendant will face, are more likely to be objectionable.

Here are the cases on point, from older to newer. The newer cases seem to reflect a bit more skepticism about arguments about prison life.

  • State v. Reeves, 337 N.C. 700 (1994) (during closing argument, the prosecutor stated that if the defendant were sentenced to life in prison, he would enjoy a “cozy little prison cell” with television, “air conditioning and three meals a day”; the defendant did not object at trial but on appeal argued that there was no evidence in the record to support these claims; the supreme court ruled that “[t]he prosecuting attorney was arguing that the defendant would lead a comfortable life in prison” and that “[i]f he used some hyperbole to describe that life it was not so egregious as to require the court to intervene ex mero motu”)
  • State v. Alston, 341 N.C. 198 (1995) (during closing argument, the prosecutor denigrated life in prison by stating that it is “difficult to be penitent with televisions, and basketball courts, and weight rooms”; this was not improper and simply “emphasized the prosecution’s position that life in prison was not an adequate punishment”)
  • State v. Holden, 346 N.C. 404 (1997) (at a capital resentencing hearing, “a prison guard testified that defendant was permitted to watch television, play cards, lift weights, play basketball, go to the music room, and eat lunch with other inmates”; the admissibility of this evidence was not addressed in the opinion; at closing argument, over a defense objection that the argument was irrelevant and speculative, the prosecutor contended that “if the jury recommended life imprisonment, defendant would be able to watch television, play cards, play basketball, listen to music, and eat lunch with fellow inmates”; the supreme court found the argument permissible under Alston and stated that it was reasonable to infer that the defendant would continue to enjoy the privileges to which the guard testified)
  • State v. Smith, 347 N.C. 453 (1998) (briefly, citing Alston, the supreme court ruled that the trial judge did not err by failing to intervene ex mero motu when the prosecutor argued “that if defendant were sentenced to life in prison, he would spend his time comfortably doing things such as playing basketball, lifting weights, and watching television”)
  • State v. May, 354 N.C. 172 (2001) (citing Smith and Alston, the supreme court ruled that although “the prosecutor improperly argued facts not in the record” by asserting that the defendant would play cards, go the gym, and watch TV while in prison, the impropriety was not so severe as to require the trial judge to intervene without a defense objection)
  • State v. Taylor, 362 N.C. 514 (2008) (although the prosecutor argued facts outside the record by remarking “that defendant would potentially be able to do the following while in prison: visit with his mother and sisters, eat his meals and drink his coffee, watch the sun rise, exercise, watch television, read, draw, receive an education, and enjoy the fresh air,” the comments were not so grossly improper as to require ex mero motu intervention by the trial judge)

Ability to adapt to prison life is a separate question. Evidence of the defendant’s ability to adapt to prison life is admissible generally is admissible in mitigation. Skipper v. South Carolina, 476 U.S. 1 (1986) (explaining that “a defendant’s disposition to make a well-behaved and peaceful adjustment to life in prison is itself an aspect of his character that is by its nature relevant to the sentencing determination”); State v. Green, 336 N.C. 142 (1994) (trial court erred in refusing to submit the nonstatutory mitigating circumstance that the defendant “will continue to adjust well to prison life and be a model prisoner”). Some facts about prison life might be admissible in support of this mitigating circumstance, but this post doesn’t attempt to identify or classify the facts that would be admissible for that purpose.

News Roundup

September 12th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

Ray Rice is, or was, an NFL player. He punched his then-fiancee, now wife, at a New Jersey casino, knocking her unconscious. He was charged with a felony assault but entered a deferred prosecution program, and the NFL suspended him for two games . . . and then the video hit the internet, and a firestorm erupted. Because there are so many important and complex issues around the case, this roundup is all about Ray Rice.

The video. TMZ obtained and published the video. It is here.

