News Roundup

August 29th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

My favorite story this week concerns the alleged criminal mastermind who was charged with trying to steal copper . . . “from a construction site where the Garner Police Department is building a new station.” WRAL has the story here. We’ll see if he cops a plea to copping the cops’ copper.

In other news:

Constitutional amendment hits the press. Our report on the proposed constitutional amendment that would enable felony defendants to choose a bench trial instead of a jury trial has sparked a media firestorm! OK, mild media interest. But that’s still more than the amendment had received previously. Among other stories, I did this interview with NPR, and stories appeared in the News and Observer and on WRAL.

Seats left in new misdemeanor defender program. Public defenders and private lawyers who do indigent defense work are invited to fill the last few seats in the new misdemeanor defender training program, to be held September 16 to September 19 at the School of Government. The program always gets rave reviews. Full details are available here.

Open carry, state by state. Folks interested in the ebb and flow of gun rights may be interested in this story on the WSJ Law Blog, which includes a state-by-state map of where open carry is allowed without a permit, where it’s allowed with a permit, and where it’s prohibited. As I’ve noted previously on the blog, open carry is generally legal in North Carolina and does not require a license.

Judge orders bailiff to shock defendant. Finally, a story from Maryland that is shocking both literally and figuratively. Judge Robert Nalley ordered a bailiff to administer a shock to a self-represented “sovereign citizen” defendant. The defendant apparently was disruptive but not threatening. Nonetheless, the judge told the bailiff to “do it” and “use it,” resulting in the administration of a shock via a restraint device. The shock left the defendant on the ground screaming. The court has declined to produce the security video of the incident, on grounds that doing so could “compromise[] . . . security protocols.” The Baltimore Post Examiner has the story here and here.

Can a Vehicle Search Incident to Arrest Include the Trunk?

August 28th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

In Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), the Supreme Court ruled that a motor vehicle may be searched incident to the arrest of a recent occupant “only if [1] the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or [2] it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.” The second justification for a vehicle search under Gant was new, and the Court stated with little explanation that it was based on “circumstances unique to the vehicle context.” But just how far does search authority under that exception extend?

First Gant exception limited to passenger compartment. As a preliminary matter, a vehicle search incident to arrest that is based on the arrestee’s proximity to the vehicle is pretty clearly limited to the passenger compartment. The Gant opinion refers to the arrestee being “within reaching distance of the passenger compartment.” Furthermore, such a search is justified because of the risk that the arrestee could grab a weapon or destructible evidence. That risk is substantial with respect to the passenger compartment of a vehicle, which is normally quickly accessible from the outside. The risk is less with respect to the trunk, which is typically inaccessible from the outside.

Analyzing the second Gant exception. But what about a vehicle search incident to arrest that is based on reason to believe that evidence of the offense of arrest is in the vehicle? For example, if an officer arrests a vehicle occupant for a drug offense, the officer might reasonably believe that the vehicle contains additional evidence of drug activity. Such evidence could as easily be in the trunk as in the passenger compartment. May the officer search the trunk of the vehicle?

Probably not, though I don’t think the issue is completely settled. In the portion of the Gant opinion dealing with the second exception, the Court states that “in [certain cases], the offense of arrest will supply a basis for searching the passenger compartment of an arrestee’s vehicle and any containers therein.” Of course, saying that an officer may search the passenger compartment isn’t quite the same thing as saying that an officer may not search the trunk. But the reference to the passenger compartment is consistent with the pre-Gant understanding that vehicle searches incident to arrest were limited to the passenger compartment, not the trunk. And among cases to have considered the issue, a majority have ruled that the second Gant exception does not support a search of the trunk. See Robinson v. State, 754 S.E.2d 862 (S.C. 2014) (suggesting in a footnote that Gant did not extend the permissible scope of a search incident to arrest beyond the passenger compartment of a vehicle; applying Gant’s “reasonable to believe prong” and finding that a trunk “would normally be excluded from the permissible scope of the search [incident to arrest],” but that the trunk search at issue was permissible because the particular trunk was freely accessible from the backseat); People v. Coates, 266 P.3d 397 (Colo. 2011) (concluding that Gant did not “expand the applicability of the search-incident-to-arrest doctrine in the vehicle context to include areas beyond the passenger compartment of the vehicle”); Smith v. Kenny, 678 F. Supp. 2d 1124 (D.N.M. 2009) (though not essential to the holding, the court noted in a post-Gant case that “a search incident to an arrest would not allow the officers to search the car’s trunk”). But see State v. Stewart, 807 N.W.2d 15 (Wis. Ct. App. 2011) (relying on Gant’s “reasonable to believe” prong, the court found with little discussion that a search of a trunk was a valid search incident to arrest where defendant was lawfully under arrest for cocaine possession). I can imagine an argument that the second Gant exception should not be limited to the passenger compartment because evidence may be found in the trunk, and because the trunk shares a reduced expectation of privacy with the rest of the vehicle. But the state of the law is such that an argument along those lines would face an uphill battle.

