This post summarizes the published criminal opinions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals released on July 5, 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.
Trial court provided curative instruction to disregard improperly admitted lay opinion testimony; warrantless blood draw was justified by exigent circumstances where defendant was unconscious and taken to a hospital after accident.
State v. Burris, COA22-408, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 5, 2023). In this Buncombe County case, defendant appealed his convictions for driving while impaired and reckless driving, arguing (1) there was insufficient evidence that he was driving the vehicle, and (2) error in denying his motion to suppress the results of a warrantless blood draw. The Court of Appeals majority found no error.
In November of 2014, a trooper responded to a single vehicle accident and found a heavily damaged pickup truck against a steel fence off the side of the road. Defendant was inside the vehicle, unconscious and seriously injured. The trooper noticed the smell of alcohol and open beer cans in the vehicle. Defendant was the owner of the wrecked vehicle and there were no other people at the scene of the accident. At the hospital, the trooper ordered a warrantless blood draw. The results of this blood draw were that defendant was intoxicated, and these results were admitted at trial. The jury subsequently convicted defendant of drunk driving solely on the grounds that his blood alcohol level was above the legal limit under G.S. 20-138.1(a)(2).
The Court of Appeals first considered (1), noting that admitting opinion testimony from the trooper that defendant was operating the vehicle was improper, as the trooper did not observe defendant actually drive the pickup truck. The court explained this was not reversible error because the trial court provided a curative instruction to the jury, directing them to disregard the trooper’s testimony that defendant was the driver. The court found that sufficient evidence beyond the trooper’s testimony supported finding that defendant was the driver, justifying denial of defendant’s motion to dismiss.
Considering (2), the court explained that exigent circumstances supporting a warrantless blood draw almost always exist where a defendant is unconscious and being taken to a hospital. In Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 139 S. Ct. 2525 (2019), the Supreme Court’s plurality held that normally law enforcement may order a warrantless blood draw when the suspect is unconscious and taken to a hospital for treatment, but that the defendant must have an opportunity to argue the lack of exigency and show an “unusual case” that would require a warrant. Slip Op. at 8. Here, the court found that defendant had such an opportunity, and found no error in admitting the results of the blood draw.
Judge Tyson concurred in the judgment on (1), but dissented by separate opinion regarding (2), disagreeing with the majority’s application of Mitchell and the admission of the results obtained through the warrantless blood draw.
Trial court properly refused defendant’s request for instruction on voluntary manslaughter where no evidence supported that he acted in the heat of passion; nature of the killing supported a finding of implicit malice for second-degree murder.
State v. Gardner, COA22-781, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 5, 2023). In this Guilford County case, defendant appealed his conviction for second-degree murder, arguing error in failure to provide a jury instruction on voluntary manslaughter. The Court of Appeals found no error.
Based on texts and cellphone evidence admitted at trial, defendant arranged to meet with the victim, a gay man, for a sexual encounter on June 9, 2017. The next morning, the Greensboro Fire Department found the victim’s car burned to the frame, with the skeletal remains of the victim inside the trunk. An autopsy determined the victim died of homicidal violence of undetermined means, and that he was most likely dead before being burned. A search of the apartment where defendant sometimes lived with his girlfriend found a missing 4’ x 4’ patch of carpet and blood stains matching the victim’s DNA. At trial defendant requested that the jury be instructed on the lesser-included offense of voluntary manslaughter, but the trial court denied this request, and noted defendant’s objection to the ruling to preserve appellate review.
The Court of Appeals found no evidence in the record to support the argument that defendant acted “in the heat of passion” justifying a voluntary manslaughter instruction. Defendant offered a theory that involved the victim’s HIV-positive status and the possibility of defendant becoming enraged when he discovered this after sexual activity. However, the court explained this theory was “pure speculation” and the record contained no evidence that defendant’s passion was “sufficiently provoked.” Slip Op. at 11. Because no evidence supported the required element of heat of passion to justify a voluntary manslaughter instruction, the court found no error.
The court also found the evidence admitted supported a finding of implicit malice for second degree murder, referencing State v. Rick, 126 N.C. App. 612 (1997), for the idea that “implicit malice can be inferred by the nature of the crime and the circumstances of [the victim’s] death.” Slip Op. at 13.
Transcribed statement given by legally blind witness who could not read or write was improperly admitted under Rule of Evidence 803(5) despite witness’s signature on the statement, as the statement was not read back to the witness to confirm its accuracy at the time it was made.
State v. Hocutt, COA22-851, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 5, 2023). In this Wayne County case, defendant appealed his conviction for felony cruelty to an animal, arguing plain error in admitting a written hearsay statement under Rule of Evidence 803(5). The Court of Appeals agreed, ordering a new trial.
In March of 2021, a Wayne County Sheriff’s Office deputy responded to the report of a dog being shot with a small caliber rifle. The primary witness to the shooting was a witness who “had memory issues, was legally blind, and was drunk at the time of the shooting.” Slip Op. at 7. This witness was unable to read or write, so he dictated a statement to his son in the presence of the deputy; after the witness’s son transcribed the statement, the witness signed it. No one read the statement back to the witness to confirm its accuracy. At trial, the prosecution published the witness’s written statement to the jury under Rule 803(5) after he testified he could not remember the events in question. The witness also testified that he was legally blind, drunk at the time he allegedly saw defendant shoot the dog, drunk at the time he was giving the statement to his son for transcription, and suffered from short-term memory issues. No other direct evidence was admitted tying defendant to the dog’s shooting.