The reaction. Rice was cut by his team, the Baltimore Ravens, and suspended indefinitely by the NFL. He’s even being removed from the Madden NFL 15 video game. The NFL is investigating itself, to see where it went wrong in dealing with the matter. Local prosecutors are defending their handling of the case as consistent with how other domestic violence cases are handled, particularly in cases like this one where the victim does not support criminal prosecution. Nonetheless, the media is asking whether Rice can be kicked out of his deferred prosecution agreement and prosecuted. It sounds like he can’t.

The call for zero tolerance. Sixteen female senators, among others, are calling for a “real zero tolerance” policy that would have first-time domestic violence offenders banned from the NFL for life. As a private organization, I assume that the NFL has wide authority to determine who can and can’t play in the league. But the call for zero tolerance raises some questions. Should all employers have zero-tolerance policies? If so, a first-time domestic violence offender would effectively be rendered unemployable. If not all employers should have such policies, which ones should? And should such policies truly involve lifetime bans, even for offenders who have shown remorse, completed treatment, and changed their behavior?

What about other players? Ray Rice isn’t the only NFL player to be accused of domestic violence. The Carolina Panthers’ Greg Hardy, for example, was convicted of assault on a female in district court, though he has appealed for trial de novo in superior court. The victim in that case testified that Hardy “flung her from the bed, threw her into a bathtub, then tossed her on a futon covered with rifles” before “ripp[ing] a necklace he had given her off her neck, thr[owing] it into a toilet and slam[ing] the lid on her arm when she tried to fish it out.” Hardy allegedly followed that up by “dragg[ing] her by the hair room to room . . . putting his hands around her throat,” and threatening to kill her. The Panthers and the league have taken the position that the legal process must play out before they will take action based on the allegations. Is that the right position, particularly given the district court adjudication? The league isn’t required to apply the criminal courts’ standard of innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The importance of video. A key distinction between Rice’s case and other cases is that his acts were caught on video while others’ were not. Assuming that Greg Hardy’s accuser is telling the truth, his conduct is far worse than the single punch thrown by Rice, and a video of those events would make the Rice video look tame by comparison. But shouldn’t our outrage be based on the severity of the conduct in question, not on whether it happens to be caught on video?

Beyond football. Domestic violence isn’t the exclusive purview of football players. Consider another high profile abuser: federal judge Mark Fuller was arrested not long ago in Atlanta and charged with beating and kicking his wife in a hotel. He, too, received a deferral. This article argues for zero tolerance of domestic violence in the federal judiciary, and for the impeachment of Judge Fuller.

Conclusion. I am genuinely conflicted about how to think about the Ray Rice matter. His actions were egregious. That’s true of virtually all the violent crimes that come into the criminal justice system. How Rice’s actions fit in the spectrum of violent crimes, and what sort of punishment he deserves from the courts and from his employer, seem to me questions that aren’t easy to answer. As always, I welcome others’ insights.

Death Sentences Increase Slightly in North Carolina

September 11th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

I spent a few minutes this morning looking at death penalty data. As most readers know, North Carolina hasn’t had an execution since 2006, as a result of litigation over lethal injection and the Racial Justice Act. But the death penalty remains on the books, the State may seek it, and juries may impose it. How often do they do so?

In recent years, not very often. In the 1990s, the death penalty was imposed 20 times or more in most years. Since 2000, the norm has been just a handful of death sentences annually. (For more detail, see the graph here, produced by the Death Penalty Information Center.) In fact, in 2012, not a single death sentence was imposed in the state.

Since then, however, there has been a slight uptick. In 2013, one death sentence was imposed, on Mario McNeill  in Cumberland Co., for killing 5-year-old Shaniya Davis. A WRAL story about the case is here.

In 2014, so far, juries have sentenced three defendants to death:

  • Bernard Lamp (Iredell Co., for killing Bonnie Lou Irvine, local story here)
  • Juan Rodriguez (Forsyth Co., for killing his wife, Maria Rodriguez, local story here)
  • Jonathan Richardson (Johnston Co., for killing 4-year-old Teghan Skiba, WRAL story here)

I don’t know whether other capital trials are scheduled this year. If readers are aware of any, please post a comment.

