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Case Summaries – N.C. Court of Appeals (March 1, 2022)

This post summarizes published criminal decisions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals released on March 1, 2022. These summaries will be added to Smith’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to present.

(1) The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress where officers had reasonable suspicion to search the vehicle involved in an accident to find the identification of the purported driver and developed probable cause to search the defendant’s person and backpack. (2) The trial court’s instructions to the jury adequately explained the knowledge element and requirement of the possession of methamphetamines charge.

State v. Julius, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Mar. 1, 2022). Officers responded to a single-car accident in May 2018. At the time of the crash, the defendant was the passenger, and her acquaintance, Kyle, was driving the vehicle with the defendant’s permission. Witnesses at the site told the officers the driver fled the scene and walked into nearby woods because he had outstanding warrants. The defendant told the officers that she knew the driver as “Kyle” but that she did not know his full or last name. One officer searched the SUV to look for Kyle’s driver’s license or ID. The officer found a bag in which he discovered a black box that contained two cell phones, a scale, and two large bags of a clear crystal-like substance, which was later determined to be of methamphetamine.

The officers arrested the defendant then searched the bag she had with her outside of the car. Inside of the defendant’s bag, the officers found a glass smoking pipe, five cell phones, a handgun, a notebook, $1,785 in cash, and a clear container holding several bags of a white crystal-like substance, one of which contained one tenth of an ounce of methamphetamine.

Defense counsel filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence found in both bags, alleging the search of the vehicle violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. During a hearing, the officer testified that he had searched the vehicle to locate the driver’s identification in order to investigate the motor vehicle collision and a potential hit-and-run. The trial court concluded the warrantless search was constitutional because the officer had probable cause to search the SUV and denied the defendant’s motion. The defendant pled guilty of possession of methamphetamine and was convicted of trafficking in methamphetamine by possession by a jury’s verdict. The defendant appealed.

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress evidence found in a warrantless search of her parents’ vehicle without sufficient probable cause. The Court of Appeals concluded that the officers had reasonable suspicion to search the vehicle to verify the claims of another occupant and custodian of the vehicle to determine that alleged driver’s identity. The Court reasoned that Kyle’s identification may not have been inside the vehicle, but there was no other way for the officers to try to find information to identify the driver if the passenger and other witnesses did not know or would not provide his full name, and the identification of the purported driver may have reasonably been determined from looking inside the wrecked vehicle. The Court thus held that the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress.

(2) The defendant also argued that the trial court plainly erred by failing to provide an additional instruction about her actual knowledge of the drugs found inside the vehicle. The Court determined that the trial court adequately advised the jury of the knowledge requirement by stating, “a person possesses methamphetamine if the person is aware of its presence . . . and intent to control the disposition or use of that substance.” Slip op. at ¶ 23. The Court thus concluded the jury was sufficiently instructed that the State had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly possessed methamphetamine, and the defendant could not be convicted if she lacked knowledge of the methamphetamine found inside of her parent’s vehicle.

Judge Inman dissented in part to say that while there may have been probable cause to justify the issuance of a warrant by a magistrate, no exception to the warrant requirement authorized the warrantless search of the vehicle on the scene of the single-car accident in this case. Judge Inman concurred in part to say she would hold that the trial court erred in failing to further instruct the jury about the defendant’s knowledge as prescribed by our pattern jury instructions but did not conclude that the error had a probable impact on the jury’s verdict.

 

(1) The trial court did not commit plain error by not instructing the jury on the lesser-included offense of attempted voluntary manslaughter where the evidence did not support such an instruction. (2) The trial court did not err by not conducting an inquiry into the defendant’s consent to defense counsel’s statements in opening and closing arguments where the content of defense counsel’s arguments did not constitute Harbison error as implied concessions of guilt. (3) The trial court did not commit error by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the charge of first-degree kidnapping where there was sufficient evidence of confinement to support the charge distinct from evidence of assault.

