Case Summaries: N.C. Court of Appeals (June 20, 2023)

This post summarizes the published criminal opinions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals released on June 20, 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.

Asking defendant to exit vehicle and patting him down did not unconstitutionally extend traffic stop, and K-9 free air sniff was permitted as it did not prolong stop’s duration.

State v. Furtch, COA22-643, ___ N.C. App. ___ (June 20, 2023). In this Henderson County case, defendant appealed his convictions for trafficking methamphetamine, possession with intent to manufacture, sell and/or deliver, and maintaining a vehicle used for keeping and selling a controlled substance, arguing error in the denial of his motion to suppress the results obtained from an unconstitutionally extended traffic stop. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In February of 2019, two officers from the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office performing drug interdiction pulled over defendant for weaving and following another vehicle too closely. The officers had received a tip from the narcotics unit to be on the lookout for a silver minivan similar to the vehicle defendant was driving. The officers decided to issue a warning citation to defendant for traveling left of the centerline and following too closely. One officer asked defendant to step out of the vehicle, frisked him for weapons, then explained the warning to him outside the vehicle. While the officer was explaining the warning citation, a K-9 unit performed a free air sniff around the vehicle and alerted, leading to a search that discovered methamphetamine.

Rejecting defendant’s argument that the officers deviated from the mission of the stop and unconstitutionally extended it, the Court of Appeals turned to precedent supporting an officer’s ability to perform ordinary inquiries related to a stop as long as they do not measurably extend the duration. The court also noted that a K-9 free air sniff could be conducted without reasonable suspicion if it did not prolong the stop. Here, the court explained that the officers were permitted to order defendant out of his car and pat him down to ensure their safety during the stop, and these steps did not measurably extend the stop’s duration or convert it into an unlawful seizure. Likewise, “[a]lthough the K-9 free air sniff was unrelated to the reasons for the traffic stop, it did not prolong the traffic stop and was therefore permissible.” Slip Op. at 16. Finding no error, the court affirmed the denial of defendant’s motion to suppress.

Trial court was not required to conduct a sua sponte inquiry into defendant’s competency after he overdosed during jury deliberations, as no substantial evidence called defendant’s competency into question before his overdose.

State v. Minyard, COA22-962, ___ N.C. App. ___ (June 20, 2023). In this Burke County case, defendant appealed the partial denial of his motion for appropriate relief (MAR), arguing he was entitled to a new trial because the trial court did not conduct a sua sponte inquiry into his competency after he overdosed and fell into a stupor during jury deliberations. The Court of Appeals affirmed the superior court order on the MAR and denied a new trial.

Defendant first appealed his conviction in State v. Minyard, 231 N.C. App. 605, disc. rev. denied, 367 N.C. 495 (2014). Defendant was convicted in 2012 for five counts of indecent liberties with a minor and first-degree sexual offense, as well as habitual felon status. During the jury deliberations and outside the presence of the jury, defendant managed to consume fifteen Klonopin along with alcohol and suffered an overdose in the courtroom. Defendant was treated by emergency medical services and missed the remainder of deliberations as well as the verdict. Defendant was present for the habitual felon status and sentencing portions of his proceeding. After his conviction, defendant appealed and ultimately filed several MARs, none of which resulted in a new trial.

Defendant’s MAR giving rise to the current case was filed in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Sides, 376 N.C. 449 (2020). Based upon the reasoning in that case, the superior court judge considering the MAR only found error with the trial court’s failure to conduct a competency hearing prior to the habitual felon and sentencing phases of the proceeding, not the initial trial. As a result, the MAR order vacated defendant’s habitual felon status and sentence, but denied the request for a new trial. The State did not cross-appeal the habitual felon and sentencing issues.

