Case Summaries – N.C. Court of Appeals (Jan. 17, 2023)

This post summarizes the published criminal opinions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals released on January 17, 2023. These summaries will be added to Smith’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to the present.

Driving with medically cancelled license represented a Class 2 misdemeanor justifying arrest and search of defendant.

State v. Duncan, 2023-NCCOA-5, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jan. 17, 2023). In this Catawba County case, the state appealed an order granting defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained after his arrest. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, determining that officers had reasonable suspicion to stop defendant and probable cause to arrest him and conduct a search.

In 2018, officers were surveilling a residence where drug-related activity was allegedly occurring, and they had been informed a black male with dreadlocks frequented the location. Defendant drove into the driveway of the residence to drop off a passenger and then depart; the officers observed his license plate. After accessing database information related to the license plate, officers determined defendant was driving with a medically cancelled license and pulled him over. Defendant was arrested for driving with a revoked license; during the arrest, officers searched defendant and found baggies containing methamphetamine hidden in his hair. Before trial, defendant moved to suppress the results of the search. The trial court granted his motion, finding that officers did not have reasonable suspicion to stop defendant based only upon the tip about a male with dreadlocks, and defendant’s offense was no operator’s license under G.S. 20-29.1, which did not constitute probable cause for arrest. Slip Op. at 4.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court’s analysis, finding that officers did not need reasonable suspicion to investigate a license plate as Fourth Amendment protections do not apply where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Id. at 6-7. Once officers determined defendant had a medically cancelled license, they had reasonable suspicion based upon the traffic violation, not upon the original tip. Id. at 8-9. The court also examined the nature of defendant’s offense, exploring whether his medically cancelled license led to an infraction (which would not support the arrest/search), or a misdemeanor (which would support the arrest/search). Looking to G.S. 20-35(a), the court found that the offense was a Class 2 misdemeanor, and none of the enumerated exceptions applied to defendant’s situation. Id. at 15.

Opening statement reference to testimony that was not offered at trial did not require intervention by the trial court ex mero motu; witness’s testimony about victim’s consistent statements did not represent improper bolstering or vouching.

State v. Owens, 2023-NCCOA-8, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jan. 17, 2023). In this Rutherford County case, defendant appealed his conviction for indecent liberties with a child, arguing the trial court erred by not intervening during the state’s opening statement, and allowing a witness to bolster the victim’s testimony. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In 2011, defendant was dating a woman with a young daughter. One day the woman left her daughter with defendant as a babysitter; defendant took the daughter into his bedroom and engaged in sexual contact with her. The victim eventually reported the incident in 2018, when she reached seventh grade. Defendant was subsequently indicted and convicted of indecent liberties with a child in October of 2021.

On appeal defendant first argued that the trial court should have intervened ex mero motu during the state’s opening statement, as the state referred to upcoming testimony by defendant’s roommate but the testimony was never offered at trial. The Court of Appeals disagreed, applying the two-step analysis from State v. Huey, 370 N.C. 174 (2017), and determining that the prosecutor’s statements were not grossly improper and did not justify a new trial. Slip Op. at 6. The court next considered defendant’s argument that a witness bolstered the victim’s testimony, explaining that the testimony in question was not supporting the truthfulness of the victim’s statements, but was instead noting that the victim’s statements were consistent. Making the distinction between testimony that clearly supported the veracity of a victim’s testimony verses the testimony offered in the current case, the court found no plain error in admitting the testimony. Id. at 11.

 Trial court’s statement that “the state will present evidence relating to previous convictions” did not represent an expression of opinion; expert opinion testimony was admitted without proper foundation but did not represent prejudicial error; habitual offender status properly classified as Class E felony.

 State v. Graham, 2023-NCCOA-6, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jan. 17, 2023). In this Mecklenburg County case, defendant appealed his convictions for breaking and entering, larceny, and attaining habitual breaking and entering offender status, arguing error in (1) the trial court’s comments about the existence of defendant’s previous convictions during the habitual offender phase, (2) admission of expert testimony without the necessary foundation, and (3) the felony class of habitual breaking and entering on the written judgment. The Court of Appeals found no prejudicial error.

In 2018, defendant was indicted for breaking and entering and larceny after DNA and fingerprint evidence linked defendant to a break-in at a Charlotte residence. The trial proceeded first on the charges related to the break in, then after the jury convicted defendant of the initial charges, proceeded to habitual breaking and entering offender status. During this second phase, the trial court told the jury “[the state] will present evidence relating to previous convictions of breaking and/or entering at this time.” Slip Op. at 5. The jury convicted defendant of habitual offender status, and defendant subsequently appealed.

Reviewing issue (1), the Court of Appeals disagreed with defendant’s characterization of the trial court’s remarks, explaining that “the trial court did not offer to the jury the court’s opinion as to whether [d]efendant did in fact have previous convictions . . . [r]ather, the trial court notified the jury and the parties of its plan for the outset of the second phase of trial.” Id. at 12.

Turning to issue (2), the court noted that defendant did not object at trial to the testimony, meaning the review was under a plain error standard. The court examined the testimony of two experts under Rule of Evidence 702, finding that the fingerprint expert testimony “[did] not clearly indicate that [state’s expert] used the comparison process he described in his earlier testimony when he compared [d]efendant’s ink print card to the latent fingerprints recovered at the crime scene.” Id. at 28. However, the court found no prejudicial error in admitting the testimony, as properly admitted DNA evidence also tied defendant to the crime.