State v. Guin, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Mar. 1, 2022). The defendant was indicted for seven crimes arising from a domestic violence incident. The defendant severely beat his wife, resulting in her being hospitalized for six days where she was treated for extensive swelling and bruising to face and neck, fractures to rib bones and bones around her eyes, strangulation, contusions, and kidney failure induced by toxins released from skeletal muscle destruction. Following trial, the defendant was convicted of six of the seven charges and was sentenced to four consecutive sentences totaling 578 to 730 months. The defendant appealed.

(1) On appeal, the defendant first argued that the trial court committed plain error in failing to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of attempted voluntary manslaughter because the evidence showed that the defendant lacked the requisite intent for attempted first-degree murder. The defendant contended that the State failed to conclusively prove he had the requisite intent of premeditation and deliberation to commit first-degree murder because evidence at trial showed that he assaulted his wife spontaneously in response to adequate provocation. In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals noted that there was overwhelming evidence at trial supporting premeditation and deliberation. Although the wife admitted during trial that she stabbed the defendant in the chest with a knife, the defendant’s testimony confirmed that the subsequent assault lasted multiple hours, and the defendant testified that he “knew what he was doing” and agreed that he “could have left at any time.” Slip op. at ¶ 27. The Court thus held that this the defendant’s testimony did not warrant an instruction on attempted voluntary manslaughter.

(2) The defendant next argued that the trial court did not ensure the defendant had knowingly consented before allowing defense counsel to concede the defendant’s guilt to multiple charges. The defendant contended that statements made by his defense counsel during opening and closing statements constituted an implied admission of his guilt because counsel (i) told the jury that the defendant “beat” his wife and (ii) argued only against the charge of first-degree murder and did not mention the defendant’s other charges in closing argument. The Court of Appeals held that defense counsel’s reference to the defendant having beaten his wife did not amount to a Harbison error because the defendant chose to testify on his own behalf, under oath, with full awareness that he did not have to testify. The defendant then repeatedly admitted that he beat his wife. The Court concluded that defense counsel repeated the defendant’s own testimony, then urged the jury to evaluate the truth in defendant’s words, and that defense counsel’s statements could logically be interpreted as a recitation of facts presented at trial.

(3) The defendant’s final argument was that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss the charge of first-degree kidnapping because the State failed to introduce sufficient evidence of confinement separate from that which was inherent in the commission of the assaults on his wife. In rejecting this argument, the Court reasoned that the State presented evidence that the defendant confined his wife to her apartment through actions apart from confinement inherent in the many instances of assault, and the evidence allowed a reasonable inference that the defendant chose to wholly confine his wife to her apartment to prevent her from seeking aid.

 

There was no error in the defendant’s conviction for violating G.S. 14-4. Where the maximum punishment for the conviction is a $50.00 fine, the trial court erred by sentencing the defendant to suspended confinement and probation and imposing a $100.00 fine.

State v. Hales, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Mar. 1, 2022). The defendant was charged with violating G.S. 14-4 for violation of a city ordinance. The defendant was issued a criminal summons stating that his property was in violation of City of Fayetteville Code of Ordinances Section 22-16(a) for failure to remove all metal items from his yard after due notice. The defendant was convicted and appealed to superior court. At a hearing, the defendant waived his right to counsel, elected to proceed pro se, and waived his right to a jury trial. The trial court denied the defendant’s motions to dismiss for selective prosecution and to suppress all evidence.

The trial court found the defendant guilty of violating a local ordinance under G.S. 14-4. The trial court found that the defendant had one prior conviction, giving him a prior record level II, and sentenced him to 15 days’ confinement. The trial court suspended the sentence, placed him on supervised probation for 18 months, and ordered him to comply with the regular conditions of probation and several special conditions of probation. The trial court also imposed a $100.00 fine plus $372.50 in costs. The probation and payment of the fine and costs was stayed pending appeal, and the court imposed the following conditions of pretrial release: post a $500.00 bond; not violate any criminal law; not violate any city code, ordinance, rule, or regulation; and allow the city inspectors to inspect the defendant’s property upon 48 hours’ written notice either delivered to the defendant or posted on his door. The defendant appealed.

