A political science professor, a civil rights lawyer and a police chief walk into a classroom . . .

I haven’t figured out the punch line to this joke. It was my opening line for a traffic stops session taught last month in the special topics seminar, Race Issues in the Courts, by UNC Professor Frank Baumgartner, Southern Coalition for Social Justice Staff Attorney Ian Mance, and Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock. One reason that it is hard to finish the joke is that these three were on the same page, which is somewhat surprising given the roles they occupy.

I immediately thought of that talk yesterday when I saw this News and Observer photograph of United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch standing next to Chief Medlock. Lynch traveled to Fayetteville as part of her nationwide community policing tour. She chose Fayetteville in part because of the work the presenters discussed at our April conference.

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The Meaning of Custody During Traffic Stops Under Miranda v. Arizona and Berkemer v. McCarty

The 50th anniversary of the landmark ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), will occur in a few weeks on June 13. As everyone knows, the case required a set of warnings and waiver of rights before a statement obtained during custodial interrogation could be introduced during the government’s presentation of its evidence at trial. The case spawned many thousands of appellate cases throughout federal and state courts. And the United States Supreme Court has issued several rulings that have clarified, extended, or confined Miranda’s scope.

This post will briefly review the meaning of custody during traffic stops by focusing on the Supreme Court’s most significant opinion on this issue: Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984). [For a discussion of all significant aspects of Miranda, see the text on pages 534-52 and case summaries on pages 578-640 of Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina (4th ed. 2011), and pages 87-89 (text) and 95-100 (case summaries) of the 2015 supplement.] Continue reading

Feds Focus on Fines and Fees


The U.S. Department of Justice recently issued a letter regarding its “strong interest” in putting a stop to unconstitutional court fines and fees that target the poor. According to the authors, Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Department, and Lisa Foster, Director of the Office for Access to Justice, “[T]he harm caused by unlawful practices . . . can be profound. Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape.” The DOJ sent the letter to judges and court administrators in all fifty states on March 14, 2016, directing them to review their procedures on imposing and enforcing fines and fees. An article from the New York Times states that the DOJ rarely issues “Dear colleague” letters of this sort; the last one went out in 2010 and concerned the need to provide interpreters for people who don’t speak English. Continue reading

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News Roundup

The New York Times and Right on Crime are each reporting that South Carolina and Louisiana appear poised to raise the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction in those states from 16- to 17-years-old.  The change would mean that most 17-year-old offenders would participate in juvenile court rather than adult court, and is in line with a bipartisan national trend towards raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction.  The article from the Times notes that North Carolina is one of only two states where 16-year-old offenders are automatically treated as adults in the criminal justice system.  The Criminal Investigation & Adjudication Committee of the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice is working on a raise the age proposal for North Carolina. Jessica Smith, Reporter to the Committee, presented a draft report on the issue to the Committee last Friday. Information about the Committee’s work is available here.  Keep reading for more news.  
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Twenty-Five Year Review of Sentences to Life Without Parole

I have started to get questions about G.S. 15A-1380.5, a repealed statute that used to provide for judicial review of sentences to life without parole after 25 years of imprisonment. It’s too early for a court to be applying the law just yet—the first reviews shouldn’t happen until 2019—but we’re getting close, and people are talking about it. Today’s post describes the law. Continue reading

Blanket Objection by State to Fact-Findings Sufficient to Trigger De Novo Review in DWI Case

If you decide to read yesterday’s court of appeals opinion in State v. Miller, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 17, 2016) do yourself a favor and skip to page 9.  Not having the benefit of this advice, I got lost on page 3. At first, I thought my printer had malfunctioned, since page 3 seemed to be saying the same thing as page 2. But there’s no problem with my printer. I can’t say the same for the procedural history in this case. Tortured is not a sufficiently negative adjective to describe its path. Fortunately, things pick up half way through the opinion and an important rule emerges:  The State may obtain a de novo hearing in superior court under G.S. 20-38.7(a) without setting forth the specific findings of fact to which it objects.

So that’s the rule. Unless the senior resident superior court judge says otherwise.  You’re going to have to read the rest of this post to make sense of that.

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May an Officer Assume a False Identity Online in Order to “Friend” a Suspect?

Officers are allowed to misrepresent their identities in the course of their investigations: they may pose as drug buyers, or prostitutes, or members of an organized crime syndicate. Is the same thing true online? In other words, may an officer claim to be someone else in order to “friend” a suspect on social media and thereby gain access to whatever information the suspect has posted? The answer isn’t clear yet, but I would guess that courts ultimately will say yes. Continue reading

Fourth Circuit: North Carolina Assaults Don’t Count as “Misdemeanor Crimes of Domestic Violence” for Purposes of Firearm Prohibition

It is a federal crime for a person who has been convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to possess a gun. 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9). A “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” means a misdemeanor that “has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon,” and that is committed by a person with one of several specified relationships to the victim. 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(33). Late last year, the Fourth Circuit ruled that North Carolina misdemeanor assault convictions generally don’t satisfy that definition. Continue reading

News Roundup

This week the Tenth Circuit ruled that a condition of supervised release that required a man convicted of distributing child pornography to complete a sex offender treatment program violated the Fifth Amendment.  The particular program at issue included a sexual history polygraph that required the man to answer questions about whether he had committed sexual crimes for which he was never charged.  The program also required him to “sign an agreement instructing the treatment provider to report any discovered sexual crimes to appropriate authorities.”  The court determined that the threat of being returned to prison for refusing to answer the polygraph questions, and thus violating supervised release, unconstitutionally compelled the man to be a witness against himself.  Keep reading for more news.

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Egregious Aggravation Is Unconstitutional

In 2008 the General Assembly created the new crimes of rape and sexual offense with a child by an adult offender (G.S. 14-27.2A and -27.4A, respectively). S.L. 2008-117. They have special sentencing rules, described here, including the possibility of a higher maximum sentence if the judge finds “egregious aggravation” in the case. Discussing the law immediately after it passed in 2008, John Rubin wrote (here, on page 3) that placing the responsibility for determining egregious aggravation on the judge—not the jury—was “likely unconstitutional” under Blakely v. Washington. As my kids like to say, “Nailed it.” State v. Singletary, decided by the court of appeals last week (and mentioned briefly in last week’s News Roundup), ratified John’s view. Continue reading