Finally, the court reviewed (3), defendant’s argument that the trial court incorrectly recorded his habitual breaking and entering offense as a Class E felony. The court disagreed, explaining that the form filled out by the trial court identifies the breaking and entering charge as a Class H felony (with punishment Class E), and the habitual breaking and entering offender charge as a Class E felony. Based on relevant precedent, defendant’s habitual offender status represented a status offense enhancing the punishment for the underlying substantive offense. The court concluded that the “trial court’s identification of habitual breaking and entering as a Class E status offense, as compared to a Class E substantive offense, was not error.” Id. at 37.

Indictment’s statement of specific facts showed malice aforethought; doctrine of transferred intent satisfied requirement of specific intent for attempted first-degree murder; admission of prior bad acts was not abuse of discretion.  

State v. Davis, 2023-NCCOA-4, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jan. 17, 2023). In this New Hanover County case, defendant appealed after being found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted first-degree murder, arguing (1) the indictment for attempted first-degree murder failed to include an essential element of the offense, (2) error in denying his motion to dismiss one of the attempted murder charges, and (3) error in admitting evidence of past acts of violence and abuse against two former romantic partners. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In August of 2014, after defendant assaulted his girlfriend, a protective order was granted against him. On December 22, 2014, defendant tried to reconcile with his girlfriend, but she refused; the girlfriend went to the house of a friend and stayed with her for protection. Early the next morning, defendant tried to obtain a gun from an acquaintance, and when that failed, he purchased a gas can and filled it with gas. Using the gas can, defendant set fires at the front entrance and back door of the home where his girlfriend was staying. Five people were inside when defendant set the fires, and two were killed by the effects of the flames. Defendant was indicted for first-degree arson, two counts of first-degree murder, and three counts of attempted first-degree murder, and was convicted on all counts (the trial court arrested judgment on the arson charge).

Examining issue (1), the Court of Appeals explained that “with malice aforethought” was represented in the indictment by “the specific facts from which malice is shown, by ‘unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously . . . setting the residence occupied by the victim(s) on fire.’” Slip Op. at 10. Because the ultimate facts constituting each element of attempted first-degree murder were present in the indictment, the lack of “with malice” language did not render the indictment flawed.

Considering defendant’s argument (2), that he did not have specific intent to kill one of the victims because she was a family member visiting from Raleigh, the court found that the doctrine of transferred intent supported his conviction. Under the doctrine, “[t]he actor’s conduct toward the victim is ‘interpreted with reference to his intent and conduct towards his adversary[,]’ and criminal liability for the third party’s death is determined ‘as [if] the fatal act had caused the death of [the intended victim].’” Id. at 12, quoting State v. Locklear, 331 N.C. 239 (1992). Here defendant was attempting to kill his girlfriend, and the intent transferred to the other victims inside the home at the time he set the fires.

Considering (3) the admission of several prior acts of violence by defendant towards his girlfriend and another romantic partner, the court first determined the evidence was relevant under Rules of Evidence 401 and 402, and conducted an analysis under Rule 404(b), finding the evidence tended to show intent, motive, malice, premeditation, and deliberation. The court then looked for abuse of discretion by the trial court under the Rule 403 standard, finding that the admission of the relevant evidence did not represent error.

Text messages were admissible as prior bad acts and did not represent abuse of discretion; conviction for maintaining a dwelling resorted to by persons using methamphetamine required evidence that someone other than defendant resorted to his home to use methamphetamine.

State v. Massey, 2023-NCCOA-7, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jan. 17, 2023). In this Johnston County case, defendant appealed his controlled substance related convictions arguing error in (1) the admission of prior bad act evidence, and (2) denying his motion to dismiss some of the controlled substances charges. The Court of Appeals vacated and arrested the judgment for maintaining a dwelling resorted to by persons using methamphetamine, but otherwise found no error.

In March of 2019, Johnston County Sheriff’s Office executed a search warrant on defendant’s home, discovering methamphetamine in small baggies, marijuana, and paraphernalia consistent with selling drugs. Defendant was also noncompliant during the search and arrest, struggling with officers and attempting to flee. At trial, the state admitted certain text messages obtained from defendant’s cellphone, ranging from October 2018 to February 2019, as evidence of prior bad acts; defendant objected under Rule of Evidence 404(b) but the trial court denied his motion.

For issue (1), the Court of Appeals first found Rule 404(b) did not bar admission of the texts, as “knowledge was at issue during trial, [and] the challenged evidence is relevant as it corroborated the [s]tate’s contention that the substance defendant possessed was indeed marijuana and not legal hemp.” Slip Op. at 9. The court then determined under Rule 403 that the trial court performed a sufficient analysis of the evidence and did not commit an abuse of discretion when admitting the texts.

Under issue (2), the court found error with one of defendant’s convictions, maintaining a dwelling resorted to by persons using methamphetamine under G.S. 90-108(a)(7), as the state did not offer sufficient evidence to show any other person actually used defendant’s residence for consuming methamphetamine. The court noted that “the [s]tate failed to establish that anyone outside of defendant, used defendant’s home to consume controlled substances . . . [d]efendant cannot ‘resort’ to his own residence.” Id. at 18. The court rejected defendant’s arguments with respect to his other controlled substance convictions, and arrested judgment instead of remanding the matter as defendant’s convictions were consolidated and he received the lowest possible sentence in the mitigated range.