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss for selective prosecution. The defendant alleged that a neighbor “solicited” the code enforcer to target the defendant, who is white, because of the defendant’s interracial marriage to his wife, who is black, but offered no evidence to support his allegations. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, concluding that the defendant offered no evidence to show the State targeted or discriminated against the defendant in prosecuting him.

(2) The defendant next argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress all evidence on the ground that the evidence was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, reasoning that the inspector testified that he viewed and took photos of the defendant’s property from a public roadway and from a neighboring property where he had secured permission from the neighbor to be on their property.

(3) The defendant argued the trial court erred by not holding separate hearings on his motion to dismiss for selective prosecution and motion to suppress all evidence, but instead heard arguments on both motions at trial. The Court rejected this argument, noting that the record reflects the trial court heard arguments from the parties on both motions immediately preceding the trial. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss prior to trial and held in abeyance its ruling on the motion to suppress until the trial court had heard all the evidence. The Court thus held that the defendant failed to show any legal error or abuse of discretion.

(4) The defendant also argued that the summons delivered to him was defective because it referenced the incorrect statutory subsection. In rejecting this argument, the Court noted that the summons listed G.S. 14-4 as the statutory basis for the charge against the defendant, correctly identifying the crime with which he was charged. The summons also indicated that the charge was based on the defendant’s failure to remove all metal items from the yard, indicating to the defendant the proper city ordinance subsection of which he was in violation. The Court thus concluded that the summons was not defective in that the defendant had sufficient notice of the charge against him.

(5) The defendant argued, and the State conceded, that the trial court erred in applying the sentencing requirements for a Class 3 misdemeanor with one prior conviction. Pursuant to G.S. 15A-1340.23, unless otherwise provided for a specific offense, the judgment for a person convicted of a Class 3 misdemeanor who has no more than three prior convictions shall consist only of a fine. An individual convicted of violating a city ordinance pursuant to G.S. 14-4 is guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor and shall be fined not more than five hundred dollars, and no fine shall exceed fifty dollars unless the ordinance expressly states that the maximum fine is greater than fifty dollars. G.S. 14-4(a). The Court thus held that the trial court erred by sentencing the defendant to a 15-day term of incarceration and 18 months’ probation and by imposing a $100.00 fine. The Court vacated the defendant’s sentence and remanded to the trial court for resentencing. However, the Court also held that the trial court did not err by imposing conditions of pretrial release upon the defendant.

(6) Because the defendant waived his right to counsel at trial and chose to proceed pro se, the Court rejected the defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

(7) The defendant argued that the trial court gave him contradictory rules regarding his right to self-incrimination, contending that the trial court told him both that he cannot be made to testify against himself and that by choosing to take the stand, he loses his right against self-incrimination. The Court rejected this argument, concluding that the rule was a correct statement of law.

 

The trial court abused its discretion in concluding a crime was committed and revoking defendant’s probation where there was no evidence beyond the fact that the defendant was arrested that tended to establish he committed a crime.

State v. Graham, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Mar. 1, 2022). The defendant pled guilty to second-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The defendant was sentenced to active terms of 176-221 months imprisonment for the second-degree murder charge and 16-20 months imprisonment for the possession of a firearm by a convicted felon charge. The active sentence for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon was suspended for 36 months of supervised probation, which commenced in August 2019 after the defendant was released from prison following his active sentence for second-degree murder.

