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Case Summaries – N.C. Court of Appeals (June 1, 2021)

This post summarizes published criminal decisions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals released on June 1, 2021. These summaries will be added to Smith’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to present.

(1) There was sufficient evidence that the home was the dwelling “of another” despite the co-conspirator being the only other inhabitant of the house. (2) The trial court properly considered the appropriate reliability factors before admitting the expert testimony. (3) The trial court did not commit plain error in its jury instructions because there was no variance between the allegations in the indictment and the State’s evidence at trial. (4) The State failed to present sufficient evidence to support the requested restitution amount.

State v. Lance, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (June 1, 2021). The house leased by the defendant and her mother was destroyed by a fire. The police sergeant who was sent to investigate the fire observed that there was an unusually low number of personal belongings in the home and “not what you would expect in a home that was just lost to a fire.” Slip op. at ¶ 8. The sergeant learned that the defendant had obtained a renter’s insurance policy on her personal property about four months prior to the fire and had filed a claim for items lost in the fire. Several months later, the sergeant learned that the defendant’s mother had rented a nearby storage unit the day before the fire. Upon search of the unit, the sergeant found several personal items belonging to the defendant, many of which matched items listed on the loss inventory form the defendant submitted to her insurance company. Video footage from the storage facility showed the defendant and her mother accessing the storage unit the day before the fire, moving items into the unit, and later moving items out of the unit after the fire. The defendant was charged with and convicted of second degree arson, conspiracy to commit second degree arson, and insurance fraud and was ordered to pay $40,000 in restitution to the homeowner.

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in denying her motion to dismiss the arson and conspiracy charges because the State failed to present sufficient evidence that the house in question was inhabited by “another person,” an essential element of those arson charges. The defendant asserted that the only other inhabitant of the house, her mother, was her alleged co-conspirator and thus the house was not the dwelling of “another.” In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals noted that the elements of the offense and existing precedent do not provide any exception for co-conspirators and require only that “someone other than the defendant lives there.” Slip op. at ¶ 21.

(2) The defendant argued that the trial court erred in admitting expert witness testimony because the court failed to conduct a proper reliability analysis under Rule 702 of the Rules of Evidence and because the expert’s testimony was based on an unreliable method. The trial court heard extensive voir dire testimony from the expert, including information on his background and methods. The trial court allowed the expert’s testimony that he “did not conclude that the fire had an incendiary or human cause, only that he could not rule out the hypothesis of an incendiary cause based on the information gathered in his investigation.” Slip op. at ¶ 31. The Court of Appeals held that in light of the trial record, the trial court’s stated reasoning, and the court’s express pronouncement that it considered the three reliability factors in Rule 702, the trial court’s ruling was within the court’s sound discretion.

(3) The defendant contended that the trial court failed to specify the particular false statement or misrepresentation alleged in the indictment while delivering instructions to the jury. In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals concluded that there was no variance between the allegations in the indictment and the State’s evidence at trial and that the defendant’s statements on record all fell within the scope of the specific misrepresentation alleged in the indictment that her property was destroyed by an accidental fire.

(4) The defendant’s final argument was that the trial court erred in ordering her to pay $40,000 in restitution without a sufficient evidentiary basis of testimony or documentary evidence to support the amount of restitution ordered. The State did not present any testimony or documents to support the requested $40,000 amount except for the restitution worksheet. The State conceded error, and the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded that portion of the defendant’s sentence.

 

The State presented insufficient evidence that the truck contained “goods, wares, freight, or other thing of value,” an essential element of felony breaking or entering a motor vehicle.

State v. Gibson, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (June 1, 2021). The defendant was charged with felony breaking or entering a pickup truck that was parked overnight at a business. The trial record did not include any evidence that the truck contained an item of even trivial value, and there was no evidence that anything had been taken from inside. In responding to the defendant’s motion to dismiss at trial, the State did not address the element of “goods, wares, freight, or other thing of value,” nor did the State argue that the evidence presented was sufficient to support that element. The Court of Appeals held there was insufficient evidence that the motor vehicle contained “goods, wares, freight, or other thing of value” and reversed the defendant’s conviction for felony breaking or entering a motor vehicle.

 

(1) The trial court did not err in admitting one witness’ identification of the defendant and did not plainly err in admitting identifications by the other witnesses. (2) Because there was substantial evidence of each element of felony larceny and the defendant’s identity as the perpetrator, the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss. (3) The trial court did not fail to consider the defendant’s ability to pay prior to ordering restitution, and therefore did not abuse its discretion.

State v. McKoy, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (June 1, 2021). A man owned a trailer containing various catering equipment used for his business and stored the trailer on the business’s property adjacent to Sheetz. In the last week of August 2016, he drove past the property and saw that the trailer was gone. He contacted the police department, and a detective met him at the property. After reviewing footage recorded by Sheetz’s cameras, the detective sent a still image to a DMV agent who was able to identify the defendant as the person in the image. At trial, the man, the detective, the manager at Sheetz, and the DMV agent each identified the defendant as the person in the footage towing the trailer away. The defendant was found guilty of larceny of the trailer.

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court plainly erred by permitting the State’s witnesses to give lay opinion testimony identifying the defendant as the individual pictured in the Sheetz footage. The Court of Appeals held that because the DMV agent testified that he was familiar with and had previous dealings with the defendant, the agent was qualified to give lay opinion testimony identifying the person in the Sheetz footage as the defendant and that the admission of the agent’s testimony was not error. The Court also held that because the other witnesses each had no familiarity with the defendant prior to seeing him in the Sheetz footage, admission of their testimony was error. However, the Court concluded that those admissions did not amount to plain error because the admission of the DMV agent’s identification was not erroneous, the Sheetz footage illustrated the agent’s identification and permitted the jury to assess its accuracy, and the jury had the opportunity to draw its own conclusions based on still images admitted into evidence.

(2) The defendant next argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss because the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for felony larceny. The defendant argued that the evidence admitted at trial established only that the defendant was in the Sheetz store and that there was insufficient evidence to support an inference that the person depicted in the Sheetz surveillance video is the person who stole the trailer. In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals determined that crediting the in-court identifications and giving the State the benefit of every reasonable inference, a rational juror could conclude that the defendant was the sole occupant and driver of the truck and, without consent, hitched the man’s trailer to the truck and drove away with the trailer in tow, intending to deprive the man of it permanently.

(3) The defendant argued that the trial court erred in ordering restitution because it failed to consider the defendant’s ability to pay. Prior to ordering restitution, the trial court was informed that the defendant was near the end of an active sentence and therefore unable to currently earn, the defendant has two children to support upon his release, and the defendant plans to go back to school and get a trade once he leaves from custody. The defendant also filed an affidavit of indigency reflecting that he was in custody and had zero assets and zero liabilities as of the date of the trial. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not fail to consider the defendant’s resources and thus did not abuse its discretion in ordering restitution.

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