Other justifications for trunk searches. As a practical matter, when there is “reason to believe” that the vehicle contains evidence of crime, there will often also be probable cause that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime. And when there is probable cause, the entire vehicle, including the trunk, may be searched without a warrant under the vehicle exception to the warrant requirement. Other justifications for a warrantless search of the trunk, in appropriate cases, include consent and an inventory search.

Back to the Court? I imagine that the Court will clarify the second Gant exception at some point. It created the exception out of whole cloth and offered little explanation of its justification or scope. A case involving a trunk search incident to arrest would be a prime fact pattern for the Court to consider.

Share the Road. But How?

August 27th, 2014
By Shea Denning

Most avid bicyclists have more than one tale of a close encounter with a motorist who does not care to—or does not know how to—safely share the road with a bicycle. The News and Observer reported here that a group of Orange County cyclists accused a pick-up truck driver of intentionally slamming on brakes in front of the group as they were driving down a rural two-lane road in June.  One of the cyclists fell from his bike and was injured, though not seriously. The cyclists pressed charges. Video footage recorded by a cyclist in the other Orange County depicting his close encounter with a pick-up truck and a Gatorade bottle hurled from its passenger window went viral in July. In the California case, the sheriff’s department recommended charges against both the truck passenger and the bicyclist, who was suspected of using offensive words in public that were likely to provide a violent reaction.

For their part, motorists complain of cyclists who ignore traffic laws and act oblivious to the presence of larger motorized vehicles, making it difficult to drive at a reasonable speed and avoid a collision.

Whether they like it or not, motorists and bicyclists have to share space.  Below are some of the rules they must follow.

Cyclists. Bicycles are vehicles for purposes of the state’s motor vehicles laws; thus, their riders generally are subject to the rules of the road and other provisions of Chapter 20.  G.S. 20-4.01(49).

This means that bicycles ridden on public streets and highways must be ridden on the right half of the roadway or in the right-hand lane of a multi-lane road if proceeding at less than the legal maximum speed limit (G.S. 20-146); bicycle riders must stop at stoplights and signs (G.S. 20-158); and bicycle riders may not pass vehicles on the right, unless the bicycle is being ridden in a separate lane (G.S. 20-149(a)).

In addition, bicycle riders, like other drivers, must signal before starting, stopping or turning from a direct line or changing lanes on street, highway, or public vehicular area—if the operation of any other vehicle may be affected by the movement. G.S. 20-154.  Hand signals as described in G.S. 20-154(d) suffice, and must be given continuously for the last 100 feet traveled before the stop or turn.

Motorcycles may be driven two abreast in a single lane, see G.S. 20-146.1, but no provision specifically authorizes—or prohibits—two-abreast cycling.  NC DOT punted on the issue in its 2004 Guide to NC Bicycle and Pedestrian Laws, noting the importance of riding “responsibly and courteously, so that cars may pass safely.”  (The guide is excellent, but it is out of date. One of the most notable changes is the amendment of the impaired driving statute, G.S. 20-138.1, to eliminate the exception for bicycles.)

