Case Summaries – Court of Appeals of North Carolina (May 3, 2022)

This post summarizes published criminal law decisions from the Court of Appeals of North Carolina released on May 3, 2022.  These summaries will be added to the School’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to present.

Trial court erred by failing to conduct a hearing on the ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claims raised by the defendant in his motion for appropriate relief (MAR). The trial court further erred by barring the defendant from filing a future MAR.

State v. Ballard, 2022-NCCOA-294, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 3, 2022). In this Brunswick County case, the defendant appealed from an order denying his motion for appropriate relief (“MAR”) filed after his conviction for robbery with a firearm and related offenses. The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred by (1) denying his MAR because law enforcement’s loss of an eyewitness statement was a Brady violation; (2) denying his MAR because the State presented false testimony, (3) failing to hold an evidentiary hearing on his claims, and (4) barring the defendant from filing future MARs.

(1) The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling deny the defendant’s due process claim under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), that the State suppressed favorable evidence. Noting that to establish a Brady violation, the defendant must show that the suppressed evidence was material, the Court of Appeals concluded that the lost statement from an eyewitness did not meet this standard. Central to the Court’s conclusion was trial counsel’s ability to cross-examine the witness about inconsistencies in his statements and to impeach him with other testimony.

(2) The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling denying the defendant’s due process claim under Napue v. Illinois, 360 U.S .264 (1959), that the State knowingly presented false evidence. The Court concluded that the record did not support the defendant’s contention that the State knew testimony from one of the eyewitness victims was false as opposed to simply inconsistent with other testimony.

(3) The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court erred by failing to grant an evidentiary hearing on the defendant’s IAC claims as the defendant stated facts that, if true, would entitle him to relief. Focusing its analysis on defendant’s claim that trial counsel failed to investigate a known alibi witness – defendant’s son, who claimed to have been with him the morning of the crime – the Court noted that the record did not reveal whether defendant’s trial counsel made a strategic decision not to investigate this alibi witness. The Court reasoned that this factual issue could only be appropriately resolved at an evidentiary hearing.

(4) The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s ruling that the defendant’s failure to assert other grounds in his MAR “shall be treated in the future as a BAR to any other motions for appropriate relief [in this case].” The Court relied upon its holding in State v. Blake, 275 N.C. App. 699 (2020), that G.S. 15A-1419 does not authorize a trial court to bar MAR claims in advance and that gatekeeper orders normally are entered only when a defendant has previously asserted numerous frivolous claims. The Court noted that the current case was not one in which the defendant had filed many frivolous MARs asserting the same claims.

Judge Murphy concurred, with the exception of a sole paragraph discussing precedent from other jurisdictions related to whether an attorney’s representation is deficient for failing to contact and interview prospective alibi witnesses. Judge Griffin concurred by separate opinion, expressing his disagreement with North Carolina Supreme Court precedent requiring an evidentiary hearing on the defendant’s IAC claim, which he said was not supported by statute and allowed a petitioning party to take away the gatekeeping function of the trial judge.

 

(1) Stop based on alleged misplacement of the defendant’s registration plate renewal sticker was supported by reasonable suspicion; (2) If officer was mistaken in believing that law required sticker to be placed on right side of plate, the mistake was reasonable.

State v. Amator, 2022-NCCOA-293, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 3, 2022). In this McDowell County case, the defendant appealed from a judgment finding her guilty of trafficking in methamphetamine. She was convicted based on the discovery of drugs found in her car during a traffic stop. On appeal, she argued that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress the evidence discovered during the traffic stop, contending that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop based on an alleged misplacement of her registration plate renewal sticker.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. Defendant was stopped for a violation of G.S. 20-66(c), which requires that the registration renewal sticker be displayed in the place prescribed by DMV. At the time the defendant was stopped, DMV had begun issuing single month/year renewal stickers, but had not updated administrative code provisions that required that separate “month and year stickers . . . be displayed on the plate in the correct position.” 19A N.C.A.C. 3C.0237 (2018). The registration card accompanying the single sticker instructed that the sticker be placed on the upper right corner of the plate; nevertheless, the defendant placed the sticker on the upper left corner of the plate. The Court held that the relevant law was ambiguous, that the officer relied on a quick reference guide and the instructions on the registration card in concluding there was a violation, and that this provided reasonable suspicion for the stop. If the officer was mistaken, the Court held, his mistake was reasonable.

 

Admission of defendant’s medical records, if error, was harmless in light of the overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt of driving while impaired.

