Supreme Court Rules that Anonymous Tip Provides Reasonable Suspicion of Impaired Driving

April 23rd, 2014
By Jeff Welty

The Supreme Court just decided a case that significantly changes North Carolina law regarding whether a traffic stop can be made based on an anonymous 911 call alleging bad driving. The case is Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. __ (2014). The full opinion is here. This post summarizes the ruling and considers its implications for North Carolina.

Facts. A California woman called 911 and reported that a silver Ford pickup had run her off the road. She gave the vehicle’s plate number and stated that the vehicle was traveling south on a particular highway. Shortly thereafter, a highway patrol officer located the truck on the named highway and pulled it over. As the officer approached the truck, he smelled marijuana. He searched the truck, found 30 pounds of marijuana in the bed, and arrested the truck’s occupants.

Lower court proceedings. The occupants were charged with drug offenses. They moved to suppress the marijuana, contending that the initial stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion. It’s not completely clear whether the 911 caller gave her name, so the trial court treated the report as an anonymous tip, but ruled that it was reliable enough to provide reasonable suspicion. The defendants pled guilty and appealed the suppression ruling. California’s appellate courts affirmed. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

Majority opinion. The Court affirmed, dividing 5-4. Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion. He stated that anonymous tips alone seldom provide reasonable suspicion, but that “under appropriate circumstances,” they may do so. Why did this tip pass muster? First, the Court concluded that the tip was reliable, for the following reasons:

  • The caller provided her basis of knowledge, i.e., explained how she came to know about the dangerous driving: she “necessarily claimed eyewitness knowledge” when she stated that the truck ran her off the road.
  • The call was contemporaneous with the dangerous driving, which made the report “especially reliable” and unlikely to be fabricated.
  • The report came via the 911 system, which “has some features [like recording and caller ID] that allow for identifying and tracing callers, and thus provide some safeguards against making false reports with immunity.”

Having concluded that the tip was likely accurate, the Court then ruled that it provided reasonable suspicion that the driver of the pickup was impaired. Justice Thomas wrote that running another vehicle off the road “suggests lane­positioning problems, decreased vigilance, impaired judgment, or some combination of those recognized drunk driving cues.”

Dissent. Justice Scalia wrote the dissent, characterizing the majority opinion as a “freedom-destroying cocktail” of errors. He first argued that the tip was not reliable, and could have been fabricated or embellished, given that it was anonymous and that the caller may well have been unaware of the call-tracing features of the 911 system. Then he contended that even if the tip was reliable, it couldn’t support reasonable suspicion because there are many explanations other than impaired driving for one vehicle running another off the road: “The truck might have swerved to avoid an animal, a pothole, or a jaywalking pedestrian.” Further, he notes that the officers “followed the truck for five minutes” before stopping it and saw no signs of impairment. In his view, this “affirmatively undermined” whatever reasonable suspicion the tip offered.

Comparison to prior law. Our appellate courts have been quite skeptical of anonymous tips. For example, in the almost indistinguishable case of State v. Blankenship, __ N.C. App. __, 748 S.E.2d 616 (2013), a taxi driver placed an anonymous call to 911, reporting that a specific red Ford Mustang was “driving erratically [and] running over traffic cones.” The court of appeals found no reasonable suspicion for the subsequent stop of the Mustang, because the tip was anonymous, and there was no corroboration beyond the fact that the Mustang was, in fact, traveling in the direction reported by the caller. See also State v. Peele, 196 N.C. App. 668 (2009) (anonymous tip concerning possible impaired driving did not provide reasonable suspicion, even with officer’s observation of one incident of weaving). These rulings have been heavily influenced by Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266 (2000) (ruling that an anonymous tip stating that a young black man in a plaid shirt at a specific bus stop was carrying a gun did not provide reasonable suspicion for a stop and frisk as it contained no predictive information). Navarette does not overrule J.L., but it represents a break from the approach our courts have taken.

Reactions and comments. It seems to me that the majority has the upper hand as to the probable accuracy of the tip. Sure, it’s possible that a 911 call like the one in this case could be a fabrication by a malevolent caller, designed to inconvenience an innocent motorist by having them stopped by police. But it’s likely that this sort of report will be made in good faith. As to whether such a tip provides reasonable suspicion of impaired driving, however, the dissent makes a powerful case, especially given the five-minute observation of faultless driving.

Whether or not the decision is right, the majority opinion leaves quite a bit to be desired, because it provides so little guidance in sifting sufficiently reliable tips from inadequate ones. How indispensable is the contemporaneity of the report? How contemporaneous is contemporaneous? How significant is the fact that the call was placed to 911? What if it was placed to a non-emergency number that also was subject to caller ID? What if the call concerned a completed offense instead of an ongoing one? (The Court expressly dodges the last question in footnote 2.) Rather than clarifying the law, the Court’s opinion muddies it, making it more difficult for officers and courts to apply.

Professor Orin Kerr has a more sanguine view of the opinion here at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Spring Break Sentencing Reading List

April 22nd, 2014
By Jamie Markham

I was on spring break last week, which meant I had lots of time for uninterrupted reading while my kids entertained themselves at the pool. Okay, maybe not. Despite being on the go, I made time to read three new publications from the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. They are well worth a look to anyone who reads this blog.