Some provisions of Chapter 20 single out bicycles. G.S. 20-129(e), for instance, requires that bicycles used at night be equipped with a lighted lamp on the front that is visible from a distance of at least 300 feet and a reflex mirror or lamp on the back, exhibiting a red light visible from at least 200 feet. G.S. 20-171.2 prohibits bicycle racing on a highway unless the racing is part of an event approved by State or local authorities. The Child Bicycle Safety Act requires, while riding a bicycle on a public roadway, public bicycle path or other public right of way, that persons under 16 wear a helmet; that bicycle passengers who weigh less than 40 pounds or are less than 40 inches tall be seated in a separate restraining seat; that no person who is unable to maintain an erect, seated position be a passenger in a bicycle restraining seat; and that all other bicycle passengers be seated on saddle seats.  G.S. 20-171.7.

Motorists. Drivers of motor vehicles are, of course, subject to a host of rules set out in Chapter 20 of the General Statutes.  The rule most often implicated in connection with cyclists on the public roadways is the requirement that the driver of any vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction (1) pass at least two feet to the left of the vehicle being passed and (2) not again drive to the right side of the highway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle.  G.S. 20-149(a).  Drivers may not pass another vehicle proceeding in the same direction upon the crest of a grade or upon a curve in the highway where the driver’s view is obstructed within a distance of 500 feet.  G.S. 20-149(b). These rules do not apply on a street or highway that has two or more lanes of moving vehicles in each direction.  G.S. 20-150.1.  Presumably, the reference to “lane” in G.S. 20-150.1 encompasses lanes designated for bicycles.

In addition, the driver of a vehicle emerging from or entering an alley, building entrance, private road, or driveway must yield the right-of-way to any person riding a bicycle who is approaching on any sidewalk or walkway extending across such alley, building entrance, road, or driveway. G.S. 20-173.

Additional Precautions.

NC DOT offers these tips (among others) for drivers who encounter cyclists on the roads:

1. Wait until the cyclist has cleared the intersection before making a turn to the right or left.  The most common error for an automobile driver is to make a left turn directly into the path of an oncoming cyclist without seeing him until it is too late to stop.  Don’t make a right turn in front of a bicyclist you have just passed.  He or she may be forced to stop quickly and could lose control of the bicycle, causing a crash.

2. When passing a cyclist, slow down and make sure the rider is aware of your presence.  Leave plenty of room between the rider and your vehicle.  If there is no room to pass because traffic is approaching, wait until it has gone by, and then pass.

Drivers and cyclists might also do well to heed the timeless advice of Bill and Ted. (Or was that Abraham Lincoln?)

Be excellent to each other.

(And share the road.)

Justice Reinvestment on the Ground

August 26th, 2014
By Jamie Markham

Among the two dozen or so states that have participated in Justice Reinvestment, North Carolina has become something of a darling. The goal of the initiative (summarized in this infographic) is to reduce spending on corrections, and North Carolina has done that. Since the day the law came into effect, we have 2,000 fewer prison inmates, and—in something of a surprise—10,000 fewer probationers. (As I was looking into this, I noticed that there are 20,000 fewer probationers in North Carolina today than there were in early 2008!) The general view is that the initiative is working well here, and other states are looking to copy our model. Commissioner of Adult Correction David Guice has appeared before congressional staff to talk about North Carolina’s experience, and just last week spoke to Alabama’s Association of County Commissioners about our success, highlighting our use of short confinement periods (quick dips) to respond to technical violations of probation.

With all this attention, it seemed a good time to share some data that show how Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA) “tools” are being used in practice in North Carolina. (Previous statistical reviews are available here and here.) All figures come from the excellent research staff of the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice.

Delegated authority. Probation officers can, after the JRA, impose more conditions on probationers through delegated authority than they could before the law came into effect. Without action by the court, officers can impose conditions like community service, substance abuse treatment, electronic house arrest, a curfew, and educational programs. The officer may impose any of those conditions in response to a violation, or (unlike pre-2011 law) without a prior violation if the probationer has been “determined to be high risk based on the results of the risk assessment.” G.S. 15A-1343.2(e) and (f). Probation officers refer to the latter option as “high risk delegated authority.” Since the start of 2013, officers used delegated authority over 3,000 times, with over two-thirds of that being the post-violation variety. Officers used high risk delegated authority 969 times.

