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May a Police Department Release its Own Body Worn Camera Footage to the Public?

Suppose that a police officer in a North Carolina city shoots and kills a person in an encounter that began with a traffic stop. There is extensive media coverage of the shooting. The mother of the person who died tells reporters that her son was driving home from work and never made it home. She describes her son as “a hard-working boy who never caused trouble for anybody.” The police chief has seen the recording from the officer’s body-worn camera. That footage shows the suspect jumping from his car and pointing a gun at the officer. The police chief wants to provide a copy of the recording to local reporters. May she do so?

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News Roundup

The week began with news that one of the men accused of murder in the death of Wake County Sheriff Deputy Ned Byrd had escaped from a Virginia jail early Sunday morning. Alder Alfonso Marin-Sotelo was being held at the Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville, Virginia on federal gun charges when he escaped around 1 a.m. Another inmate, Bruce Callahan, who also has North Carolina connections, escaped late Sunday night.

Unfortunately, jail staff did not notice that either inmate was missing until after 3 a.m. Monday, giving Marin-Sotelo more than a day’s head start. The FBI joined the search Monday and promptly arrested Marin-Sotelo’s sister in High Point alleging that she paid someone to leave in the jail parking lot the getaway car that Marin-Sotelo used to flee the area.

Yesterday Marin-Sotelo was captured by Mexican authorities in Guerrero, more than 2,400 miles from Farmville, Va. He now faces federal charges for escape in addition to the pending state charge for murder. Callahan, who was convicted of federal drug charges, is still at large.

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How Does the Confrontation Clause Impact the Introduction of a Defendant’s Medical Records in a DWI Trial?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the foundational requirements for introducing a defendant’s medical records in a DWI trial. Soon after I posted, a reader asked whether introducing those records through an affidavit from a records custodian violates a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him or her. My answer is, generally speaking, no.

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News Roundup

Sadly, this week’s news was dominated by yet another mass school shooting. Three nine-year-old students and three staff members at Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, were killed Monday morning by a lone shooter, who entered the school armed with two assault-style rifles and a handgun. Police shot and killed the suspect, 28-year-old Audrey Hale, a former student at the school.

The Associated Press reports that before Monday, there had been seven mass killings at K-12 schools since 2006. In each of those, the shooter was male. Hale, who was assigned female gender at birth, reportedly used he/him pronouns on social media.

Police say that Hale planned the massacre, drawing out a detailed map and surveilling the building. Hale, who was under a doctor’s care for an emotional disorder, bought seven firearms from five local gun stores between October 2020 and June 2022.  Hale used three of them in Monday’s shooting.

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GiveUNC: Show Your Support for the School of Government

Today is GiveUNC – a single day of giving during which the UNC School of Government reaches out to current and past donors, course participants, and – you – loyal readers of the North Carolina Criminal Law Blog.

Please consider making a gift of any amount to the School to support its efforts — including this blog — to better the lives of North Carolinians through practical scholarship and advising.

 

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What is the Difference Between Voluntary and Involuntary Manslaughter?

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.

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Right to a Public Trial

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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Court of Appeals Affirms Order Dismissing Media Entities’ Petition for Release of Law Enforcement Recordings in Andrew Brown Case

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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NC Supreme Court Orders Trial Court to Reconsider Gag Order in Greensboro Body Camera Case

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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