Case Summaries – N.C. Court of Appeals (1/21/2020)

This post summarizes opinions issued by the Court of Appeals of North Carolina on January 21, 2020.

The trial court did not err in finding that the defendant failed to establish a prima facie Batson claim.

State v. Campbell, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Jan. 21, 2020). In this first-degree murder case, defense counsel objected to the State’s use of peremptory challenges to strike three African American prospective jurors. The trial court denied defense counsel’s Batson challenge, finding that the defendant had not established a prima facie case that the State acted in a racially discriminatory manner. The Court of Appeals found no error, first denying the State’s motion to dismiss the appeal for failing to include a verbatim transcript of jury selection in the appellate record. A transcript is not required—although the court noted that it is “extremely difficult” to prevail on a Batson argument without one. Here, the Court of Appeals concluded that the narrative summary of jury selection proceedings in the appellate record was “minimally sufficient” to enable the court to review whether the defendant established a prima facie Batson claim by presenting factors relevant to the claim (so-called Quick factors, listed by the Supreme Court in State v. Quick, 341 N.C. 141 (1995), including the defendant’s race, the victim’s race, the race of key witnesses, and information about the State’s use of peremptory challenges to strike jurors based on race). On the merits, however, the court concluded over a dissent that without more information about the Quick factors (the narrative summary did not state the victim’s race, the race of key witnesses, or the final racial composition of the jury), it lacked sufficient information to conclude that the trial court erred. The court “urge[d] all criminal defense counsel that the better practice is to request a verbatim transcription of jury selection if they believe a Batson challenge might be forthcoming.” The Court of Appeals declined to consider the State’s proffered nondiscriminatory reasons for striking three prospective African American jurors, because those reasons were provided only after the trial judge had already ruled that the defendant had failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. (The court distinguished situations where the State volunteers nondiscriminatory reasons before the judge rules on the question of a prima facie case, or where the court requires the State to give reasons before actually ruling on the first question.)

A judge concurring in part and dissenting in part agreed with the majority that the narrative summary in the record sufficed to deny the State’s motion to dismiss the appeal, but would have concluded that the State’s use of three out of four peremptory challenges on African American jurors was a sufficient basis on which to remand the case for the trial court to conduct a Batson hearing and make specific factual findings on whether the defendant made a prima facie case.

 

The admission of an officer’s earlier testimony from a hearing on a motion to suppress did not violate the defendant’s right to confront and cross-examine witnesses at a subsequent probation violation hearing.

State v. Jones, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Jan. 21, 2020). The defendant was on felony probation. During a traffic stop, a law enforcement officer found a pistol in the defendant’s car, which resulted in criminal charges for possession of firearm by a felon and carrying a concealed weapon and the filing of a probation violation report for committing new criminal offenses. In the trial of the new criminal charges, the judge denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the pistol, but the case nonetheless resulted in a mistrial. At the subsequent probation violation hearing, the court found that the defendant committed the alleged criminal offenses and revoked probation. After granting the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari, the Court of Appeals rejected his argument that he was deprived of the right to confront and cross-examine the law enforcement officer at his probation violation hearing. The right to confront and cross-examine witnesses at a probation violation hearing as provided in G.S. 15A-1345(e) is grounded in a probationer’s Fourteenth Amendment due process rights, which are more flexible than his or her confrontation rights at trial under the Sixth Amendment. As such, the court held that the law enforcement officer’s testimony at the prior motion to suppress was competent evidence of the alleged violations, and that the trial court did not err by finding the new criminal offense violations despite the earlier mistrial. The defendant did not request findings for good cause as to why confrontation should not be allowed, and therefore no such findings were required. The Court of Appeals affirmed the revocation of probation but remanded the case for correction of a clerical error.

 

Where the defendant was not so intoxicated as to be incapable of forming intent, the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s request for jury instructions on voluntary intoxication or diminished capacity.

State v. Meader, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Jan. 21, 2020). The defendant was charged with felony breaking or entering a motor vehicle, misdemeanor larceny, and misdemeanor possession of stolen goods for taking items from a car. The trial judge denied her pretrial request to instruct the jury on voluntary intoxication or diminished capacity and she was convicted. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by denying her request. Over a dissent, the Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that evidence of “mere intoxication” is not sufficient to establish voluntary intoxication as a defense to the formation of intent. Though there was evidence that the defendant seemed intoxicated, there was also evidence that she was fairly cooperative and aware of her circumstances. The court noted that there was no evidence of how much the defendant consumed, or over what period, or whether she was incapable of comprehending her surroundings. Even taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant, the Court of Appeals deemed it insufficient to show that she was intoxicated to such a profound degree that it was impossible for her to form the requisite intent to commit the charged crimes. The court thus held that the trial court did not err by denying her request. A dissenting judge would have concluded that substantial trial evidence supported the conclusion that the defendant was intoxicated enough to be incapable of forming the requisite specific intent for the crime, and that the trial court thus erred by failing to give the requested instruction.

 

(1) The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress blood evidence obtained pursuant to an improper court order. (2) Evidence of the defendant’s speeding and reckless driving established the malice necessary to support a second-degree murder conviction. (3) Evidence of the defendant’s prior convictions was properly admitted under Rule 404(b).

State v. Scott, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Jan. 21, 2020). The defendant was charged with second-degree murder after he crashed into another vehicle, killing a passenger in it. Five days after the crash the police obtained a court order for the release of the defendant’s medical records related to his hospitalization as a result of the crash. SBI testing of blood drawn by the hospital showed the defendant’s blood alcohol concentration was .22 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress and motion in limine related to the blood evidence and a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder and felony death by vehicle. (1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress the blood evidence obtained pursuant to a court order. The Court of Appeals agreed that the defendant’s motion to suppress should have been granted. The trial court order to release the medical records was not authorized under G.S. 8-53, G.S. 90-21.20B, or otherwise supported by exigent circumstances, reasonable suspicion, or probable cause, as the first indication of the defendant’s intoxication was the result of the tests done on the blood samples obtained pursuant to the order. Without the blood evidence, the second-degree murder conviction could not be supported on a theory of intoxication. (2) However, the court concluded over a dissent that there was sufficient evidence of the defendant’s speeding and reckless driving to establish the malice necessary to support the conviction—a theory on which the jury was also instructed. Eyewitness testimony indicated the defendant passed the witness’s vehicle at a high rate of speed in a no-passing zone just before the crash, and crash reconstruction data showed the defendant was driving over 70 miles per hour on a road with a posted speed limit of 45 miles per hour at the time of the crash. (3) The Court of Appeals also concluded that evidence of the defendant’s three prior convictions for impaired driving and two prior instances of speeding, driving while license revoked, and no operator’s license were properly admitted under Rule 404(b) to show the defendant’s intent, knowledge, or absence of mistake to establish the malice element of second-degree murder. A judge dissenting in part would have concluded that the admission of the blood evidence violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, was prejudicial, and not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the defendant was therefore entitled to a new trial.

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