Quick dips. The JRA added a new form of delegated authority through which probation officers can jail certain probationers for two or three days in response to a violation of probation. Officers may only do that after following a special procedure that includes the offender’s waiver of the rights to a hearing and counsel. G.S. 15A-1343.2(e) and (f). Quick dips were scarcely used at all in 2012, but things have picked up considerably since then. In fiscal year 2013/14, officers imposed 1,448 quick dips. Almost two-thirds of them (903) were of the 3-day variety.

My understanding is that very few judges take the affirmative step of “un-delegating” the authority for a probation officer to impose a quick dip, although there are a handful that do so in every case. I have not heard of any litigation regarding the constitutionality of officer-imposed dips, which I wrote a little bit about here.

A preliminary analysis of the effectiveness of quick dips shows promise: a group of offenders who received one quick dip in response to noncompliance were less likely to get revoked and less likely to abscond than a matched group of undipped offenders. A summary of the analysis, shared with DAC’s permission, is available here. It’s a small sample, but the results are interesting and encouraging.

ASR. Another new arrow in the JRA quiver is Advanced Supervised Release (ASR). The law, which allows a person serving an active sentence to earn an early release by completing certain “risk reduction incentives” in prison, is summarized here. Statewide, over 300 ASR sentences have been entered since the law came into effect. Unlike quick dips, however, there are indications that ASR usage has actually slowed in recent months. An ASR sentence cannot be imposed over the objection of the prosecutor, so it’s possible that the law is not being used because most prosecutors object. Or it may just be that nobody brings it up. It’s too soon to have any meaningful data about whether ASR risk reduction incentives actually reduce risk.

I would love to hear your thoughts about how these new legal tools are being used in practice. Officials in Alabama, Michigan, and other states thinking of taking the JRA plunge might also learn from our collective experience.

Stealth Constitutional Amendment Could Bring Big Changes

August 25th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

This fall, North Carolina voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution. The proposed amendment would allow, for the first time, bench trials for felonies in superior court. Neither the media nor advocacy groups have paid much attention to the amendment, so almost no one seems to know that it is on the table. For that reason, I think of it as the stealth constitutional amendment. Despite the amendment’s low profile, allowing felony bench trials would be a major change.

The change could be for the better. For example, bench trials might save money, and some defendants — those with technical defenses, or those who are unpopular in the community — might prefer a judge to a jury. The 49 other states allow bench trials, so the amendment would bring us in line with the national norm.

But the change could also be for the worse. Once waiver is possible, defendants might be pressured to waive their right to a jury trial. Defendants with prominent and well-connected lawyers might get unfairly favorable treatment. Also, contrary to the majority rule in other states, the amendment doesn’t give the prosecution the right to insist on a jury trial if it believes that a bench trial would be inappropriate.

In an effort to draw some attention to the amendment and to provide some information about its possible benefits and costs, I worked with School of Government law clerk Komal Patel to prepare a report about it. The report is available here as a free PDF. In typical School of Government fashion, it doesn’t take a position on the amendment but it contains quite a bit of information about its potential impact and the practice in other jurisdictions. It’s written to be accessible to voters who aren’t very familiar with the criminal justice system, so please pass the link along to anyone who may be interested. As always, feedback and comments of all kinds are welcome.

News Roundup

August 22nd, 2014
By Jeff Welty

The week saw a bit of musical chairs at the state supreme court. Chief Justice Parker stepped down as a result of mandatory retirement and then-Senior Associate Justice Martin was named Chief Justice. Then-court of appeals judge Bob Hunter was named Associate Justice, replacing now-Chief Justice Martin. That should settle everything . . . until November, at which point we’ll have elections for several seats and may see additional changes.

In other news:

Would Michael Brown’s robbery be admissible in a homicide case against the officer who shot him? Michael Brown is the young man who was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. It appears that he had recently robbed a convenience store, but that the officer who shot him may not have known that. If the officer is charged with homicide, would evidence about the robbery be admissible? Ken White at Popehat is skeptical in this post, but former federal judge and current law professor Paul Cassell argues here that evidence of the robbery likely would be admitted. To me, Cassell seems to have the better of the argument, but obviously opinions may differ.