The first publication is the annual Structured Sentencing Statistical Report for Felonies and Misdemeanors (FY 2012/13). I look forward to it each spring in the same way I look forward to pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. Like last year’s report (which I reviewed here), it’s chock full of enough data to keep Bill James busy.

This year’s installment is especially interesting in that it’s the first report for which a majority of the sentences covered (64 percent of felonies and 82 percent of misdemeanors) have offense dates after December 1, 2011, and are thus governed by the post–Justice Reinvestment Act sentencing laws. It’s interesting to see what has changed under the new law, and what hasn’t. For example, the dispositional slash line for felonies (percent Active/Intermediate/Community) is 39/32/29, which is somewhat of a departure from last year’s 41/41/18. Some people (including me, to be honest) had thought the percentage of Active sentences might increase in light of the substantial limits on judges’ authority to revoke probation, on the theory that judges might be less inclined to put some defendants on probation if they couldn’t get them off probation. But it looks like that didn’t happen.

Other items of note:

  • The sentencing range breakdown (percent presumptive/mitigated/aggravated) was 69/27/4, almost identical to last year’s 68/27/5.
  • 150 sentences were entered under the 2011 habitual breaking and entering law.
  • 463 drug trafficking sentences were entered, a substantial decline from 543 the prior year.
  • The firearm/deadly weapon enhancement set out in G.S. 15A-1340.16A was not used a single time.
  • A high percentage of habitual felon sentences continue to be sentenced in the mitigated range, despite the law’s transition in 2011 from automatic Class C status to a four-class enhancement.
  • 77 sentences included an Advanced Supervised Release (ASR) date, although the report notes that due to recordkeeping limitations in the early part of the data collection period, the actual number of ASR sentences was probably a good bit higher.

There are lots of other interesting data that range from interesting trivia (months with the most and least convictions? August and June, respectively) to source material for effective advocacy (Appendix D, Table 1 breaks down the type of punishment and average sentence length by crime type and offense for the state’s most commonly charged crimes).

The second publication is the Commission’s Correctional Program Evaluation: Offenders Placed on Probation or Released from Prison in FY 2010/11, better known as the annual recidivism report. This year’s report examines the recidivism outcomes of the 57,535 offenders released from prison or placed on probation in fiscal year 2010/11. The report defines recidivism as an arrest, conviction, and incarceration during the two years after being released from prison or placed on probation.

To continue our theme of sentencing sabermetrics, the overall recidivism slash line (percentage arrested/convicted/incarcerated within two years) for all offenders was 40.7/21.3/21.9. Perhaps unsurprisingly, defendants sentenced to probation have slightly lower overall recidivism rates (36.8/18.6/22.2) than those sentenced to prison (48.6/26.6/21.2). Habitual felons had rates (48.1/21.9/26.0) fairly similar to other felons, while sex offenders had substantially lower rates of arrest and conviction than felons in general (27.0/13.9/26.3). Rearrest rates for all offenders have risen over time, climbing from 31.2 percent in 1989 to 40.7 percent in 2010/11, but the report indicates that most of that increase is due to improved documentation technology and a greater number of fingerprinted misdemeanor arrests, rather than an increase in the actual number of arrests themselves.

The recidivism report also included an extended discussion of outcomes for probationers broken down by the risk and need level identified through Probation’s risk-needs assessment (RNA) process (described here). It appears that the RNA is predictive of probationer’s violation, revocation, and recidivism rates, which is good news for those who hope to focus limited correctional resources on those who need them most, based on the results of the RNA.

There’s a natural time lag in recidivism reports—you have to wait for a full two-year reporting period before you can measure the outcomes of a particular cohort of offenders. As a result, this year’s report looks at offenders sentenced under pre-JRA law. The 2016 report, based on a sample of offenders placed on probation or release from prison during FY 2012/13, will be the first to provide a more complete accounting of whether the JRA has met its recidivism reduction goals.

Speaking of Justice Reinvestment, the third and final publication of note is the Justice Reinvestment Act Implementation Evaluation Report. The report, prepared in response to legislative mandate, gives insight into how the JRA is playing out in practice through a combination of data, site visit reports, and a review of JRA-related policy changes made by the court and correctional systems. For example, the report gives a status update on the Department of Public Safety’s Treatment for Effective Community Supervision (TECS) program, the JRA’s answer to the former Criminal Justice Partnership Program (CJPP). As of February, TECS services were available in 88 counties, with service in all 100 counties projected to begin by July 2015. The report also gives an update on the Statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Program, future plans for management of offenders ordered to confinement in response to violation (CRV), use of delegated authority, as well as various changes in prosecutorial and plea negotiation practice under the revised habitual felon law, the new habitual breaking and entering law, ASR, and G.S. 90-96. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, I recommend reviewing the Conclusions section beginning on page 47.