In February 2021, the State filed a violation report alleging that the defendant violated his probation by failing to pay the full monetary judgment entered against him and because he was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm by a felon. Following a hearing, the trial court found that the defendant committed a crime and revoked the defendant’s probation. The Court of Appeals granted the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in revoking his probation. The Court of Appeals agreed, reasoning that in order to revoke a defendant’s probation for committing a criminal offense, there must be some form of evidence that a crime was committed. The only evidence presented at the probation revocation hearing was the probation officer’s violation report and testimony from the probation officer. The Court concluded that this evidence only established that defendant was arrested for possession of a firearm by a felon and that there was no evidence beyond the fact that defendant was arrested that tended to establish he committed a crime. The Court thus held that the trial court abused its discretion in concluding a crime was committed and revoking defendant’s probation.

 

The trial court erred in subjecting the defendant to the maximum sentence enhancement provided in G.S. 15A-1340.17(f) where the defendant was not sentenced for a reportable conviction of a Class D felony but instead was sentenced as a Class D felon for his convictions of Class H felonies due to his status as a habitual felon.

State v. Essick, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Mar. 1, 2022). The defendant was charged with two counts of third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor, a Class H felony offense, and attaining the status of a habitual felon. The defendant entered an Alford plea to the sexual-exploitation charges and stipulated to having attained habitual-felon status. The plea arrangement provided that the charges would be consolidated into one Class H felony judgment, and that the defendant, as a habitual felon and a prior record level III offender, would receive an enhanced, Class D-level sentence of 67 to 93 months’ imprisonment, pursuant to G.S. 14-7.6.

However, before accepting the plea and entering judgment, the trial court determined that the maximum sentence should be increased from 93 months to 141 months pursuant to the sentencing enhancement provided in G.S. 15A-1340.17(f) for certain “reportable convictions” that require enrollment in the sex-offender registry. The Court of Appeals allowed the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by increasing his maximum sentence from 93 months to 141 months pursuant to G.S. 15A-1340.17(f)’s sentencing-enhancement provision, which he argued does not apply to Class F through I felony reportable convictions enhanced with habitual-felon status. The Court of Appeals agreed, concluding that the defendant’s contemporaneous conviction of being a habitual felon did not reclassify his Class H felony convictions to a Class D felony conviction. Slip op. at ¶ 20. The Court rationalized that the plain language of G.S. 15A-1340.17(f) suggests that the sentencing enhancement only applies to those convicted of certain Class B1 through E felonies, rather than those convicted of lower-level felonies but punished at the higher level of Class B1 through E due to the application of some other sentencing enhancement. The Court thus held that the trial court erred by applying the 15A-1340.17(f) sentencing enhancement in the defendant’s case.

 

The State presented sufficient evidence that the defendant violated the terms of his probation. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by revoking the defendant’s probation.

State v. Pettiford, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Mar. 1, 2022). The defendant was sentenced to 25 to 42 months in prison, suspended for 30 months of supervised probation. The defendant’s probation officer subsequently filed a violation report alleging that the defendant committed the crime of misdemeanor breaking or entering. At the probation violation hearing, the trial court found that the defendant violated his probation by committing a new offense of misdemeanor breaking or entering and activated the defendant’s suspended sentence. The defendant filed a motion for appropriate relief the following month, which the trial court denied.

On appeal, the defendant argued that insufficient evidence existed to show he violated his probation, or, in the alternative, that the trial court abused its discretion by revoking his probation. The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s first argument, noting that a probation proceeding is more informal than a criminal prosecution and, accordingly, “the court is not bound by strict rules of evidence, and the alleged violation of a valid condition of probation need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” Slip op. at ¶ 9. The evidence presented at the hearing showed that the defendant was known to associate with the victim “on a routine basis”; the officer recovered several prints from the point of entry of the victim’s apartment, one of which was identified as belonging to the defendant; the defendant did not have permission to be inside the apartment; and the defendant lived next door to the apartment. The Court of Appeals thus concluded that competent evidence existed that the defendant willfully violated his probation by committing a new offense of misdemeanor breaking or entering.

The Court also held that because competent evidence existed to support the trial court’s finding, the trial court had authority to revoke the defendant’s probation and thus did not constitute an abuse of discretion.

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