Lawyers question Rick Perry indictment. Texas Governor Rick Perry was indicted for cutting funding to a prosecutor’s office after the prosecutor (a) investigated a program that Perry favored, (b) got arrested for drunk driving and then acted like a jerk, and (c) refused Perry’s request to resign. I’m withholding judgment until more details emerge, but my tentative view is that the indictment is an overreach. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog rounds up a few opinions on the issue here, from across the political spectrum. Most are critical of the indictment.

Mockingbird news. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best books ever written about criminal law. Author Harper Lee wrote the book as a young woman and never wrote another, living quietly, perhaps even reclusively, in a small town. There’s a new book out about her, called The Mockingbird Next Door, written by a woman who lived next door to Harper Lee and her sister Alice for several years. It’s a controversial book but I heard an interview with the author, who revealed that Alice Lee was a lawyer who practiced until she was 100 years old. So one sister retired very, very young, and the other seemingly didn’t ever want to retire.

I pity the fool! Children of the 1980s will enjoy this story about Mr. T showing up for jury duty in Illinois, still sporting his trademark Mohawk. Apparently his fans “flocked to him in droves.”

Huge news in the only sport not on ESPN. Finally, the competitive court reporting national championship took place recently in San Francisco. Mark Kislingbury, a reporter known as “the Michael Jordan of court reporting,” was upset by Jo Ann Bryce, who achieved near-perfect accuracy at a dazzling rate of 280 words per minute. Here’s hoping she gets her rightful place on a Wheaties box.

General Assembly Closes Up Shop, Gives Us “Technical” Corrections

August 21st, 2014
By Jeff Welty

The General Assembly reached an agreement on coal ash and has adjourned for the session. Shortly before departing, it approved a technical corrections bill that has become law. The bill contains several criminal law provisions, some of which arguably are not “technical.” But let’s not get technical about what’s technical!

Bob Farb sent a summary of the bill out yesterday afternoon, and I’ve pasted it below for those who haven’t seen it. It includes several provisions that I have previously noted on the blog, including one regarding vapor cigarettes for jail inmates and one regarding the disposition of seized weapons. But the bill contains additional items of possible interest as well, so here’s the entire summary:

S.L. 2014-115 (H 1133): Miscellaneous criminal law changes. This 58-page session law makes miscellaneous changes to a variety of statutes, including criminal provisions, which are effective on August 11, 2014, unless otherwise noted. The section numbers and pages of the session law are noted to facilitate locating the provisions.

  • Amended G.S. 15A-830(a)(7), involving the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, revises the listing of offenses included within the act to reflect reclassifications and repeals, and specifically states that the changes do not adversely affect the rights granted to victims before these changes become effective. Section 2.1 (pages 2-3).
  • Amended G.S. 7A-273(2) (magistrates’ authority to accept guilty pleas) includes open burning offenses under Article 78 of G.S. Chapter 106. Section 20 (page 13).
  • Effective for offenses committed on or after December 1, 2014, amended G.S. 14-258.1 allows local confinement facilities to give or sell vapor products or FDA-approved tobacco cessation products to inmates in their custody. Section 23 (page 13).
  • A clerk of superior court’s reporting duties under G.S. 14-404(c1) to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) involving pistol permits issued by sheriffs are delayed from beginning on July 1, 2014, to January 1, 2015, and clarifies that the clerk must determine which information can “practicably be transmitted” to NICS. Section 23.5 (pages 13-14).
  • Amended G.S. 15-11.1(b1)(4) allows a court order transferring a seized firearm to a law enforcement agency to be issued without a written request of the head of the agency. Section 24.5 (page 14).
  • Amended G.S. 20-4.01(41a) includes within the definition of a “serious traffic violation” the unlawful use of a mobile telephone while operating a commercial motor vehicle. Section 28.3 (pages 18-19).
  • Amended G.S. 20-37.13 provides that the issuance of a commercial driver’s learner’s permit is a precondition to the initial issuance of a commercial driver’s license and also a precondition to the upgrade of a commercial driver’s license if the upgrade requires a skills test. Section 28.5 (page 19).
  • Local acts for five counties (Harnett, Pamlico, Perquimans, Scotland, and Warren) are repealed that had governed the disposition of deadly weapons after a conviction. Disposition in these counties are now governed by G.S. 14-269.1 (confiscation and disposition of deadly weapons) in the same manner as the other 95 counties. Section 61 (page 53).