Statutorily Mandated Sentences: An Exception to G.S. 15A-1335

April 21st, 2014
By Jessica Smith

G.S. 15A-1335 provides that when a conviction or sentence imposed in superior court has been set aside on direct review or collateral attack, the court may not impose a new sentence for the same offense, or for a different offense based on the same conduct, that is more severe than the prior sentence less the portion of the prior sentence previously served. I’ve previously written about a recent change to the statute and about when a sentence is “more severe.” In this post I’ll focus on an exception to the statute: The statutorily mandated sentence.

The case law holds that the statute doesn’t apply when the higher sentence is statutorily mandated. State v. Williams, 74 N.C. App. 728 (1985) (in this armed robbery case, after a new trial was ordered and the defendant again was convicted, the trial judge imposed a 14-year sentence, two years more than the original sentence; G.S. 15A-1335 did not apply because the statute then in effect provided that armed robbery had a mandatory minimum of at least 14 years; thus, the trial judge had no discretion to impose a sentence less than 14 years); State v. Kirkpatrick, 89 N.C. App. 353 (1988) (after being convicted of felonious possession of stolen property and of having achieved habitual felon status, the trial court sentenced the defendant to three years for possession and to 15 years for being a habitual felon; after the appellate court held that the trial court erred by separately sentencing the defendant for being a habitual felon, the trial court resentenced the defendant to 15 years for felonious possession while being a habitual felon; on a second appeal, the court cited Williams and held that the new felony possession sentence did not violate G.S. 15A-1335 because the habitual felon statute required sentencing as a Class C felony and that under the law then in effect, the presumptive sentence at that Class was 15 years).

This exception sometimes arises when the first judge sentences the defendant using the wrong sentencing grid or in the wrong cell on the grid, resulting in a sentence that is too short given the felony class and prior record level. Correcting this error on resentencing does not violate G.S. 15A-1335 because the proper sentence is statutorily mandated. See State v. Cook, __ N.C. App. __, 738 S.E.2d 773 (2013); State v. Powell, __ N.C. App. __, 750 S.E.2d 899 (2013).

When cases are consolidated under Structured Sentencing, the most serious offense controls. G.S. 15A-1340.15(b) (felonies); G.S. 15A-1340.22(b) (misdemeanors). Although a judge isn’t required to consolidate sentences, when the judge does so, the sentence for the most serious offense consolidated is considered to be statutorily mandated for purposes of G.S. 15A-1335. This rule holds even if fewer offenses are consolidated in the resentencing. State v. Skipper, __ N.C. App. __, 715 S.E.2d 271 (2011) (after the defendant was convicted of three crimes and found to be a habitual felon, the trial court consolidated the offenses and gave the defendant a sentence of 125─159 months; the appellate court vacated one of the convictions and remanded for resentencing; at resentencing the trial court consolidated the offenses and sentenced the defendant to 125─159 months; the court rejected the defendant’s argument that because he received the same sentence even after one of the convictions was vacated G.S. 15A-1335 was violated; the court reasoned that having consolidated the sentences, the trial court was required to sentence the defendant for the most serious offense, which it did at the initial sentencing and the resentencing).

A sentence is not statutorily mandated if a judge has discretion impose a sentence that is equal to or lighter than the original sentence. In State v. Holt, 144 N.C. App. 112 (2001), for example, the defendant was convicted of second-degree murder. At his first sentencing, the trial judge found that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factor and sentenced the defendant in the aggravated range under Structured Sentencing as a Class B2 felon to a term of imprisonment of 196─245 months. The defendant appealed and the court of appeals held that because of the date of the offense, the FSA, not Structured Sentencing applied. The case then was remanded for resentencing under the FSA. At the resentencing, the trial court again determined that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors and sentenced the defendant in the aggravated range as a Class C felon under the FSA to a term of life imprisonment. The defendant challenged his new sentence, contending that it violated G.S. 15A-1335. The court of appeals concluded that the sentence imposed on resentencing—life imprisonment—was not statutorily mandated. The court noted that under the FSA, the presumptive sentence for a Class C felony was fifteen years but a Class C felon could have been punished by imprisonment up to 50 years or life, by a fine, or by both imprisonment and a fine. Thus, it concluded, “life imprisonment was not a statutorily mandated sentence.” Because the life sentence exceeded the original sentence of 196─245 months, the court vacated and remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

So there it is: The statutorily mandated exception to G.S. 15A-1335. If you’ve encountered issues under the statute that I didn’t address in this series of blog posts, let me know.

News Roundup

April 17th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

I’ve been enjoying WRAL’s website lately. The News and Observer is putting more content behind a paywall, and WRAL has had a series of interesting criminal justice stories. The most recent is this one, an inside look at North Carolina’s Crime Victims Compensation Fund. Prosecutors, VWLAs, and law enforcement officers may be especially interested in the story’s perspective on how well they are doing at connecting eligible victims with compensation.

In other news:

Obama commutes sentence lengthened by typo. The New York Times has the bizarre story here, but in a nutshell, a federal drug defendant was sentenced to an extra three years in prison because of a scrivener’s error in the calculation of his sentencing guidelines. No one noticed the problem until the defendant himself did several years later, and at that point, he was time-barred from fixing it. President Obama stepped in and cut the sentence back to what it should have been all along. Over at Sentencing Law & Policy, Doug Berman says he is “disgusted” by the “inhumane” conduct of the federal prosecutors who invoked the time limits on federal habeas petitions to defeat the defendant’s claim. I don’t know enough to agree, but it certainly sounds bad.