There may be a slight uptick nationally as well. After a steep decline from the 1990s through the 2000s, there were just 77 death sentences imposed nationally in 2012. In 2013, there were 80. I couldn’t find year-to-date data for 2014.

Trends in the death penalty are often scrutinized closely and trumpeted loudly by advocates on both sides, so I’ll close by emphasizing that the uptick is quite small and may be the result of random variation. We’ll see what happens in 2015.

Sentencing the Worst Kind of DWI

September 10th, 2014
By Shea Denning

Most impaired drivers arrive at their destinations without harming themselves or anyone else.  And few such drivers are actually stopped by police.  That may explain why eight percent of people nationwide who were over 16 years old reported riding in a vehicle with a driver they thought may have consumed too much alcohol to drive safely.  Young adult males were even more likely to engage in this behavior, with 24 percent of men aged 21 to 24 reporting having done so in the past year.

Though most impaired drivers don’t crash, newspapers are replete with tales of those who do, often with tragic consequences.  Four hundred and two people died in alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in North Carolina in 2012.  Nationwide that year, more than 10,000 people were killed in crashes involving an impaired driver—31 percent of the total traffic fatalities for the year. Impaired drivers themselves are killed most often in such crashes, comprising 65 percent of the deaths in 2012, with passengers in their vehicles a distant second, making up 16 percent of the deaths.  Occupants of other vehicles accounted for 11 percent of fatalities.

When a person drives while impaired in North Carolina and proximately causes the death of another, the person may be charged with one or more felony offenses, including second-degree murder, aggravated felony death by vehicle, felony death by vehicle, and involuntary manslaughter as well as misdemeanor impaired driving.  In 2013, 23 charges of aggravated felony death by vehicle and 130 charges of felony death by vehicle were filed in North Carolina.

Questions often arise at sentencing regarding whether a person may be separately punished for multiple felony convictions when each is based upon the defendant’s driving while impaired and causing the death of a single other person, as well as the underlying crime of misdemeanor DWI.

Below are the rules governing sentencing for such convictions.

Second degree murder. When a person is convicted of second degree murder based upon driving while impaired, the court must arrest judgment for a conviction of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated felony death by vehicle or felony death by vehicle based on the same incident and the same death. The person may not be sentenced for involuntary manslaughter because the offense is a lesser-included offense of second degree murder, and the legislature has not sanctioned cumulative punishment for such offenses.  The person may not be sentenced for aggravated felony death by vehicle or felony death by vehicle, both Class D felonies, because the governing statute, G.S. 20-141.4(b), authorizes punishment under that statute “unless the conduct is covered under some other provision of law providing greater punishment.” State v. Davis, 364 N.C. 297, 304 (2010). Thus, punishment may be imposed for the greater offense of second-degree murder, a Class B2 felony in this circumstance, but not the lesser offenses of aggravated felony death by vehicle or felony death by vehicle.  In addition to imposing a sentence for second-degree murder in such cases, the court may sentence the defendant for the underlying misdemeanor DWI, which is an offense with elements distinct from those required to support a conviction for second-degree murder.

Felony death by vehicle. If a person is convicted of aggravated felony death by vehicle or felony death by vehicle (both Class D felonies, though the former conviction must be punished in the aggravated range) and involuntary manslaughter based upon a single incident of driving while impaired that results in the death of another, the court must sentence the defendant pursuant to G.S. 20-141.4 and may not impose a sentence for involuntary manslaughter based on the same death.  Instead, the court must arrest judgment for the conviction for involuntary manslaughter, a Class F felony, which merges into the conviction of felony death by vehicle.  State v. Lopez, 363 N.C. 535, 536, 681 S.E.2d 271, 272 (2009).