More FAQ on PRS

August 20th, 2014
By Jamie Markham

Today’s post picks up where my last post left off, with answers (my answers, at least) to more frequently asked questions about post-release supervision.

What will life on PRS be like? It will be a lot like probation—which is something to keep in mind if the defendant requested an active sentence to avoid probation. The conditions of supervision will be set by the Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission, not by the court. Every supervisee will be subject to a condition that he or she not commit another crime. G.S. 15A-1368.4(b). The Commission may add other conditions it believes are “reasonably necessary to ensure that the supervisee will lead a law-abiding life or to assist the supervisee to do so.” G.S. 15A-1368.4(d) and (e) set out appropriate reintegrative and controlling conditions, respectively. They include things like having a job, completing treatment, not using drugs, paying court costs, and submitting to warrantless searches by a post-release supervision officer. (Unlike probation, for post-release supervision there is no statutory provision for warrantless searches by a law enforcement officer.) Special conditions apply to sex offenders. G.S. 15A-1368.4(b1).

For what types of violations can I be revoked? As described in this prior post summarizing the PRS violation hearing process, the Justice Reinvestment Act limited the Commission’s authority to revoke PRS in much the same way that it limited judges’ authority to revoke probation. PRS may be fully revoked only for a new criminal offense or absconding, or for any violation committed by a person under supervision for a reportable sex crime. G.S. 15A-1368.3(c)(1). For all other violations, the supervisee may be reimprisoned for three months, and then re-released onto PRS. (DAC and the Commission sometimes refer to those 3-month reimprisonment stints as “CRV,” though that statutory terminology applies only to imprisonment for technical violations of probation.) Reimprisonment tolls the term of supervised release. Id. For example, if a defendant violates PRS 10 months into a 12-month term of supervision and is reimprisoned for three months, he comes out of prison with 2 months remaining on the term of supervision. Time does not run on the supervision period while he is behind bars. However, once the defendant has served his entire maximum term of imprisonment, the sentence is considered terminated, G.S. 15A-1368.2(f), and there is no further release to supervision, G.S. 15A-1368.3(c)(1).

If my PRS is revoked, do I get credit against my remaining term of imprisonment for the time I spent under supervision? No. Unlike some other states, North Carolina does not allow credit for what is sometimes called “street time,” the time a person a person spent under supervision in the community. To the contrary, G.S. 15A-1368.3(c)(2) expressly provides that a supervisee “shall not receive any credit for days on post-release supervision against the maximum term of imprisonment imposed by the court . . . .” So, if you have a 9-month term of PRS with 9 months of imprisonment hanging over your head, and you violate and get revoked in month 8, you go back to prison for 9 months, not 1 month.

How does PRS work if I am serving multiple sentences? In general, a person convicted of multiple felony offenses will serve only one period of post-release supervision upon his or her release. If the sentences were set to run consecutively, one PRS term will remain at the end of the aggregate term by virtue of the single sentence rule, described in detail here. The length of that sole PRS term will be dictated by the longest term applicable to the defendant’s multiple convictions (9, 12, or 60 months, depending on the offense class and whether the defendant is a sex offender). Occasionally a defendant will be subject to concurrent sentences that include a mix of non-PRS (i.e., pre-2011) and PRS-eligible felonies, and for which the term of imprisonment for the non-PRS sentence actually extends beyond the PRS-eligible one(s). If that happens, DAC and the Commission will hold the PRS term for the PRS-eligible offense in abeyance until the defendant is actually released from prison on the non-PRS case. Once a person is on PRS, the PRS term generally runs concurrently with any other federal or State prison, jail, probation, or parole term to which the person becomes subject. G.S. 15A-1368.5.