The panopticon is here. And it’s in Compton. (The pan-Compti-con?) Gizmodo reports here on an initiative by Compton, California police to use aerial surveillance cameras to record absolutely all out-of-doors activity in a 25 square mile area, allowing them to create a lasting digital record of criminal activity. It’s uncharted territory, but I seriously doubt that pervasive and persistent surveillance of that nature comports with the Fourth Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court in United States v. Jones. Other cities have also been experimenting with the system.

Amazing article tells you how to really improve your writing. Oops! Two of the ten pointers are to stop using the words “amazing” and “really.” The article is short, provocative, and worth a look. It’s here.

Shame on you! An Ohio man was sentenced to wear a sign stating in part “I am a bully” and “I pick on disabled children” after he pled no contest to disorderly conduct for allegedly abusing a neighbor’s family by spitting on them and smearing feces on their home and car. The man told the media that the judge had “destroyed” him and that the sentence wasn’t fair at all. WRAL has the story here.

A suit and fake glasses are not going to help this defendant. Jonathan Schmidt of Lake Elsinore, California, was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon after allegedly being involved in a knife fight. His mug shot, below, suggests that his appearance may be a challenge for the defense. Sure, the defendant can wear a suit and fake glasses, but somehow, I don’t think that’s going to do the trick. Perhaps a makeup artist is required – recall this prior post, where I noted a case in which a makeup artist was provided at state expense to an indigent defendant.

Mug Shot

Avoiding Criminal Charges by Not Coming to Court

April 16th, 2014
By Shea Denning

Not showing up for court is, generally speaking, bad trial strategy.  In criminal court, such behavior can result in such unpleasantness as entry of an order for arrest and the revocation of one’s driver’s license.  In civil court, a defendant’s failure to respond can result in a default judgment for the entire sum claimed by the plaintiff. Yet in criminal cases involving charges of violating a domestic violence protective order, some defendants are benefiting from their failure to appear in the civil action leading to entry of the protective order. The defendants argue that because they never appeared for the hearing in the earlier action, they did not know a domestic violence protective order was entered, and thus, could not have knowingly violated its provisions pursuant to G.S. 50B-4.1(a). They contend that they are entitled to dismissal of the charges on this basis, and some trial courts have agreed.

Though our appellate courts haven’t considered this issue, I’m highly skeptical that such arguments have merit when the alleged violations occur after the defendant was served with the 50B complaint and any ex parte order, regardless of whether the defendant actually received a copy of the final protective order.

How DVPOs Come About. A person entitled to relief under Chapter 50B may file a civil action in district court alleging acts of domestic violence and seeking entry of protective order. When such an action is filed, a summons must be issued and served upon the defendant pursuant to Rule 4 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. The summons must require the defendant to answer within 10 days of the date of service.  The complaint, notice of hearing, and any temporary or ex parte order that has been issued must be attached. At the hearing, if the court finds that an act of domestic violence has occurred, the court must enter a protective order restraining the defendant from further acts of domestic violence. G.S. 50B-3. Such an order may, among other types of relief, grant the plaintiff possession of the residence or household and order the defendant to stay away from the residence.  G.S. 50B-3(c) provides that “a copy of any order entered and filed under this Article shall be issued to each party.” The statute does not specify how issuance occurs. It seems clear, however, that personal service under Rule 4 is not required. As a practical matter, if the defendant appears at the hearing, the defendant is handed a copy of the order.  If the defendant does not appear at the hearing, the clerk carries out this directive by mailing a copy to the defendant and noting that service on the order. Sometimes, defendants contend that they moved or for some other reason did not received the mailed order.

Proving a Knowing Violation. The pattern jury instructions for violation of a domestic violence protective order provide that “[w]here a domestic violence protective order has been served on a defendant, you may presume that the defendant knew the specific terms of the domestic violence protective order.” N.C.P.I.—Crim. 240.50. The court of appeals in State v. Branch, 2011 WL 6402713, ___ N.C. App. ___, 720 S.E.2d 461 (2011) (unpublished op.), implicitly sanctioned that instruction when it found no error in a colloquy between the judge and defense counsel after the close of the evidence regarding whether the State had proved service. In Branch, however, the defendant stipulated to service after the State forecast testimony from the victim that the defendant had appeared at the underlying civil proceeding and was present when the order was issued.  This aspect of the factual circumstances in Branch may lead some defendants to argue that the presumption does not apply when the defendant was not personally served with the order.  As I said before, I’m doubtful that this is the case.

Like DWLR. The presumption stated in the jury instruction for violating a domestic violence protective order accords with the manner in which the State must prove knowledge of a license revocation for purposes of G.S. 20-28.  In that context, the courts have held that proof that DMV mailed notice pursuant to G.S. 20-48 raises a rebuttable presumption that the defendant received the notice and thus knew of the revocation. State v. Coltrane, 184 N.C. App. 140, 143 (2007), aff’d, 362 N.C. 284 (2008) (holding that State raised prima facie presumption of receipt and presumption “was clearly not rebutted” when defendant “chose not to present any evidence at trial”).