State v. Kitchen, 2022-NCCOA-298, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 3, 2022). In this Carteret County case, the defendant appealed from his conviction for habitual impaired driving and habitual felon status. The defendant was treated at the hospital following his arrest and the State obtained his medical records pursuant to a court order. Those records, which were introduced at trial, included a toxicology lab report of the defendant’s alcohol concentration. The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress the medical records because disclosure of the records violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The Court of Appeals found no prejudicial error. Even assuming for the sake of argument that the trial court erred, the Court held that any error was harmless in light of the overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt. That evidence included a strong odor of alcohol on the defendant, defendant’s slurred speech, defendant’s inability to stand up straight, his poor performance on standardized field sobriety tests, his urinating on the police station floor, and opinion testimony from two law enforcement officers that the defendant was appreciably impaired.

 

(1) A reasonable police officer would not have understood the defendant’s statement after he was arrested to be an unambiguous request for counsel during interrogation; (2) Variance between date of vaginal intercourse stated in indictment and victim’s testimony did not require dismissal of charges.

State v. Darr, 2022-NCCOA-296, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 3, 2022). In this Randolph County case, the defendant appealed from his conviction for statutory rape, arguing that the trial court erred in (1) denying his motion to suppress evidence from his interrogation because he requested and did not receive counsel, and (2) denying his motion to dismiss because the dates alleged in the indictment varied from the victim’s testimony.

(1) The defendant came to the sheriff’s office for questioning at a detective’s request. Detectives told him about the victim’s allegations that they had vaginal intercourse over a two-year period beginning in 2016, when the victim was 14 and the defendant was 33. After the detectives played a recording of the defendant speaking to the victim, the defendant admitted he had engaged in vaginal intercourse with the victim multiple times in 2017 and 2018. A detective subsequently told the defendant he was under arrest and read the defendant Miranda rights. The defendant said, “I’ll talk to you but I want a lawyer with it and I don’t have the money for one.” The detectives asked additional questions about whether the defendant wanted to speak without a lawyer present. One detective told the defendant that speaking with the detectives “can’t hurt.” This exchange culminated in the defendant signing a waiver of his right to counsel and continuing to speak with the detectives.

The defendant moved to suppress any statements from the interrogation. The trial court denied the motion. The Court of Appeals found no error, concluding that the defendant was not in custody when he initially confessed and that a reasonable police officer would not have understood the defendant’s statement after he was arrested as an unambiguous request for counsel during interrogation. The Court determined that the trial court’s findings were supported by competent evidence that defendant’s request for counsel was ambiguous and the detectives’ statements were an attempt to clarify the defendant’s statements.

(2) The date of the vaginal intercourse listed on the indictment was 2017, but the victim testified at trial that the intercourse occurred in 2016. The defendant moved to dismiss based on this variance. The trial court denied the motion and the Court of Appeals found no error. The Court reasoned that the date given in an indictment for statutory rape is not an essential element of the crime, and noted that courts are lenient concerning dates in cases involving the sexual abuse of minors. The Court concluded that the victim’s testimony alleging vaginal intercourse in 2016 between her and Defendant—when she was 14 and the defendant was 19 years her elder—was sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

Judge Arrowood concurred in the result, but wrote separately to opine that once the defendant stated that he wanted a lawyer, the custodial interrogation should have ceased. Nevertheless, given that defendant’s initial confession was made voluntarily and prior to custodial interrogation, Judge Arrowood would have found the trial court’s denial of the suppression motion to be harmless error.

 

The defendant was not in custody for Miranda purposes while barricading himself in his bedroom while officers served an arrest warrant.

State v. Conner, 2022-NCCOA-295, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 3, 2022). In this McDowell County case of first impression, the Court of Appeals determined that law enforcement officers were not required to provide the defendant with Miranda warnings while he barricaded himself in a bedroom for many hours and threatened to commit suicide while officers served an arrest warrant for him at his aunt’s home. Because the defendant was not in custody for Miranda purposes while barricaded in the bedroom, the court rejected his argument that un-warned incriminating statements he made indicating that there were drugs in the bedroom should be suppressed. The court explained that the defendant’s own actions prevented officers from placing him in Miranda custody and noted that negotiations between the defendant and officers while he was barricaded were “limited to the purpose of having defendant safely leave the bedroom.” The court vacated and remanded one judgment in the case for correction of a clerical error related to sentencing.

 

In a first-degree murder case, the trial court did not err in jury instructions regarding an inference of the defendant’s intent to injure the child victim but did err in permitting the State to cross-examine the defendant about privileged attorney-client communications.