Taking up the MAR order, the Court of Appeals waded into the caselaw surrounding a defendant’s competency and the right to be voluntarily absent from trial. The court examined the facts in Sides, where the defendant took sixty Xanax tablets on the third day of trial; a doctor subsequently recommended she be involuntarily committed, and a magistrate agreed. The Sides decision held “that while a defendant may voluntarily waive the constitutional right to be present at trial, the defendant may only waive the right when she is competent.” Slip Op. at 12. In Sides, the trial court skipped the important determination of the defendant’s competency before assuming that she voluntarily took an act to absent herself from trial, and should have conducted a competency hearing once it was presented with “substantial evidence” of the defendant’s incompetence. Id. at 12-13, quoting Sides. However, in State v. Flow, ___ N.C. ___ (Apr. 28, 2023), the Supreme Court drew a distinction between a defendant who jumped off a jailhouse balcony and the defendant in Sides. In Flow, the defendant’s capacity had not been called into question before his jump, and the evidence considered by the trial court did not indicate that the defendant was incompetent. As a result, the Flow trial court found, “implicitly at least,” that the defendant was competent when he acted voluntarily to waive his right to be present at trial, a decision the Supreme Court upheld. Slip Op. at 15, quoting Flow.

Looking to the current case, the court concluded that “[n]o substantial evidence tended to alert the court or counsel nor cast doubt on Defendant’s competency prior to his voluntary actions,” and “[u]nlike in Sides, the trial court was not presented with any evidence of a history of Defendant’s mental illness.” Id. at 15-16. The court concluded that Sides was inapplicable and defendant’s request for a new trial was properly denied. The court then determined, without deciding whether an error occurred, that any violation was not a structural error, and was harmless error beyond a reasonable doubt. Affirming the MAR order, the court remanded for habitual felon proceedings and resentencing.

Sufficient evidence to support the trustworthiness of defendant’s extrajudicial confession satisfied the corpus delicti rule; admitting testimony that mother of victim was in prison for second-degree murder was not error.

State v. Colt, COA22-514, ___ N.C. App. ___ (June 20, 2023). In this Wayne County case, defendant appealed his conviction for concealment of the death of a child who did not die of natural causes, arguing the State failed to satisfy the corpus delicti rule and error in permitting testimony that the child’s mother was convicted of second-degree murder. The Court of Appeals found no error and determined the corpus delicti rule was satisfied.

In October of 2016, the mother and child in question moved into a house in Goldsboro with defendant and several other individuals. After the child disappeared, investigators interviewed defendant two times. In the second interview, defendant admitted overhearing the mother and another roommate discuss the child’s death and that they needed to dispose of the body. Defendant also described taking the mother and roommates to a house where they purchased methamphetamines, and events at the house that seemed to show the mother disposing of the body. Defendant told law enforcement “that he felt bad that he did not call for help, and one of his biggest mistakes was failing to tell people about [the child’s] death or report it to law enforcement.” Slip Op. at 7. At trial, text messages were admitted showing defendant and one of the roommates discussed covering up the child’s death. The prosecutor also asked a line of questions to one witness that revealed the mother was in prison for second-degree murder. Defendant moved for a mistrial several times and made a motion to dismiss, arguing insufficient evidence to satisfy the corpus delicti rule as the child’s body was never found, but the trial court denied the motions.

Taking up defendant’s corpus delicti argument, the Court of Appeals first explained the rule’s requirement for corroborative evidence when an extrajudicial confession is the substantial evidence relied on to prove a crime. The court noted the N.C. Supreme Court adopted the “trustworthiness version” of the rule, meaning “the adequacy of corroborating proof is measured not by its tendency to establish the corpus delicti but by the extent to which it supports the trustworthiness of the admissions.” Slip Op. at 12-13, quoting State v. DeJesus, 265 N.C. App. 279 (2019). Having established the standard, the court looked to the substantial evidence supporting the trustworthiness of the confession and supporting each element of the crime charged, determining that the trial court properly denied the motion to dismiss.