Purpose of Chapter 50B. More significantly, the very purpose of Chapter 50B—protecting victims of domestic violence—would be undermined by permitting a defendant to avoid prosecution for violating a protective order when the State cannot prove that the order personally was served upon him.  A defendant who is served with a summons for a Chapter 50B action has been notified that the plaintiff is seeking a protective order, since such an order must issue if the court finds that an act of domestic violence occurred.  A defendant ought not be able to thwart the enforcement of a protective order issued in such a proceeding by willfully failing to appear.  In considering similar provisions under Texas Law, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has characterized the “evident purpose” of the “requirement [] that the respondent be served with the application and notice of the hearing, without which the protective order is not binding” as ensuring “that the person to whom the protective order applies has knowledge of the order, or at the very least such knowledge of the application for a protective order that he would be reckless to proceed without knowing the terms of the order.”  See Harvey v. State, 78 S.W.3d 368, 371 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002) (stating that “[t]he requirements are only that the respondent be given the resources to learn the provisions; that is, that he be given a copy of the order, or notice that an order has been applied for and that a hearing will be held to decide whether it will be issued” and that “[t]he order is nonetheless binding on the respondent who chooses not to read the order, or who chooses not to read the notice and the application and not to attend the hearing.”); but see Small v. State, 809 S.W.2d 253, 256-57 (Tex. App. 1991) (finding evidence insufficient to sustain conviction for violation of domestic violence protective order where “[a]side from indicating that the appellant was served with notice of the hearing on the protective order, there is no evidence in this record that the appellant agreed to a protective order, attended any hearing or in any way participated, that he was ever served with a copy of the protective order, or that he in any way received notice, formal or informal, of the issuance or existence of the court order in question prior to his coming into the home”).

Have your say. That’s my view.  As always, if you see things differently or have something to add, please send in a comment below.  

RJA Oral Argument

April 15th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

The state supreme court heard oral argument yesterday in two cases concerning the Racial Justice Act. In the first case, Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks struck down the death sentence imposed on Marcus Robinson under the RJA as enacted in 2009. In the second, Judge Weeks vacated the death sentences imposed on Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters, and Tilmon Golphin, under the original RJA and, in the alternative, under the RJA as amended in 2012.

The cases present important issues about the proper interpretation of the RJA, including the extent to which a defendant may relay on statistical evidence of racial bias that isn’t connected directly to the defendant’s own case. The second case also presents the question of whether defendants who filed their claims under the original RJA are entitled to have their claims adjudicated under the law as it stood at the time of filing, a question that has taken on added importance since the legislature repealed the RJA altogether in 2013. I wrote about some of these issues in the Capital Case Law Handbook, though the chapter on the RJA clearly will need revision after these cases are decided.

I wasn’t able to attend the oral argument, but media reports suggest that the justices asked few questions and didn’t tip their hands. (The Fayetteville Observer story is here, while WRAL’s is here.) One interesting aspect of the proceedings is that Justice Beasley recused herself in the second case because she once helped defend Golphin. The recusal creates the possibility of a tie vote in that case.

As a side note, there was apparently tremendous public interest in the case, with the courtroom completely full and some spectators watching from a remote overflow location. Many people would probably be interested in a more complete understanding of what took place at oral argument than media reports convey. Yet our supreme court doesn’t post recordings or transcripts of oral arguments. The United States Supreme Court does, as do many state supreme courts, including our neighbors Georgia, Virginia, and Tennessee. [Update: A reader notes that WRAL has posted a video of the argument here.]

I will blog about the decisions when they come out.

15A-1335: When Is a Sentence “More Severe”?

April 14th, 2014
By Jessica Smith

G.S. 15A-1335 provides that when a conviction or sentence imposed in superior court has been set aside on direct review or collateral attack, the court may not impose a new sentence for the same offense, or for a different offense based on the same conduct, that is more severe than the prior sentence less the portion of the prior sentence previously served. In most cases, determining whether the new sentence is more severe than the original sentence is a simple matter. In State v. Holt, 144 N.C. App. 112, 116 (2001), for example, the court of appeals easily concluded that imposition of a life sentence was more severe than the original sentence of 196─245 months in prison. However, I get questions about this issue every now and then. Here is a quick summary of the most common things people ask about.

Life Sentences. Any number of life sentences, even if imposed consecutively, cannot be considered more severe than a single death sentence. State v. Goode, 211 N.C. App. 637 (2011) (no violation of G.S. 15A-1335 when after the defendant’s two death sentences for murder were vacated the trial judge imposed two consecutive life sentences); State v. Oliver, 155 N.C. App. 209, 212 (2002) (same).