State v. Graham, 2022-NCCOA-297, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 3, 2022). In this Gaston County first-degree murder case, the trial court (1) did not err in instructing the jury that there was sufficient evidence to infer that the defendant intentionally injured the victim; (2) erred by allowing the State to examine the defendant about privileged communications he had with defense counsel; (3) and did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to compel the State to disclose the theory on which it sought to convict him of first-degree murder.

(1) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court’s instruction to the jury that “[w]hen an adult has exclusive custody of a child for a period of time during which that child suffers injuries that are neither self-inflicted nor accidental, there is sufficient evidence to create an inference that the adult intentionally inflicted those injuries” impermissibly “created a ‘mandatory presumption’” that the defendant intentionally injured the victim. Viewing the challenged language “in light of the entire charge” and in the greater context of the law regarding intent and direct and circumstantial evidence, the Court of Appeals found no error in the instruction, explaining in part that the phrase “sufficient to create an inference” cannot reasonably be interpreted as meaning that the basic facts, if proven, “necessarily create an inference” of intent.

(2) The trial court erred by permitting the State to question the defendant on cross-examination about the substance of communications between him and defense counsel as those communications were subject to attorney-client privilege. Over an objection and in an effort to impeach the defendant’s credibility, the State was permitted to question the defendant about whether he discussed his law enforcement interrogation with his attorney. The Court of Appeals determined that the error was not prejudicial in light of the fact that the defendant’s credibility was already at issue at the time of the objectionable cross-examination and the defendant already had testified to being untruthful with police in the past.

(3) Given the well-stablished principle that “when first-degree murder is charged, the State is not required to elect between theories of prosecution prior to trial,” the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by denying his pretrial motion to compel the State to disclose the theory upon which it sought his conviction.

 

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request for substitute counsel in the absence of an absolute impasse, denying his motion to dismiss a solicitation to commit murder charge, and declining to intervene in the State’s closing argument; any error with respect to instructing the jury on solicitation to commit murder in accordance with NCPI Crim. 206.17 was harmless on the facts of the case.

State v. Strickland, 2022-NCCOA-299, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 3, 2022). In this Edgecombe County solicitation to commit murder case, the trial court did not err (1) in resolving the defendant’s request for substitute counsel; (2) by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence; and (3) by declining to intervene ex mero motu in the State’s closing argument. Additionally, (4) any error in the jury instructions for solicitation to commit murder was harmless.

(1) The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request for the appointment of substitute counsel where the record did not reflect an absolute impasse between the defendant and his counsel. The trial court engaged in a lengthy colloquy with the defendant and its findings and conclusions that the defendant was acting in a disruptive manner and expressing dissatisfaction with his counsel to derail the trial but was not at an absolute impasse were well-supported.

(2) The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of solicitation to commit first-degree murder for insufficient evidence. Evidence at trial tended to show that the defendant had multiple conversations with another person, Capps, where he requested that Capps kill the defendant’s ex-girlfriend, Thomas; that the defendant gave Capps a map of Thomas’s house and the surrounding area; that the defendant provided detailed suggestions about how to kill Thomas; and that the defendant offered to kill Capps’s girlfriend if Capps killed Thomas. In the light most favorable to the State, this evidence was sufficient for the solicitation charge to be submitted to the jury.

(3) The trial court did not err by declining to intervene ex mero motu in the State’s closing argument that involved questioning the defendant’s credibility, characterizing the defendant as “angry” and “dangerous” among other things, stating that the evidence rebutted the presumption of innocence, and calling the jury’s attention to the specific deterrence a conviction would provide and the jury’s role as representatives of the community. In the context of the evidence at trial and relevant precedent, the arguments were not grossly improper.

(4) The Court of Appeals determined on plain error review that any error in the trial court’s jury instruction on solicitation to commit first-degree murder was harmless. The trial court instructed the jury using NCPI Crim. 206.17, which omits any mention of the elements of premeditation and deliberation, which distinguish first-degree from second-degree murder. The court reasoned that any error in the omission of these elements in the instruction was harmless on the facts of this case where the evidence showed that the defendant “solicited [Capps] to kill [Thomas] with malice upon [Capps’s] release from prison.” As the solicited killing necessarily would occur in the future and according to the defendant’s suggested plans, the evidence unavoidably established the defendant solicited a premeditated and deliberated homicide with the specific intent to kill. Thus, there was no indication that the jury would have reached a different verdict absent any error in the instruction, and the defendant’s ability to defend himself from the charge was not frustrated as his strategy was to deny asking Capps to kill Thomas regardless of premeditation, deliberation, or specific intent.

Judge Murphy concurred in result only and without a separate opinion with respect to the court’s conclusion that the trial court did not err by failing to intervene ex mero motu in the State’s closing argument.