The court next considered defendant’s arguments that the testimony regarding the mother’s conviction for second-degree murder was (1) irrelevant under Rule of Evidence 401, (2) unfairly prejudicial under Rule of Evidence 403, and (3) constituted a violation of the Confrontation Clause of the U.S. and N.C. Constitutions. For (1), the court found relevancy “because it was relevant to whether [the child] was dead.” Id. at 21. Considering (2), the court found that since substantial evidence established the child died of unnatural causes, testimony regarding the mother’s conviction for murder was not unfairly prejudicial. Finally, for (3), the court noted that defendant’s argument that the mother’s guilty plea represented testimony was not directly addressed by North Carolina case law, but found an unpublished 4th Circuit per curiam opinion holding that a guilty plea was not testimonial evidence. The court also noted that no statement in the record seemed to alert the jury that the mother offered a guilty plea, and even if there was such a statement, it would represent harmless error based on the other evidence of the child’s death of unnatural causes.

Chief Judge Stroud concurred in the result only by separate opinion, disagreeing with the analysis of admitting the testimony under Rules 401 and 403, but not considering the error prejudicial.

 Evidence showing defendant drove away from officers for several miles, exceeded speed limit, disregarded stop signs, and threw items from the vehicle supported finding specific intent to evade arrest.

State v. Jackson, COA 22-922, ___ N.C. App. ___ (June 20, 2023). In this Johnston County case, defendant appealed her conviction for misdemeanor fleeing to elude arrest, arguing insufficient evidence of her specific intent to evade arrest. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In October of 2020, officers attempted to pull over defendant for driving through a stop sign at an apartment complex. Defendant initially did not stop, and instead sped up in a residential area, turned on her hazard lights, and called 911 to inquire if the vehicle attempting to pull her over was actually a police vehicle. Even after being advised that the car attempting to pull her over was a police vehicle, defendant kept driving, ignoring several stop signs and exceeding the speed limit. Defendant eventually returned to the apartment complex and stopped, where she was arrested. She was eventually convicted of misdemeanor possession of marijuana and misdemeanor fleeing to elude arrest.

Considering defendant’s argument of insufficient evidence of her intent to evade arrest, the Court of Appeals disagreed, pointing to the substantial evidence of defendant’s flight from officers. Defendant drove for several miles, passing many safe areas to pull over, at a rate of speed above the posted speed limit. She also threw marijuana out of the vehicle as she drove away from officers, and initially refused to comply when she stopped at the apartment complex. The court explained “[t]his is not a case of a nervous motorist taking a moment longer than necessary to stop for an officer in order to pull into a well-lit or populated parking lot.” Slip Op. at 7, quoting State v. Cameron, 223 N.C. App. 72 (2012).

Defendant’s agreement to redactions of interview recording did not prevent appeal under invited error doctrine, but admission of the recording did not represent plain error; DCI-CCH printout was sufficient to prove prior convictions justifying defendant’s prior record level.

State v. Miller, COA22-453, ___ N.C. App. ___ (June 20, 2023). In this Mecklenburg County case, defendant appealed his convictions for first-degree felony murder and possession of a firearm by a felon, arguing plain error in admitting an interview recording and error in calculating his prior record level. The Court of Appeals found no plain error or error.

Defendant was convicted of a murder committed at a Charlotte bus stop in May of 2018. At trial, a recording of an interview conducted by detectives with defendant was published to the jury. The recording was redacted by agreement between the parties. Defendant did not object to the publication of the recording to the jury during trial. However, on appeal, defendant argued that admitting the recording was plain error as portions contained hearsay, inadmissible character evidence, was unfairly prejudicial, and shifted the burden of proving his innocence.

Although the State argued that defendant’s appeal was barred by the invited error doctrine, the Court of Appeals rejected this argument, noting that although defendant agreed to the redactions of the recording, he did not take any affirmative action to admit the recording. Despite this, the court found no plain error in admitting the recording, noting that the record also contained two eyewitnesses who identified defendant as the shooter, surveillance evidence showing someone dressed like defendant at the scene, and testimony from defendant himself corroborating the testimony of the witnesses and surveillance footage. The court also found no issue with the prior record level calculation, noting the trial court used computerized criminal history information known as DCI-CCH to establish defendant’s prior convictions. The court explained that “a DCI-CCH is a record maintained by the Department of Public Safety and may be used to prove Defendant’s prior convictions pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1340.14(f).” Slip Op. at 10.