Multiple Sentences. Even when multiple sentences are involved, the application of the rule is generally straightforward: The statute bars imposing an increased sentence for any of the convictions, even if the total term of imprisonment does not exceed that of the original sentence. State v. Daniels, 203 N.C. App. 350 (2010) (the defendant was sentenced to consecutive terms of 307─378 months for first-degree rape and 133─169 months for first-degree kidnapping; after a successful appeal, the trial court resentenced the defendant to 370─453 months for first-degree rape and to a consecutive term of 46─65 months for second-degree kidnapping; the resentencing violated G.S. 15A-1335 because the trial court imposed a more severe sentence for the rape conviction; the court rejected the State’s argument that when applying G.S. 15A-1335, the court should consider whether the new aggregated sentences are greater than the aggregated original sentences); see also State v. Oliver, 155 N.C. App. 209 (2002) (“When multiple sentences are involved [G.S.] 15A-1335 bars the trial court from imposing an increased sentence for any of the convictions, even if the total term of imprisonment does not exceed that of the original sentence.”).

Note that the mere fact that the resentencing judge replaces concurrent sentences with consecutive sentences does not automatically make the new sentence more severe, provided neither the individual sentences nor the aggregate sentence exceeds that originally imposed. Oliver, 155 N.C. App. at 211 (no violation occurred when the original sentence included concurrent death sentences and the new sentence consisted of consecutive life sentences); State v. Ransom, 80 N.C. App. 711, 714 (1986) (the defendant initially received a consolidated sentence of twenty years for multiple offenses; after that sentence was overturned, the court sentenced him to six consecutive three-year sentences, for a total of eighteen years; the new sentence did not violate G.S. 15A-1335).

Also, nothing prevents the resentencing court from changing the way the convictions originally were consolidated, provided that the defendant is not sentenced more severely. See Ransom, 80 N.C. App. at 713 (“While G.S. 15A-1335 prohibits trial courts from imposing stiffer sentences upon remand than originally imposed, nothing prohibits the trial court from changing the way in which it consolidated convictions during a sentencing hearing prior to remand.”).

Finding New Sentencing Factors. The fact that a resentencing judge found new aggravating factors does not make the new sentence more severe, so long as those findings are not used to impose a longer sentence. See State v. Hemby, 333 N.C. 331, 334 (1993) (“Although a trial judge may find altogether new aggravating and mitigating circumstances at a resentencing hearing …, such findings cannot justify a sentence which is more severe than the original sentence imposed on the same offense.”); see also State v. Swimm, 316 N.C. 24, 32-33 (1986) (the defendant’s good behavior while in prison during the interval between initial incarceration and resentencing may constitute a mitigating factor; the defendant’s bad conduct during this period may not be used as a basis to increase his or her sentence, but may be found as an aggravating factor to be used in determining whether to impose a sentence not greater than the one originally imposed); State v. Smith, 73 N.C. App. 637, 639 (1985) (“the restriction on resentencing is not against finding new factors in aggravation, but on imposing a more severe sentence than before”).

Imposing Same Sentence When Fewer Aggravating Factors Found. The fact that the resentencing judge imposed the same sentence after finding fewer aggravating factors than were found at the original sentencing hearing does not run afoul of the statute. See State v. Mitchell, 67 N.C. App. 549 (1984) (rejecting the defendant’s argument that it was error for the trial judge to impose an identical sentence on resentencing when six aggravating factors were originally found and only two were found at resentencing).

Non-Binding Recommendations. The fact that the resentencing judge added a non-binding recommendation to the Department of Correction does not violate G.S. 15A-1335. See State v. Hanes, 77 N.C. App. 222, 225 (1985) (trial judge did not violate G.A. 15A-1335 by adding a condition, as a recommendation, that the defendant’s fine and restitution be paid before any early release; the recommendation had no legal effect and was not binding on the Department of Corrections).

News Roundup

April 11th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

Unquestionably the most shocking story of the week comes from Wake County, where an assistant district attorney’s father was kidnapped, apparently at the behest of an inmate the prosecutor had helped put away for life. The father was held for five days while his family received death threats, but he was rescued in Atlanta and is apparently physically unharmed. WRAL has the story here. A year ago, I wrote about the dangers of being a prosecutor, but I didn’t even think to explore the possibility that family members might also be at risk. Scary.

In other news:

Supreme court justice becomes district attorney. Former state supreme court justice Bob Orr has been appointed the interim district attorney in district 24, encompassing Watauga County and four other along the Tennessee line. A local news report is here.

Federal drug sentences to fall. The United States Sentencing Commission voted yesterday to reduce the sentencing guidelines that apply in drug cases, meaning the guidelines will be reduced unless Congress intervenes in the next 180 days, which it is not expected to do. Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered federal prosecutors not to object to defense requests to apply the reduced guidelines right away, even though they have not yet taken effect. The Commission will take up later the question of whether the reduction will apply retroactively. Relevant reading includes this post at Sentencing Law and Policy and this one at Crime and Consequences.

A jurisdiction that really needs to review its juvenile age. In North Carolina, there’s considerable controversy about charging 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. As the Topper from Dilbert would say, that’s nothing! In Pakistan, a nine-month-old baby has been charged with attempted murder in connection with an attack on a police officer, apparently by the child’s father and other relatives and neighbors. The New York Times reports here that “the screaming child was produced in court, and had to be comforted with a milk bottle as a court official recorded his thumbprint.” The infant is “free on bail until his next hearing,” but the reports do not discuss the conditions of his release. Electronic monitoring, perhaps? ABC News states here that the police have told the family that they are “dropping [the] investigation,” though the charges have not yet been dismissed.