The court may not impose a sentence for a conviction of misdemeanor impaired driving based on the same incident either, since it is a lesser included offense of both aggravated felony death by vehicle and felony death by vehicle, and is not an offense for which the legislature has not authorized cumulative punishment.

Similar sentencing questions arise in less serious cases when person is convicted of several misdemeanor offenses arising from a single incident of impaired driving, such as impaired driving under G.S. 20-138.1, impaired driving in a commercial motor vehicle under G.S. 20-138.2, or driving after consuming by a person under 21 under G.S. 20-138.3.

Impaired driving in a commercial motor vehicle.  When a person is convicted of misdemeanor impaired driving and impaired driving in a commercial motor vehicle based on a single incident of driving, the person must be sentenced for both offenses but the aggregate punishment imposed by the court may not exceed the maximum punishment applicable to the offense involving impaired driving under G.S 20-138.1.

Driving after consuming. Driving by a person under 21 years old after consuming alcohol in violation of G.S. 20-138.3 is not a lesser included offense of impaired driving under G.S. 20-138.1.  Thus, a person convicted of G.S. 20-138.3 (a Class 2 misdemeanor) and an offense involving impaired driving based on a single incident of driving may be sentenced for both offenses. The aggregate punishment imposed by the court, however, may not exceed the maximum applicable to the offense involving impaired driving.

General Deterrence. Those are the rules for dealing with compounded punishment for a compounded crime.  It is difficult to know their general deterrent effect.  And general—rather than specific—deterrence seems the appropriate focus as most drivers involved in fatal impaired driving crashes do not have a previous DWI conviction—at least not in the recent past as measured by the federal government.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in December 2013 that 93 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes had no previous DWI convictions, based on Fatality Analysis Reporting System data that reports DWI convictions occurring up to three years before the date of the crash.

Court of Appeals Allows Sweepstakes Preliminary Injunction to Stand

September 9th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

On Friday, a panel of the court of appeals decided an interesting electronic sweepstakes case. The case is Sandhill Amusements, Inc. v. Sheriff of Onslow Co. It generally upheld a preliminary injunction against the Onslow County Sheriff and the District Attorney, barring them from enforcing the electronic sweepstakes statute against certain businesses.

Facts. After officers visited a business that featured several sweepstakes kiosks, the Onlsow County Sheriff and the District Attorney wrote a letter to the president of Sandhill Amusements, informing him of their opinion that the kiosks were unlawful, and stating that they could be seized as evidence and their owners could be charged criminally.

Civil suit. That prompted Sandhills and another company to sue the sheriff and the district attorney, in their official capacities. The plaintiffs sought a declaration that the kiosks were lawful and an injunction against the enforcement of the electronic sweepstakes statute, G.S. 14-306.4, and related laws against owners and operators of the kiosks.

Evidence. A superior court judge held a hearing on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction. It appears that the kiosks work as follows: a patron approaches a kiosk and uses the kiosk to purchase gift cards. The cards may be redeemed for merchandise on the Gift Surplus website. As a promotional incentive, the patron receives a certain amount of sweepstakes entries for each dollar spent. A limited number of free entries are also available.

The patron may then use the entries to attempt to win cash prizes in one of five “game themes” that are available on the kiosk. It sounds as though the patron surrenders the sweepstakes entries, selects a game theme, and then learns the maximum potential prize that he or she can win in that game. That amount could be zero, or it could be, for example, $5. The patron is then presented with the appearance of three slot machine reels, two of which match and one of which does not (e.g., cherry-cherry-lemon). In order to win the prize, the patron must use the touchscreen to rotate the non-matching reel to match the others (e.g., cherry-cherry-cherry). If the patron correctly matches the symbols, the patron wins the prize. An expert witness testifying for the plaintiffs concluded that the matching requirement rendered the games ones of skill or dexterity, rather than chance. The plaintiffs argued that this took the kiosks outside the purview of G.S. 14-306.4.

