Case Summaries — N.C. Court of Appeals (December 7, 2021)

This post summarizes published criminal and juvenile delinquency decisions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals released on December 7, 2021. These summaries will be added to the School’s Criminal Case Compendium.

(1) Probable cause existed that defendant committed the offense of DWI, and exigent circumstances existed to justify warrantless blood draw; (2) Trial court did not abuse its discretion by not taking judicial notice of a weather report; (3) Analyst’s testimony and laboratory report were properly admitted as analyst testified to his independent opinion based on his analysis and review of data collected by other analysts and wrote the report based on that analysis; (4) Chain of custody report was admissible because State established adequate chain of custody; (5) Substantial evidence supported convictions for driving while impaired, assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, and felony serious injury by vehicle.

State v. Bucklew, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-659 (Dec. 7, 2021)

In this Martin County case, the defendant was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, felony serious injury by vehicle and driving while impaired for his driving of a vehicle after consuming prescription medications, crossing into oncoming traffic, hitting two other vehicles, and seriously injuring another driver.

(1) The defendant, who was seriously injured in the crash and was taken to the hospital, had a “few coherent moments” in which he agreed to allow his blood to be withdrawn and analyzed for evidence of impairment. The defendant subsequently moved to suppress evidence of the blood analysis on the basis that there was not probable cause to believe he was driving while impaired, the blood was withdrawn without a warrant, and there were no exigent circumstances. The trial court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals found no error. The Court first determined that the following evidence established probable cause: (a) a witness called 911 to report erratic driving by the defendant before the defendant crashed his vehicle into two other vehicles; (b) there were no skid marks at the scene to indicate that the defendant attempted to stop his vehicle; (c) the defendant admitted to taking oxycodone, valium, and morphine earlier in the day; and (d) after the crash, the defendant was lethargic, had slurred speech, droopy eyelids, and a blank stare. The Court then concluded that exigent circumstances existed as the officer did not have time to obtain a search warrant given the extent of the defendant’s injuries; indeed, the hospital postponed administering necessary pain medication to the defendant until after the State withdrew his blood. After the blood draw, the defendant was air-lifted to another hospital for a higher level of care.

(2) The defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to take judicial notice of the National Weather Station’s weather conditions (the “Weather Report”) on the date of the collision. The Court of Appeals disagreed, reasoning that the Weather Report was not a document of indisputable accuracy for purposes of Rule 201(b) of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence because it did not state the level of rain that was occurring at the time of the crash. Thus, the Court of Appeals reasoned, the trial court was not required to take judicial notice of the report under Rule 201(d), but was free to use its discretion pursuant to Rule 201(c). And, the Court of Appeals concluded, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by declining to take judicial notice of the Weather Report.

(3), (4) The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred in admitting testimony from an analyst regarding the analysis of defendant’s blood, the analyst’s report, and the accompanying chain of custody report. The Court of Appeals found no error. The Court determined that the analyst’s testimony and his report were admissible because, even though the analyst relied on data collected by and tests performed by others, the analyst himself analyzed and reviewed the data, forming his own independent expert opinion and writing his own report. The Court further held that the trial court did not err by admitting the chain of custody report because the State established an adequate chain of custody through testimony of the law enforcement officer who submitted the blood and the analyst who prepared the report.

(5) The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not err in denying defendant’s motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence. Defendant’s erratic driving, the severity of the crash, his admission to taking medications, his impaired behavior, and the results of the analysis of defendant’s blood provided substantial evidence of impaired driving. Defendant’s driving in an erratic and reckless manner while impaired and crashing into another vehicle without appearing to have braked, seriously injuring the other driver provided substantial evidence of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury. Finally, the serious injury to the other driver caused by defendant’s impaired driving provided substantial evidence of felony serious injury by vehicle.

Judge Dietz concurred in the judgment, writing separately to state that he would have resolved the suppression issue solely based on the evidence of impairment establishing probable cause and the exigency resulting from the need to draw blood before medical professionals administered additional medications.

