Hair Analysis Under a Microscope

Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran a story that begins as follows:

The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence. Continue reading

News Roundup

Partisan judicial elections may be returning to North Carolina. House Bill 8, which passed its second reading with a 64-49 vote, mostly along party lines, would make appellate court elections partisan. Trial court elections would remain non-partisan. The News and Observer has the story here.

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We are NOT Ferguson

Being married to me is hard. My husband makes an off-hand comment about how the city must need money since the police are pulling people over left and right for speeding on the road he travels to work. What does he get in response? A lecture on the state’s uniform court system and the fines and forfeitures clause of our state constitution. Thankfully, he is a patient man. He took it so well that I thought I’d share the finer points of that discussion with you. Continue reading

How Many Charges Can One Charging Document Contain?

How many charges can be placed on a single charging document, such as a citation, an arrest warrant, or an indictment? Old hands use the rule of thumb, no more than two charges per citation, no more than three charges in any other pleading. But where does that rule come from? And is it even correct? Continue reading

Does a DWI Conviction Bar a Person from Possessing a Gun?

The maximum punishment for driving while impaired in violation of G.S. 20-138.1 increased from two to three years in 2011. As a result, defendants convicted of misdemeanor DWI and sentenced at the most serious level—Aggravated Level One—are prohibited from possessing firearms by federal law. That’s because federal law prohibits firearm possession by a person who has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year, though state law misdemeanors that are punishable by a term of imprisonment of two years or less are excluded from this category of disqualifying convictions. Because North Carolina law sets out a single offense of driving while impaired, which may be punished at varying levels, rather than six separate offenses, there is a question as to whether any defendant convicted of misdemeanor DWI on or after December 1, 2011 may lawfully possess a firearm, regardless of the level at which the defendant was actually punished.

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Sentencing Whiteboard: Extending Probation

Today’s post is a video explaining the rules for extending probation in North Carolina. It covers the two different types of extensions, and answers the question of how many times a case may be extended, and for how long. I hope you’ll take a look.

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News Roundup

Around here, the biggest news item this week was the shooting of Walter Scott by North Charleston, South Carolina police officer Michael Slager. Scott, who is black, ran from a traffic stop, perhaps because he was afraid of being jailed for being delinquent on child support payments. It appears that Slager, who is white, gave chase on foot and caught Scott. Some type of scuffle ensued. Slager at least initially claimed that Scott sought to obtain control of his Taser during the struggle. A bystander captured video of the last moments of the scuffle, which ended with Scott breaking free of Slager and running away, apparently unarmed. Slager fired eight shots at Scott’s back as he fled, killing Scott. Slager has been fired from his job and charged with murder. CNN has the story here.

The incident has given a renewed impetus to the push to equip officers with body cameras. At least two bills are pending in the North Carolina General Assembly regarding cameras. The News and Observer discusses both bills in this article. H537 appears to have the better prospects, as it has attracted some Republican support. It would provide $10 million over the next two years to help fund the acquisition of cameras and generally would require all officers in counties with populations over 200,000 to wear cameras and record specified interactions with the public. A News and Observer editorial supporting the bill claims that the bill would cover about 60% of the state’s officers. Continue reading

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Private Citizens Initiating Criminal Charges

From time to time, I am asked about the right of private citizens to initiate criminal charges by approaching a magistrate. The arrest warrant statute, G.S. 15A-304, requires only that a magistrate be “supplied with sufficient information, supported by oath or affirmation” to find probable cause. The statute doesn’t limit the source of that information to law enforcement officers. As most readers know, it is common in North Carolina for private citizens to seek the issuance of an arrest warrant or a summons.

I have long thought that this was a distinctive feature of North Carolina law, but it seems to be somewhat more common than I believed. Continue reading

Sex Crime Tiers under Federal Law

Like most states, North Carolina has not substantially implemented the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). (Only 17 states have.) Nevertheless, some portions of the federal law wind up impacting sex offenders in North Carolina. As discussed in previous posts, as a matter of existing state law, a judge may not grant a petition for removal from the sex offender registry if doing so would violate the “federal Jacob Wetterling Act, as amended, and any other standards applicable to the termination of a registration requirement or required to be met as a condition for the receipt of federal funds by the State.” G.S. 14-208.12A(a1)(2). With that requirement in place, federal rules regarding minimum registration period effectively trump the state-law regime allowing a non-lifetime registrant to petition for removal 10 years after the date of initial county registration. The minimum registration periods under federal law are 15 years for so-called “Tier I” offenses (reducible to 10 years in certain circumstances), 25 years for “Tier II” offenses, and life for “Tier III” offenses.

That longwinded introduction brings me to the real purpose of today’s post. To apply the state law referencing federal law correctly, you need to know the tier into which the registrant’s reportable offense would fall. Federal law defines the tiers mostly by reference to federal crimes. In today’s post I will summarize the federal laws and regulations regarding tiering, including all of the relevant definitions of qualifying acts. Continue reading

State v. Fizovic and Searching Cars for Alcohol

Author’s Note:  This post has been modified from its original version in response to a helpful comment by a reader.

An officer sees a man drink from a can of beer while the man drives through a public parking deck. The officer stops the man’s car and sees the beer bottle can in plain view. He then asks the man to step out of the vehicle. May the officer open the car’s console to search for additional evidence?

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