What is the deal with PRS for drug trafficking crimes committed between December 1, 2011 and November 30, 2012? When the General Assembly amended the felony sentencing grid in 2011, increasing felony maximum sentences to account for the expansion of post-release supervision, it did not increase the statutory terms of imprisonment for drug trafficking set out in G.S. 90-95(h). The legislature fixed the problem for offenses committed on or after December 1, 2012, but when I wrote about the issue here in 2012, I was unsure how DAC and the Commission would treat cases falling in the gap year. I have since learned that if there is not a full complement of “extra” time built into the maximum sentence for PRS (9 extra months for Class F, G, and H trafficking, and 12 extra months for Class C, D, and E trafficking), then they will not give the defendant any post-release supervision at all. I have heard that some judges have addressed the issue by adding extra time to the maximum themselves, but I don’t know of any legal basis for doing that. The applicable statute for that time period prescribed a particular sentence, and I think that’s what the court is obliged to use, even if it makes administration of PRS difficult. I would be interested to hear from readers with practical experience with cases from this time frame to learn more about how things played out.

Court of Appeals in State v. Townsend Beefs Up Prejudice Required for Relief under Knoll

August 19th, 2014
By Shea Denning

No one gets relief any more under State v. Knoll—at least not from the court of appeals.  State v. Townsend, decided today, is the latest in a series of post-Knoll cases in which the defendant failed to establish that he was prejudiced by a magistrate’s alleged statutory violations in setting conditions of pre-trial release, and, thus, failed to establish a basis for dismissal of the charges.

Facts. The defendant in Townsend was arrested at a DWI checkpoint in Charlotte around 11:30 p.m. Forty-five minutes later, he submitted to breath testing in the Breath Alcohol Testing vehicle located at the scene, registering a 0.10 on his first test and a 0.09 on his second. The defendant called his wife to tell her he had been arrested. He told her that he or someone would call her later to come pick him up.  The arresting officer then took the defendant to the Mecklenburg County Jail, where he was admitted at 12:56 a.m.

The record of events gets a bit more confusing from here.  While the opinion states that the defendant appeared before a magistrate at 2:54 a.m. (some two hours after arriving at the jail), it also adopts the trial court’s finding that the defendant signed an implied consent offense notice (form AOC-CR-271) in front of the magistrate at 2:34 a.m., listing his wife’s name and phone number. The implied consent notice form contains a certification from the magistrate that an initial appearance has been held, so it is odd that the form apparently was signed before the initial appearance.

In any event, the magistrate imposed a secured bond—of sorts. The conditions of release form stated that the defendant was subject to a $1,000 secured bond, but also stated that the bond “may be unsecured to sober responsible adult with ID.”  The court of appeals called this an “option bond,” as good a label as any since no such condition is defined in or authorized by statute.

A jail official called the defendant’s wife, who came to the jail.  The defendant was released to the custody of his wife at 4:45 a.m., more than five hours after he was arrested and about four hours after he arrived at the jail.

Procedural History.  The defendant moved to dismiss the charges pursuant to State v. Knoll, 322 N.C. 535 (1988), arguing that he was denied the right to communicate with counsel and friends and that this denial resulted in substantial prejudice.  The defendant specifically complained that the magistrate ordered him held under a $1,000 secured bond without justification, prior to meeting with him, and without making written findings as to why that condition was necessary. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, and the court of appeals affirmed.

Holding. Though conceding that the magistrate “may have committed a technical statutory violation,” by not making written findings as to its reason for imposing a secured bond, the court of appeals held that the defendant failed to demonstrate how he was prejudiced by that violation.  The court noted that the defendant was not in fact required to post a secured bond.  Instead, he was released on an unsecured bond to his wife’s custody.  Ergo, said the court, he cannot show prejudice.  Moreover, the court said that the defendant had several opportunities to call counsel and friends to observe him and help him to obtain an independent chemical analysis, but failed to do so.  Thus, he was not “denied his rights pursuant to Knoll.”

Food for Thought.  Probably because I regularly teach magistrates about the procedures they must follow in setting conditions of release in impaired driving cases, my reaction to the facts is less sanguine than the court of appeals. For starters, “option bonds” are not a statutory option. Instead, G.S. 15A-534 requires that a magistrate impose at least one of the following conditions of release.

  1. Release the defendant on his written promise to appear.
  2. Release the defendant upon his execution of an unsecured appearance bond in an amount specified.
  3. Place the defendant in the custody of a designated person or organization agreeing to supervise him.
  4. Require the execution of a secured appearance bond in a specified amount.
  5. House arrest with electronic monitoring.