(1) Trial court properly denied defendant’s request for an instruction on voluntary intoxication as defendant failed to show that his mind and reason were so completely intoxicated and overthrown from methamphetamine use so as to render him incapable of forming a deliberate and premeditated purpose to kill; (2) Trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the first-degree murder by torture charge

State v. Bowman, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-658 (Dec. 7, 2021)

In this Mitchell County case, the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder (based on the theories of (a) malice, premeditation and deliberation; (b) felony murder; and (c) torture), possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and first-degree kidnapping for his role in the death of the victim after several days of subjecting the victim to physical abuse and death threats, interspersed with the defendant’s (and the victim’s) use of methamphetamine.

Apparently believing that the victim, an addict to whom the defendant supplied methamphetamine, had informed law enforcement officers about the defendant’s drug trafficking, the defendant began to threaten and assault the victim, firing pistol rounds near his feet, striking him, putting him in a chokehold, threatening to kill him, and asking others, in the victim’s presence, if the victim should live or die. After smoking methamphetamine with the victim and others, the defendant told the victim that people from Georgia had arrived “to take care of” him, took him outside of a house where a laser beam was focused on him, and asked him if he was ready to die. When the victim attempted to run away, the defendant tackled him and dragged him back toward the house. The defendant then used his cell phone to record the victim pleading for his life. Over the next two days, the group used more methamphetamine and the defendant continued to threaten to kill the victim, to physically abuse him, to prevent him from leaving – at one point binding the victim’s hands with duct tape — and to film him confessing to various acts. On the third day, the defendant shot the victim in the left shin and obtained a telephone cord to “make [the victim] hang himself.” The victim’s face was turning blue when the cord broke and he fell to the ground. The defendant eventually threw the victim into the yard, telling others on the scene that they could either “get involved or [they] could be next.” The defendant ordered others to hit the victim with a large rock. The defendant then ordered his girlfriend to shoot the victim or he was “gonna hurt [them] all.” The woman shot the victim once in the side of the head, killing him. The defendant then told others to help him dispose of the victim’s body.

(1) The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred by denying his request for a jury instruction on voluntary intoxication, asserting that his consumption of methamphetamine defeated his ability to form the specific intent necessary to support first-degree murder based on malice, premeditation and deliberation and the felony-murder rule and first-degree kidnapping. Noting that to be entitled to such an instruction, the defendant must produce substantial evidence that he was so intoxicated he could not inform a deliberate and premeditated intent to kill, the Court of Appeals held that the defendant did not satisfy this requirement. Testimony regarding defendant’s consumption of methamphetamine and his girlfriend’s testimony that he was “wigging” — meaning that he believed things that were not present were in fact present — were not enough.

The court reasoned that the defendant’s actions showed that he intended to kill the victim. He brandished a gun, saying he “smelled death.” He wondered out loud about what he would do with the witnesses if he killed the victim, ordered others to hit the seriously-injured victim with a large rock, told his girlfriend to shoot the victim, orchestrated the disposal of the victim’s body, kept a bullet he used to shoot the victim in the leg as a trophy, fled to Georgia after the killing, told his family what he did, and showed videos he recorded of the victim.

The Court also found ample evidence of defendant’s specific intent to kill to support his conviction for felony murder based on first-degree kidnapping. His actions showed his specific intent to unlawfully restrain or confine the victim over successive days, stating he was doing this in retribution for the victim’s alleged snitching. The defendant bound the victim’s hands behind his back, stopped the victim when he tried to run away, told the victim he would be freed if the victim killed his own mother, threatened to kill the victim by making him inject methamphetamine combined with poison, and arranged an attempted hanging of the victim.

(2) The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to dismiss the charge of first-degree murder based on torture. The defendant argued that because the victim died from the gunshot delivered by defendant’s girlfriend, torture was not a proximate cause of his death. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the torture of the victim included defendant’s conduct over the days when the victim was detained, humiliated, beaten, and tortured. The torture included all of the abuse the defendant delivered during that time, including the defendant ordering his girlfriend, under threats to her and her families’ lives, to shoot and kill the victim.

(1) In the absence of a plea arrangement, a defendant is not required to give notice of his intent to appeal to pursue right to appeal denial of motion to suppress; (2) Officer did not have reasonable suspicion to stop the car in which the defendant was traveling based on its transporter license plate, and officer’s mistake of law regarding license plate was not objectively reasonable.

State v. Jonas, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-660 (Dec. 7, 2021).