Law grads’ job prospects bleak . . . but not any more bleak than last year. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports here on the latest batch of employment numbers from the ABA, and it’s a good-news-bad-news kind of thing: only 57% of 2013 graduates had long-term, full-time, J.D.-required jobs, which is terrible. But it isn’t any worse than 2012, and as class sizes shrink in the coming years, that number could improve.

Has marijuana reform gone to the dogs? Finally, Maryland is about to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and a controversial new article suggests that medical marijuana may reduce DWI fatalities. But the Administrator of the DEA testified before Congress that marijuana legalization is bad for dogs, who may ingest the substance and then have difficulty vomiting up other dangerous items that they have ingested. Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin responds that pot legalization would be good for pets because “every year hundreds or thousands of dogs are needlessly slaughtered in overaggressive police raids undertaken as part of the war on drugs.”

Aggravating Factors in Felony Speeding to Elude Statute Are Elements for Purposes of Double Jeopardy

April 10th, 2014
By Shea Denning

The North Carolina Court of Appeals in State v. Mulder, __ N.C. App. ___,  2014 WL 1016059 (March 18, 2014), held that punishing a defendant for felony speeding to elude based upon the aggravating factors of speeding and reckless driving while also punishing him separately for those same misdemeanor traffic offenses violated double jeopardy.

Facts.  The facts in Mulder are disturbing. The defendant’s former girlfriend, Brenda Swann, obtained a domestic violence protective order against him when their relationship ended.  While the order was in effect, the defendant went to Swann’s home and began to strike her car with a hammer. Swann’s son confronted the defendant, who then attempted to force his way into the house.  Swann called the police, and the defendant left the premises.  A law enforcement officer located the defendant driving in his car shortly afterwards and attempted to pull the defendant over.  The defendant did not stop, and the officer continued to pursue him.  The officer testified that while fleeing, the defendant was swerving “as if he was trying to hit . . . . innocent people on the highway.” Several other officers joined the chase, and the vehicles involved reached speeds of 100 miles per hour.  The defendant swerved toward one officer’s car and eventually rammed into another officer’s vehicle.  An officer then intentionally rammed the defendant’s driver’s side door to force him to stop.  The officer approached the defendant’s car with his gun pointed at the defendant.  He told the defendant to get out of the car.  The defendant reached out of the window, slapped the gun, and said “shoot me, mother[]f*****.”  Rather than complying with the defendant’s request, the officer tried to pull the defendant out of the car. While he was doing so, the defendant shifted the car into reverse and accelerated. The officer with the gun was hanging in the driver’s side window, and another officer was hanging in the passenger side window. The second officer reached into the car, put it into park and shut off the engine.  The defendant continued to struggle and curse as he was pulled from the car and arrested.

Procedural History. The defendant was indicted for, among other crimes, speeding, reckless driving to endanger, and speeding to elude arrest.  He was convicted of those and other crimes.  He was sentenced to 6 to 8 months imprisonment for the consolidated offenses of speeding, reckless driving, speeding to elude arrest, failure to heed light or siren, failure to maintain lane control, and littering.  (He received longer sentences for his five convictions of assault with a deadly weapon on a government officer.)

The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in failing to arrest judgment on the speeding and reckless driving convictions because each of those offenses is a lesser-included offense of felony speeding to elude, an offense that was raised from a misdemeanor to a felony on the basis that the defendant was speeding and driving recklessly.  Imposing punishment for all three offenses, the defendant contended, violated principles of double jeopardy.

Court of Appeals’ Analysis.  The appellate court applied the Blockburger test, which inquires whether each offense requires proof of a fact that the other does not, to determine whether speeding and reckless driving were the “same offense” as felony speeding to elude for purposes of double jeopardy.

The elements of misdemeanor speeding to elude arrest under G.S. 20-141.5(a) are: (1) operating a motor vehicle (2) on a street, highway, or public vehicular area (3) while fleeing or attempting to elude a law enforcement officer (4) who is in the lawful performance of his duties.  G.S. 20-141.5(a). If the State proves two of eight aggravating factors set forth in G.S. 20-141.5(b), the offense is elevated to a felony.  The two factors found by the jury in Mulder were (1) speeding more than 15 miles per hour over the legal speed limit and (2) reckless driving as proscribed by G.S. 20-140.

The defendant also was convicted of speeding under G.S. 20-141(j1), which prohibits (1) driving (2) a vehicle (3) on a highway (4) more than 15 miles per hour over the speed limit or over 80 miles per hour and reckless driving in violation of G.S. 20-140(b), which prohibits (1) driving (2) a vehicle (3) on a highway or public vehicular area (4) without due caution and circumspection and (5) at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger or be likely to endanger any person or property.

The court reasoned that the factors used to elevate speeding to elude to a felony contained the same elements as the lesser traffic offenses of which the defendant also was convicted.  It then considered whether these factors were properly considered elements of felony speeding to elude.

