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News Roundup

Yet again this week, our nation confronts the tragedy of a mass shooting.  Nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz has been charged with 17 counts of murder following an attack on Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.  Cruz was a student at the school but had been expelled.  For perspective on where this incident falls among the more than 40 active shooter episodes at schools in the United States since 2000, 12 people were killed at Columbine and 26 were killed at Sandy Hook; two were killed last month in Kentucky.  Three of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern United States history have occurred in the last five months.  Keep reading for more news.

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Category: Uncategorized

Victim Impact Evidence at Sentencing

The recent sentencing hearings for U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar showed the power of victim impact testimony. Victim after victim testified about Nassar’s abuse and the harm it has caused. Today’s post covers the appropriateness of that type of testimony in North Carolina. Continue reading

Obtaining and Admitting Evidence from a Vehicle’s Black Box

The number of people killed in motor vehicle crashes in the United States increased in by 5.6 percent from 2015 to 2016. In 2016, 37,461 people were killed in crashes on U.S. roadways, compared to 35,485 the previous year. North Carolina’s fatality figures followed the national trend, with fatalities increasing from 1,379 in 2015 to 1,450 in 2016, a 5.1 percent increase. Many such fatalities result in criminal vehicular homicide charges, which number in the hundreds each year in North Carolina alone.

Investigators and prosecutors in such cases are increasingly relying upon the vehicle itself to tell the story of what happened during and just before the crash. Many vehicles driven today (and nearly all manufactured in the past five years) are equipped with an Event Data Recorder (EDR) installed by the manufacturer. An EDR, often referred to as a car’s black box, contains data related to various aspects of the car’s operation seconds before a crash, including its speed, whether the brakes were applied, and the position of its gas pedal. This kind of evidence can play a central role in the State’s attempt to show culpably negligent driving. But how may the State lawfully obtain EDR information? And, once obtained, how may it be introduced into evidence?

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Prosecutor for Hire?

Editor’s note: This is the first blog post by Jonathan Holbrook, who began working with the School of Government last July as our first Prosecutor Educator. Jonathan knows the field, having worked as a prosecutor for nearly 10 years, first in state court with the Wake County District Attorney’s Office, and then in federal court with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.  Please welcome him to the School – and to the blog.

I am truly honored to join the staff here at the School of Government, and excited to have this opportunity to help set the course for the new position of Prosecutor Educator. Over time, my role here will likely expand to include more training and advising, similar to the great work Phil Dixon currently does with defense attorneys in his capacity as the Defender Educator. But for now, my primary focus is on a large project related to the Prosecutors’ Trial Manual, which has not been updated since 2012. The manual is one of many works written and maintained by long-time faculty member Bob Farb, who retired from the School of Government last year. Rather than simply update and re-publish the existing manual, the School of Government (in consultation with an advisory committee of veteran prosecutors) is converting that material into a robust and searchable online knowledge base of North Carolina criminal procedure. This new resource will preserve the rich content and extensive research from the current manual, but in a format that is much easier to update, search, and navigate.

One of the benefits of engaging in this top-to-bottom revision of the old manual has been learning and re-learning all the nuts and bolts – and hidden gems – of North Carolina criminal procedure. The rest of this post focuses on an interesting topic that recently caught my eye, and which I think might be surprising to some readers as well.

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Probable Cause and Child Pornography

Shea blogged last week about State v. Terrell, a case in which the defendant’s girlfriend saw on one of the defendant’s USB drives an “image of [the girlfriend’s] nine-year-old granddaughter sleeping without a shirt.” She called the police, and an officer found additional images of “partially or fully nude minors” on the drive. The officer sought and obtained a search warrant that led to the discovery of child pornography. Shea’s post, and the case itself, focused on the officer’s initial warrantless search and whether it was justified under the private search doctrine. But the court’s recitation of the facts reminded me of another common issue in child pornography cases: how much information about an image must an officer provide in order to establish probable cause that the image constitutes child pornography? Continue reading

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News Roundup

As the Associated press reports, last week United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a new policy regarding immigration arrests at courthouses.  The policy appears to suggest that ICE primarily will enter courthouses to arrest specific “targeted aliens” who have criminal convictions, are gang members, pose a threat to public safety, have been ordered removed from the United States, or have illegally re-entered the country after being removed.  The policy says that aliens encountered in the process of making an arrest of a targeted person, such as the target’s family members or friends, will not be arrested “absent special circumstances.”  Keep reading for more news.

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Substance Abuse Treatment Isn’t Medical or Psychiatric Treatment for Probation Purposes

A special purpose extension of probation is permitted only for certain specified purposes. According to a case decided earlier this week, substance abuse treatment isn’t one of them. Continue reading

State v. Terrell and the Private Search Doctrine

More than thirty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Jacobson, 466 U.S. 109 (1984), defined the private search doctrine. Jacobson held that the Fourth Amendment is not implicated by the government’s inspection of private effects when that inspection follows on the heels of a private party’s search and does not exceed its scope. This is because the search by the private party frustrates an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the item or area searched.

Jacobson thus determined that federal agents’ warrantless examination of a package of cocaine discovered by Federal Express employees and their field testing of its contents was not a Fourth Amendment search. When federal agents inspected the contents of the package, they “learn[ed] nothing that had not previously been learned during the private search,” and when they tested the substance to determine whether it was cocaine, they did not abridge any legitimate privacy interest.

In the ensuing decades, state and federal courts have applied and refined this analysis to determine the lawfulness of warrantless governmental searches of videotapes, computer disks, luggage, and other items turned over to law enforcement officials by private parties. And yesterday, the North Carolina Court of Appeals in State v. Terrell, ___ N.C. App. ___ (2018), considered whether the private-search doctrine insulated from Fourth Amendment scrutiny the government’s search of a USB flash drive turned over by the defendant’s girlfriend after she discovered among its contents a photo of her nine-year-old granddaughter sleeping without a shirt on.

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Evidence Issues Involving Children

Many years ago my colleague Janet Mason recruited me to teach about evidence issues in abuse, neglect, dependency, and termination of parental rights cases. She asked because most of the appellate law was criminal. After some grumbling, I produced a skinny 10-page paper in 2001. I’ve been adding to it ever since, and it has grown to a much longer chapter in the just-released 2017 edition of Abuse, Neglect, Dependency, and Termination of Parental Rights Proceedings in North Carolina. Although the manual is not about criminal cases, it may be helpful to those who work in the criminal courts. You can access the manual at no charge here. You can jump directly to the evidence chapter here. Continue reading

The Rape Kit Backlog and What’s Being Done about It

In 1985, Anthony Wyrick sexually assaulted two teenage girls in Charlotte. The police collected semen and other biological evidence but DNA testing was not available at that time and the crime went unsolved. Almost 30 years later, the case came to the attention of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s sexual assault cold case unit. Officers submitted the biological evidence for DNA testing. The results pointed to Wyrick, who lived near the scene of the crime in 1985 and who had since been convicted of an unrelated second-degree rape. Wyrick was eventually arrested, charged, and convicted. His conviction was affirmed last month in State v. Wyrick, which I how I learned of the case. Reading it got me wondering about the status of what is popularly known as the rape kit backlog. Continue reading