In this Cabarrus County case, the defendant was convicted of possession of a Schedule II controlled substance based on 0.1 grams of methamphetamine found in a backpack in the trunk of a vehicle in which the defendant was a passenger. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence on the basis that it was seized in connection with a traffic stop that was not supported by reasonable suspicion. The trial court denied the motion. Defendant pled guilty, without a plea arrangement with the State, and appealed.

(1) G.S. 15-979(b) provides that an order finally denying a motion to suppress may be reviewed upon an appeal from a judgment of conviction, including a judgment entered upon a plea of guilty. The North Carolina Supreme Court held in State v. Reynolds, 298 N.C. 380 (1979), that when a defendant intends to appeal from the denial of a motion to suppress pursuant to G.S. 15A-979(b), the defendant must give notice of that intention to the prosecutor and the court before plea negotiations are finalized. Absent such notice, the right to appeal is waived. The Court of Appeals held that the Reynolds notice requirement did not apply in the instant case because the defendant did not plead guilty as part of a plea arrangement. Thus, the defendant had a statutory right to appeal without having provided notice to the State and the trial court before entering his guilty plea.

(2) The officer who stopped the car in which the defendant was traveling testified that he stopped the car because it emerged from the empty parking lot of a closed business, a trailer had recently been stolen in that area, and the car was equipped with transporter plate, which the officer had never seen placed on a vehicle other than a truck. The Court of Appeals noted that, despite the officer’s belief to the contrary, G.S. 20-79.2 “clear[ly] and unambiguous[ly]” permits transporter plates to be used on motor vehicles generally, not just trucks. Though the Fourth Amendment tolerates objectively reasonable mistakes, the Court concluded that the officer’s mistake about the transporter plates was not objectively reasonable because the statute was not ambiguous. Thus, the officer’s belief regarding the transporter plates could not support reasonable suspicion. The Court determined that the additional facts that the business was closed and there was a recent trailer theft in the area were insufficient to support reasonable suspicion. Accordingly, the Court held that the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. It reversed the trial court’s order and remanded the case to the trial court for entry of an order vacating the defendant’s guilty plea.

(1) State failed to establish that an objectively reasonable hearer would have construed juvenile’s statement about bombing the school as a true threat; (2) State presented sufficient evidence that the juvenile communicated a threat to harm a fellow student

In the Matter of Z.P., __ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-655 (December 7, 2021).

In this Iredell County case, the juvenile, “Sophie,” was adjudicated delinquent for communicating a threat of mass violence on educational property in violation of G.S. 14-277.6 after making a statement, in the presence of four classmates, that she was going to blow up the school. She was also adjudicated delinquent for communicating a threat to harm a fellow student in violation of G.S. 14-277.1 after stating that she was going to kill him with a crowbar and bury him in a shallow grave. Sophie argued that the State failed to present sufficient evidence to support the allegations of the charged offenses.

(1) Proof of a “true threat” is required for an anti-threat statute. The true threat analysis involves both how a reasonable hearer would objectively construe the statement and how the perpetrator subjectively intended the statement to be construed. While there is a split in cases regarding what the State must prove regarding the perpetrator’s subjective intent, this case is resolved because the State did not meet its burden of showing that a reasonable hearer would have construed Sophie’s statement as a true threat. The three classmates who heard the threat and testified at the adjudication hearing did not think she was serious when she made the threat. Sophie had made outlandish threats before and never carried them out. Most of the classmates believed that Sophie was joking when she made the statement. There is not enough evidence to support an inference that it would be objectively reasonable for the hearers to think Sophie was serious in this threat. The adjudication is reversed with respect to the offense of communicating a threat of mass violence on educational property.

(2) The evidence provided regarding the threat to the classmate was sufficient. That evidence, when analyzed in the light most favorable to the State, established that the statement was made so that the classmate could hear it, the classmate took the threat seriously, and it would be reasonable for a person in the classmate’s position to take the threat seriously because the classmate was smaller than Sophie and had previously been physically threatened by her. The Court of Appeals affirmed the adjudication of communicating a threat to harm a fellow student and remanded the case to allow the trial court to reconsider the disposition in light of the reversal of the adjudication of communicating a threat of mass violence on educational property.