The State characterized the factors as sentencing enhancements rather than elements. The court of appeals rejected that distinction, noting that since the factors increased the maximum punishment a defendant faced, they were elements for purposes of the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.  The court of appeals cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s plurality opinion in Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, 537 U.S. 101, 111 (2003), for the proposition that that there was no principled reason to distinguish between an offense for purposes of the Sixth Amendment’s jury-trial guarantee and an offense for purposes of the Fifth Amendment’s double jeopardy clause.  The Mulder court concluded, based on this authority, that the lesser included offenses were the “same offense” under Blockburger as felony speeding to elude.

Legislative Intent. The court then proceeded to the next step of the double jeopardy analysis—determining the legislature’s intent.  When a defendant is punished twice in the same trial for a single offense, relief under double jeopardy principles is only available if the legislature did not intend for multiple punishments to be imposed. In ascertaining the legislature’s intent, the court considered its purpose in criminalizing speeding under G.S. 20-141 and reckless driving under G.S. 20-140. Both statutes were enacted to protect against harm to persons and property and in the interest of public safety.  The same concerns apparently motivated the legislature to include these factors among those elevating speeding to elude to felony status. The court considered the codification of each offense in related sections of Chapter 20 to further evidence the General Assembly’s intent to permit alternative, but not cumulative, punishments for lesser traffic offenses used to establish felony speeding to elude.

Thus, the court held that the defendant was unconstitutionally subjected to double jeopardy when he was convicted of speeding and reckless driving in addition to felony speeding to elude based on speeding and reckless driving.  The court arrested judgment on the speeding and reckless driving convictions.  The court also remanded for resentencing, even though the speeding and reckless driving convictions were consolidated with the felony speeding to elude conviction and the defendant was sentenced to a presumptive range sentence.  The court said that it could not assume that the trial court’s consideration of the speeding and reckless driving convictions had no effect on the sentence imposed.

Broader Significance.  Mulder almost certainly means that lesser criminal offenses, such as driving while license revoked, that aggravate a sentence for impaired driving under G.S. 20-179 are the same offense for double jeopardy purposes.  What is less certain is whether the legislature intended to authorize cumulative punishment in the impaired driving context.  I reasoned here that it likely did, but the factors considered in Mulder, namely the purpose of the statutes and place of codification, points to a different conclusion.

Mulder may also revive the Hurt Blocker, a phrase Jamie coined in discussing the court of appeals’ conclusion in State v. Hurt, 208 N.C. App. 1, 702 S.E.2d 82 (2010), rev’d on other grounds, ___ N. C. ___, 743 S.E.2d 173 (2013) (per curiam), that the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution applied to the proof at sentencing of sentencing factors that increase the defendant’s sentence beyond the statutory maximum.  Hurt was reversed by the supreme court on the grounds that the defendant’s confrontation rights were not violated by the testifying experts’ reliance on reports prepared by experts who did not testify at trial. ___ N.C. at ___; 743 S.E.2d at 173 (per curiam).

If you foresee other developments (or fall out, depending upon your perspective) following Mulder, please share your thoughts.

New Book on Mike Nifong and the Duke Lacrosse Case

April 9th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

As a criminal lawyer, Durham resident, and Duke alumnus, I followed the Duke lacrosse case with more than a casual interest. Now, years after the fact, there’s a new book about it. The Price of Silence, by William D. Cohen, is available on Amazon for about $25. It purports to be “the definitive, magisterial account of what happens when the most combustible forces in American culture— unbridled ambition, intellectual elitism, athletic prowess, aggressive sexual behavior, racial bias, and absolute prosecutorial authority—collide and then explode on a powerful university campus, in the justice system, and in the media.”

Like the case itself, the book is controversial and divisive. It has received some very positive reviews, both from readers on Amazon and from the press. Publisher’s Weekly describes it as “[t]op-notch investigative journalism,” and Kirkus liked the book as well. But the book also has quite a few detailed one-star reviews, and local media sources, perhaps more familiar with the facts of the case, are less effusive than the national press. The News and Observer reports here that the book is based largely on the author’s interviews with former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong, whose perspective on the case is presented “at length and virtually unchallenged.” The newspaper then challenges one of Nifong’s claim, namely, his suggestion that Attorney General Roy Cooper’s decision to declare the defendants “innocent” was without the support of the long-time prosecutors who reviewed the case for Cooper. The story quotes one of those prosecutors, Jim Coman, as saying that he was insistent about the players’ innocence and that Nifong’s “characterizations are figments of his imagination.”

I don’t think I’ll read the book. The case was riveting as it unfolded and I was outraged by some of the events that took place. But that feeling has faded with the passage of time. It appears that justice eventually was done, thanks to the excellent work of the defense lawyers involved in the case and to the courage of the Attorney General’s office. For me, what remains is mostly sadness about the damage that the principal complaining witness did to others, to the community, and ultimately to herself. In that vein, the New York Times has a mixed review here, from a reporter who covered the case. His parting thought contrasts the fate of the defendants, who settled with Duke for millions of dollars and went on to professional careers, with that of the complainant, who went on to prison after being convicted of murdering her boyfriend.

The book’s author says that “[t]here are people who don’t want to revisit this [case].” I suppose that I am one of them. But as the New York Daily News put it, for those who do want to dig back in, this book presents an opportunity to do so.