A “Single Superior Court” for Prior Record Level Purposes

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Under G.S. 15A-1340.14(d), when a defendant has more than one prior conviction from a “single superior court during one calendar week,” only the most serious of them counts for prior record points for felony sentencing. What is a “single superior court”?

For most defendants with prior superior court convictions, all of the prior convictions will stem from a single set of judgments entered by the same judge in the same courtroom in the same district. That clearly is a “single superior court,” and the law tells us to only count points for the most serious conviction emerging from a calendar week there.

But what if a person has multiple prior superior court convictions from different districts in the same week? Do both count? Or just the most serious of them?

I’m not aware of an appellate case that answers the question directly. The closest case, I think, is State v. Fuller, 179 N.C. App. 61 (2006), where the court of appeals read G.S. 15A-1340.14(d) literally enough to conclude that a person’s two separate convictions received on the same day in the same county, one in district court and one in superior court, both counted for points. The case turned on different language in the same subsection, but the court’s general logic could be applied to the question posed here: “[t]he statute does not, however, prohibit the use of multiple convictions obtained in different courts in the same week.” Id. at 70–71.

Ultimately, it appears to be an open question. But—with Fuller in mind—I’m inclined to think the most serious conviction from each superior court district would counts for points. To consider all of the state’s superior courts collectively would seem to read the word “single” out of the statute altogether.

What about different counties in the same superior court district? Is each of those a “single superior court,” such that the most serious prior conviction from each of them in the same calendar week would count for points? Consider that the background purpose of the rule was to make prior record level determinations more equitable for defendants across the state, taking into account differences in local practice when it came to handling “batches” of criminal behavior handled together. If you didn’t have the rule and all of a defendant’s priors counted, those from districts where the custom was, for instance, to plead to everything but run sentences concurrently would fare worse than those more inclined to consolidate convictions for judgment, who would themselves be worse off than those more inclined to dismiss convictions as part of a plea. With that in mind, masking convictions handled in different counties in the same district might go further than the law intended. On the other hand, a broader reading of the law would keep a defendant’s record from being additionally elevated by a single stretch of criminal behavior that just happened to cross county lines.

You could drill down even further in a few places. For example, in Guilford County, are Greensboro and High Point (or Thomasville and Lexington, or Mooresville and Statesville) both single superior courts within the meaning of G.S. 15A-1340.14(d)? Those city pairs are specially authorized to hold independent sessions of superior court by G.S. 7A-42 (subsection (a), which references “each city in the State which is not a county seat and which has a population of 35,000 or more, according to the 1960 federal census,” means High Point). I think there’s an argument that even each of those is a “single superior court,” although it’s obviously less clear than the courts in separate counties in the same district, which is itself unclear.

If you look at earlier drafts of Structured Sentencing, the final rule in G.S. 15A-1340.14(d) appears to have been intended to be county-based, not district-based. With no appellate cases on point after a quarter century of Structured Sentencing, I’m guessing the issue doesn’t come up terribly often.

One comment on “A “Single Superior Court” for Prior Record Level Purposes

  1. When I clerked at the Court of Appeals many years ago, the Chief Judge at the time insisted that there was only one superior court in North Carolina. Rather than referring to a court in a particular county as something like “Guilford County Superior Court,” he always wrote “Superior Court, Guilford County.” I don’t know the basis for his thoughts on this, and certainly this may not be the way it is viewed any longer.

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