A magistrate must impose condition (1), (2), or (3) above unless he or she determines that such release will not reasonably assure the appearance of the defendant as required, will pose a danger of injury to any person, or is likely to result in destruction of evidence, subornation of perjury, or intimidation of potential witnesses. Upon making the determination, the magistrate must then require a secured bond instead of condition (1), (2), or (3), and must record the reasons for so doing in writing to the extent provided in the policies or requirements issued by the senior resident superior court judge.

Furthermore, the “option bond” imposed in Townsend essentially functioned as an impaired driving hold. It was not, however, accompanied by findings to support such a hold. One could infer that the magistrate imposed the bond to prevent the defendant from gaining immediate release–unless the defendant was released to the custody of a sober, responsible adult. If, however, the magistrate found clear and convincing evidence that the defendant was impaired to the extent he was a danger, the appropriate action would have been to impose an impaired driving hold pursuant to G.S. 15A-534.2 rather than an optional bond. Impaired driving holds are properly recorded on form AOC-CR-270, which contains a place for magistrates to record their findings.

It isn’t clear to me whether there was evidence in Townsend to support such a hold. The defendant’s alcohol concentration was near the per se level, and he was stopped at a checkpoint. Perhaps his alcohol concentration when combined with the signs of intoxication that the officer observed during the field sobriety tests were sufficient to render him dangerous more than three hours after his arrest, but I am somewhat doubtful.

Had the magistrate imposed a written promise or an unsecured bond at the initial appearance, the Townsend defendant would have been released nearly two hours earlier, a difference that may not have affected his ability to gather evidence in any meaningful way. In another case, however, the difference could be significant. A defendant might be held for several hours on an “option bond” when there is no evidence that she is impaired to the extent she is a danger. Conversely, a highly impaired defendant could post bond and gain release without supervision.

Why? I continue to be surprised by the perseverance and prevalence of option bonds. Perhaps they are used to avoid the additional paperwork associated with an impaired driving hold. Perhaps magistrates have decided that statutory procedures must be skirted to protect the public.  Or perhaps old habits just die hard. In any event, State v. Townsend again emphasizes that a defendant must prove far more than a misstep by a magistrate to be entitled to dismissal of impaired driving charges under Knoll.

Ferguson and Cameras

August 18th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

According to the New York Times, the governor of Missouri is now deploying the National Guard in an “effort[] to quell unrest” resulting from a white police officer’s shooting of a black teenager in the city of Ferguson. It seems to me that much of the “unrest” is a result of a lack of factual information about what took place between the officer and the teenager. Many community members believe that the teenager was shot without provocation. The officer hasn’t spoken publicly, to my knowledge, but appears to have told investigators that the teenager, who was very large, was attacking him. As far as I can tell, there are few credible witnesses, and the autopsy results don’t determine conclusively which version of events is correct. As a result, people can and do believe very different things about the incident, making violent disagreement possible.

If the officer had been equipped with a wearable camera, we would have much better information about what happened. Even a dash-mounted camera in the car would have helped. It might or might not have captured video of the interaction, but even an audio recording would be better than nothing.

The lack of a dash-mounted camera is a bit of a surprise. Many, if not most, police departments now have cameras in every patrol car. According to the police chief in Ferguson, “his department has 18 patrol cars. This spring, the department purchased two dashboard cameras and two wearable body cameras, but the equipment hasn’t been installed in vehicles because the department doesn’t have the money to cover that cost.” Hindsight is 20-20, but the costs of dealing with the “unrest” and the forthcoming lawsuit by the teenager’s family will make that cost seem like pocket change.

The incident has led to calls to equip all law enforcement officers with wearable cameras. The Editor in Chief of PoliceOne has a column here entitled Following Ferguson, a body camera on every officer? A columnist at Slate goes even further here, arguing that all public servants, including schoolteachers, should be equipped with recording devices.

There seems to be a strong argument for wider deployment of recording devices among law enforcement, at least when officers are engaged in adversarial interactions. And the reports that I have read suggest that departments that are using wearable cameras have had good experiences. But I’m interested in others’ perspectives. Would you support or oppose a policy that provided officers with wearable cameras and required their use? Would that sour the relationship between law enforcement and the public, or be too intrusive? I welcome responses by email, or of course in the comments section.