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It is sometimes said that the distinction between voluntary manslaughter, a Class D felony, and involuntary manslaughter, a Class F felony, is a matter of intent. Involuntary manslaughter is frequently described an unintentional killing. That description fails, however, to fully distinguish the offenses since voluntary manslaughter also may be based on a death that the defendant did not intend.
Indeed, unlawfully killing another with the specific intent to do so is murder rather than either type of manslaughter. So what makes some unlawful but unintentional killings voluntary manslaughter and others involuntary manslaughter? It is the intent associated with the underlying act (such as the assault that proximately caused the victim’s death) as well as the nature of that act (was it a felony or inherently dangerous versus simply culpably negligent) that makes the difference. Continue reading →
The Sixth Amendment provides that a person accused of a crime “shall enjoy a public trial.” This right is grounded in the belief that judges and prosecutors will carry out their duties more responsibly in open court than they might in secret proceedings as well as the notion that a public trial encourages witnesses to come forward and discourages perjury. See Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 46 (1984).
The right to open trial proceedings is not absolute; it operates as a strong presumption rather than a guarantee. The presumption may be overcome in rare cases by other compelling rights and interests, such as the defendant’s right to a fair trial, the government’s interest in limiting the disclosure of sensitive information, and the need to protect the personal dignity of a testifying and vulnerable witness. See id. at 45; Bell v. Jarvis, 236 F.3d 149, 167-68 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc).
Before a judge may close criminal trial proceedings to the public, (1) the party seeking to close the courtroom must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced by open proceedings; (2) the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding; and (3) the trial court must make findings that are adequate to support the closure. Waller, 467 U.S. at 48. Finally, even if justified, (4) the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect the identified interest. Id. This four-part inquiry is referred to as the Waller test.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals in the recent case of State v. Miller, COA22-561 ___ N.C. App. ___ (Feb. 21, 2023) considered whether a trial court’s order closing the courtroom satisfied the Waller test and thus the Sixth Amendment.
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After Andrew Brown, Jr. was shot and killed in Elizabeth City in April 2021 by law enforcement officers who were attempting to serve arrest and search warrants on him, several media entities attempted to obtain law enforcement agency recordings of the events. The companies sought the release of those recordings from the superior court pursuant to G.S. 132-1.4A(g) and filed their request six days after the shooting using a form petition created by the Administrative Office of the Courts, AOC-CV-270. A superior court judge denied the request based on his conclusion that release would create a serious threat to the fair and orderly administration of justice and that there was a need to protect an active internal or criminal investigation. After the Pasquotank County district attorney announced that he would not seek charges related to the incident, the companies filed another petition on form AOC-CV-270 requesting release of the recordings. A different superior court judge dismissed this later petition on the basis that the petitioners were required to file a regular civil action to obtain the release of recordings under G.S. 132-1.4A(g). The media companies appealed, and, in an opinion published last week, the Court of Appeals affirmed the superior court’s ruling. See In re Custodial Law Enforcement Agency Recordings, No. COA22-446, ___ N.C. App. ___ (2023).
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The North Carolina Supreme Court held last December in In re Custodial Law Enforcement Recording, 2022-NCSC-125, 881 S.E.2d 96 (2022), that a trial court abused its discretion in denying the City of Greensboro’s motion to modify restrictions imposed on the release of police body camera recordings. The trial court had previously entered an order that allowed members of the Greensboro City Council to view the recordings, but prohibited them from disclosing or discussing their contents to or with others. When the City sought reconsideration of that order on the basis that the restrictions prevented council members from carrying out their duties, the court summarily denied the motion after noting that council members had not “bothered to watch” the video. The Supreme Court determined that the trial court’s failure to consider the City’s reasons for seeking the modification, relying only on council members’ failure to watch the recordings while the restrictions were in place, demonstrated an abuse of discretion.
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The lead story in our December 9 news roundup was the Moore County power outage that resulted from the shooting of two local power substations. This week, several news outlets reported that another North Carolina power substation appears to have been damaged by gunfire. This time the damage occurred in Randolph County, was quickly contained, and no customers lost power. Local and federal authorities are investigating the incident. Continue reading →
The North Carolina Court of Appeals in State v. Eagle, 2022-NCCOA-680, ___ N.C. App. ___, 879 S.E.2d 377 (2022), considered whether the driver of a car that had already stopped when a patrol officer pulled in behind it with blue lights activated was seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court had ruled that the driver was not immediately seized by the officer in this encounter. Instead, the court ruled that a seizure occurred only when the officer took Ms. Eagle’s driver’s license and returned to her patrol car. By this point, the officer had developed reasonable suspicion to believe Ms. Eagle was impaired. The Court of Appeals reversed, determining that Eagle was seized at the outset of this encounter. This post discusses State v. Eagle and its relationship to other recent seizure jurisprudence. Continue reading →
Tens of thousands of residences and businesses in Moore County began the week without electricity after two electrical substations in the county were damaged by gunfire on Saturday evening. Federal, state and local authorities are investigating, and CNN reports that authorities recovered nearly two dozen shell casings from a high-powered rifle at the scenes. Authorities believe the person or persons who damaged the substations knew what they were doing, but have not identified a motive for their actions. The News and Observer reported on widespread speculation that the attacks were related to a drag queen show in Southern Pines that began just as the substations were damaged, but CNN reports that investigators have no evidence connecting those events. Duke Energy completed repairs Wednesday, and nearly everyone’s power had been restored by Thursday morning. A reward of up to $75,000 is being offered to anyone who provides information leading to an arrest and conviction.
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The North Carolina Supreme Court held last week in State v. Diaz-Tomas, ___ N.C. ___, 2022-NCSC-115 (November 4, 2022), that neither a criminal defendant nor the court has the right to compel a district attorney to reinstate criminal charges that were dismissed with leave pursuant to G.S. 15A-932 due to the defendant’s failure to appear. The case arose in Wake County, where the district attorney’s office reportedly would reinstate misdemeanor charges dismissed with leave under G.S. 15A-932 only if the defendant agreed to plead guilty and to waive his or her right to appeal to superior court for trial de novo. As a result, Diaz-Tomas’s only option for ending the indefinite license revocation that was imposed for his failure to appear is to plead guilty to the driving while impaired charges that were dismissed with leave. This post discusses the state supreme court’s analysis and considers how it might apply in other circumstances.
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The role of artificial intelligence (AI) in American life was a hot topic of discussion at a conference for judicial educators that I attended earlier this week. The conference launched with a screening of the documentary Coded Bias, which explores disparities in the data that inform algorithms for a range of computerized functions from facial recognition to loan eligibility to insurance risk. The documentary highlights the vast amount of data collected and controlled by a small number of large U.S. companies and the lack of regulation governing its use. A panel of experts spoke after the screening about what judges should know about AI. Several of those topics related to its use in preventing, investigating and punishing crime. Continue reading →