Trial court’s ruling. The trial court ruled that the kiosks did not violate the electronic sweepstakes statute or other gambling laws and entered a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of those statutes against the plaintiffs or business that used their kiosks. The injunction was limited to the parties and to Onslow County businesses that used four or fewer kiosks.

The appeal. The Onslow County Sheriff appealed. Judge Hunter, joined by Judge Elmore, mostly affirmed.

First, they considered the sheriff’s claim that sovereign immunity justified an interlocutory appeal and barred the suit. The majority agreed that the sheriff was entitled to raise the sovereign immunity defense through an interlocutory appeal. However, it concluded that the defense did not bar the suit: although “sovereign immunity acts as a bar to Plaintiffs’ ability to seek redress through monetary damages,” the “declaratory judgment procedure is the only method by which Plaintiffs have recourse to protect their property interests in the kiosks,” so sovereign immunity cannot trump that procedure.

Then the majority considered whether the preliminary injunction was an appropriate subject of an interlocutory appeal. Such appeals are allowed when necessary to protect a party’s substantial right. The majority stated that generally, an injunction against enforcing the law affects a substantial right, and concluded that the trial judge’s ruling was such an injunction to the extent that it declared the kiosks “lawful” and “valid,” findings that could “cast doubt upon every prosecution by the State throughout North Carolina.” However, the majority determined that those findings were not a necessary part of the trial court’s ruling. The standard for a preliminary injunction is simply that the plaintiff demonstrates a likelihood of success on the merits, and the judge’s order found that standard satisfied even without the statements about lawfulness and validity. The court of appeals therefore struck those findings, and ruled that without them, the preliminary injunction does not affect the sheriff’s substantial rights. The court emphasized the limited scope of the injunction: it is limited to Onslow County businesses with four or fewer machines, and doesn’t affect non-parties. Therefore, the court reasoned, “Sheriff Brown was not enjoined from enforcing the criminal laws of North Carolina by the remainder of the trial court’s preliminary injunction; Sheriff Brown was enjoined from enforcing certain criminal laws against parties to the litigation until the resolution of this case.”

The dissent. Judge Ervin dissented. He agreed with the majority’s disposition of the sovereign immunity issue, but would have ruled (1) that the preliminary injunction does affect the sheriff’s substantial rights and so is reviewable in its entirety, and (2) that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits, so the preliminary injunction should be reversed.

As to the first issue, Judge Ervin wrote, “[a]s I read the relevant decisions, this Court has recognized that the entry of a preliminary injunction precluding a state or local agency from enforcing the law affects a substantial right and is immediately appealable.” He found no support in the case law for the majority’s exception for a temporary injunction that is limited in scope.

As to the second issue, Judge Ervin thought that the trial judge erred in agreeing with the plaintiffs’ expert that the kiosks present games of skill and dexterity. He reasoned that even if there is some element of skill in the games, chance predominates: “As was the case with the video poker game at issue in [a previous case], the machines and equipment at issue here only permitted a predetermined number of winners. For that reason, a player who plays after the predetermined number of winners has been reached will be unable to win a prize no matter how much skill or dexterity he or she exhibits. In addition, use of the equipment at issue here will result in the playing of certain games in which the player will be unable to win anything of value regardless of the skill or dexterity that he or she displays.”

Where does this leave us? For now, in Onslow County, the injunction is still in place, and is limited in scope as noted by the majority opinion. Outside Onslow County, the injunction appears to have no effect: the court of appeals emphasized its lack of applicability outside the county.

Going forward, the Sheriff could appeal further based on the dissent, or could simply let the litigation play out in superior court and appeal any permanent injunction that is entered. As to the prospects of any such future appeal, it may be worth noting that the only judge on the court of appeals who reached the merits was Judge Ervin – and he concluded that the plaintiffs were not likely to prevail on the merits, i.e., that the kiosks likely violate the electronic sweepstakes statute. As always, stay tuned.