The Court of Appeals first explained that under the third prong of Rule 803(5), a recorded recollection like the transcribed statement here must be adopted by the witness while “the facts were fresh in his memory.” Id. at 10. The court then applied the analysis from State v. Spinks, 136 N.C. App. 153 (1999), explaining “[the witness’s] signature on the statement is inadequate to satisfy the third prong of Rule 803(5) when: (1) it was never read back to him for adoption; (2) his in-court testimony contradicted the statements contained therein; and (3) he could not recall the events described.” Slip Op. at 12. The court then established this error was prejudicial, as “[w]hen [the witness’s] hearsay statements are excised from consideration, we can identify no remaining direct evidence that tends to show or identifies [defendant] as [the dog’s] killer.” Id. at 14. This represented a probable impact on the jury’s verdict and justified a new trial.
Defendant made implied demand by tapping on car window with a gun and telling victim to open the door; multiple shots fired at the victim allowed the inference of intent for attempted murder; trial court properly found substantial similarity for out of state felony convictions.
State v. Legrand, COA22-586, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 5, 2023). In this Randolph County case, defendant appealed his convictions for attempted first-degree murder, attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon, and possession of a firearm by a felon, arguing error in denying his motions to dismiss for insufficient evidence, and error by the trial court in calculating his prior record level. The Court of Appeals found no error.
In October of 2018, defendant approached the victim at a convenience store and attempted to pull open the victim’s driver’s side door. The door was locked, so defendant tapped on the glass with a revolver while telling the victim to open the door. The victim opened the door and exited the vehicle, but then attempted to grab the gun from defendant. After a scuffle defendant fell to the ground, causing the gun to fire. As the victim fled, defendant fired two more shots at him, missing both times.
On appeal, defendant argued that since he made no express appeal for money or property, there was insufficient evidence to support his attempted robbery conviction. The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that defendant “displayed a gun, threatened its use, and made an obvious implied demand.” Slip Op. at 7. The court rejected defendant’s argument that since the events did not occur in a retail setting his words could not be interpreted as an implied demand.
The court also rejected defendant’s argument that intent for attempted murder could not be inferred by the multiple gunshots because his first shot was accidental, and his second and third shots were wide misses. Defendant also argued his intent could have been to scare or warn the victim, not kill him. The court explained that where multiple shots were fired and at least one was aimed at the victim, sufficient evidence existed to infer intent under State v. Allen, 233 N.C. App. 507 (2014). Likewise, the court held that defendant’s poor aim did not negate the intent or support his argument of scaring or warning the victim, as the victim saw the gun pointed at him before the shots and other factors such as poor lighting likely influenced the accuracy.
Finally, the court rejected defendant’s argument that the trial court did not properly find substantial similarity between the out-of-state offenses and in-state offenses. The court explained that defendant admitted no evidence to show improper calculation, and “[g]iven the [trial court’s] indication of review in open court and its full execution of the sentencing worksheet finding substantial similarity, this Court presumes the trial court reached this finding properly.” Id. at 12.
Expert opinion testimony regarding vehicle’s speed was properly admitted under Rule 702(a); evidence of prior DWI charge was properly admitted under Rule 404(b) to show malice; fatally defective indictment and sentencing errors justified vacating and remanding for resentencing.
State v. Taylor, COA22-788, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 5, 2023). In this Vance County case, defendant appealed his convictions for second-degree murder, felony hit and run, DWI, reckless driving, failure to reduce speed, and failure to comply with license restrictions, arguing improperly admitted expert testimony and evidence of a prior DWI charge, a fatally defective indictment for the license restriction charge, and sentencing errors. The Court of Appeals found no error for the evidence issues but agreed that the indictment for the license restriction charge was defective and the sentencing issues were valid, remanding the matter for resentencing.
In May of 2018, highway patrol troopers responded to the scene of an accident in Henderson where an SUV ran into the back of a sedan and seriously injured the passengers. The SUV was found several yards away from the sedan, wrecked into a fence, with a cold six-pack in the front seat and no driver inside. After a canine search, defendant was found hiding under a boxcar nearby, with the keys to the SUV in his pocket. When defendant’s blood alcohol level was sampled it was 0.15. At trial, a state trooper who was not one of the investigating officers testified as an expert regarding the speed of the SUV and whether it exceeded the speed limit. The trial court also admitted evidence of a pending 2017 DWI charge against defendant under Rule of Evidence 404(b). Defendant’s objections to both were overruled.
The Court of Appeals first took up the expert testimony issue, turning to State v. McGrady, 368 N.C. 880 (2016), to explain the wide discretion granted to a trial court under Rule of Evidence 702(a) when determining whether to admit expert testimony. Slip Op. at 7-8. Here, the trooper was unable to use a scientific method for determining speed due to the circumstances of the crash, so he testified using his experience and specialized training. The Court found no issue with the testimony and noted defendant was able to fully cross-examine and challenge the expert testimony.
Turning to the Rule 404(b) issue, the court noted that evidence of the 2017 DWI charge was admitted “to show his intent, knowledge, or absence of mistake to support malice, an essential element of second-degree murder.” Id. at 11. Finding that the admission was not error, the court pointed to a N.C. Supreme Court decision, State v. Jones, 353 N.C. 159 (2000), where evidence of a previous DWI charge was admitted for just such a purpose.
For the license restriction charge, the court explained “[t]he State concedes the license restriction violation indictment was facially invalid,” and likewise conceded issues with prior record level and DWI level sentencing. Slip Op. at 13. As a result, the court found no error for all charges except the license restriction violation, which it vacated, and remanded the judgments for resentencing.