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Case Summaries – N.C. Court of Appeals (Nov. 17, 2020)

This post summarizes published opinions issued by the Court of Appeals of North Carolina on November 17, 2020.

(1) The trial court properly declined to instruct on the defense of justification because undisputed trial evidence showed that the defendant continued to possess the firearm well after any potential threat had ended, despite many options for relinquishing possession; (2) The trial court improperly imposed attorneys’ fees without providing notice and an opportunity to be heard.

State v. Crooks, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Nov. 17, 2020).

(1) The State and the defendant’s version of events were inconsistent. For purposes of determining the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a jury instruction on justification, the Court of Appeals recounted the defendant’s version of events. The defendant was in David Harrison’s trailer drinking bourbon when Harrison suddenly stood up while only a few feet from the defendant, pulled a pistol out of his pocket, pointed it toward the wall near the defendant, and fired a shot at the wall. Before pulling out the gun, Harrison had not threatened the defendant in any way, nor did he appear angry or upset. As soon as Harrison fired the shot at the wall, the defendant grabbed the pistol from Harrison and left the trailer. The defendant went to look for Karen Tucker, who was dating his father, and who he believed would be sober and safely able to take the gun from him. When the defendant did not find Karen in her trailer, he waited with the gun in his possession, in the presence of Karen’s daughters, until Karen arrived. The defendant then gave Karen the gun.

Law enforcement officers who later arrived on the scene did not find bullet holes inside of Harrison’s trailer but did find a shell casing sitting on a coffee table. The defendant was charged with a number of offenses, including possession of a firearm by a felon. At trial, the defendant requested a jury instruction on the defense of justification. The trial court denied the request, and the jury found the defendant guilty.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by denying his request for a jury instruction on the defense of justification. Using the test outlined in State v. Mercer, 373 N.C. 459, 463 (2020), the Court of Appeals determined that the evidence at trial was insufficient to establish the first factor of the test, which requires “that the defendant was under unlawful and present, imminent, and impending threat of death or serious bodily injury.” The Court concluded that even assuming Harrison’s drunken act of firing his pistol into the wall or ceiling of his house represented an “impending threat of death or serious bodily injury” to the defendant, that threat was gone once the defendant left Harrison’s trailer with the gun, and the defendant did not take advantage of other opportunities, described in the opinion, to dispose of the gun.

(2) The State conceded that the trial court erred in imposing attorneys’ fees without providing the defendant with notice and an opportunity to be heard. At the time of sentencing, the defendant’s court-appointed counsel had not yet calculated the number of hours worked on the case. The trial court explained to the defendant that those would be calculated later and submitted to the court. The court advised the defendant that it would sign what it felt to be a reasonable fee. The court later entered a civil judgment for $2,220 without first informing the defendant of the amount. The Court of Appeals held that the defendant was not provided sufficient opportunity to be heard before entry of that civil judgment. It thus vacated the civil judgment and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings on that issue.

 

(1) The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motions to dismiss where there was sufficient evidence of the defendant’s identity as the perpetrator and that the defendant conspired to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon; (2) The trial court did not err by sustaining the State’s objection to a question asked on cross-examination concerning a civil lawsuit filed by a witness; and (3) The trial court did not commit plain error by failing to strike the victim’s in-court identification of the defendant as the perpetrator.

State v. Glenn, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Nov. 17, 2020).

The defendant was indicted for attempted first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon, and other offenses. The State alleged that the defendant shot a man and his wife, Bruce and Joanne Parker, as they were getting into their car in a darkened Charlotte parking lot. After shooting Mr. Parker, the defendant, who was accompanied by a male and female companion, took Mr. Parker’s wallet and cell phone.

Off-duty officers arrived on the scene shortly after the couple was shot and saw the defendant and his two companions leaving the scene in the defendant’s car. Mr. Parker identified the defendant as the person who shot him. The officers gave chase, and the defendant’s male companion, who was driving, crashed the car. The defendant and his companions ran from the car. The driver was apprehended. The defendant and his female companion ran into a parking garage, where they were captured on surveillance footage, but were not apprehended by officers. On the driver’s seat floorboard of the crashed car, officers found the gun used to shoot the couple, the husband’s cell phone and wallet, and a purse and driver’s license belonging to the defendant’s female companion. Forty-five minutes later, the defendant called law enforcement officers to report that he had been carjacked earlier in the evening.

A few days after the shooting, an officer came to Mr. Parker’s hospital room and showed him a photographic lineup. The defendant’s picture was in the lineup, but Mr. Parker identified another person as the shooter. During trial, Mr. Parker testified that he was able to make out the shooter’s face during the attack. He then, without objection, identified the defendant in the courtroom, stating that the defendant was “pretty much the same man as he was that night,” only that he “appeared a little bit thinner.”

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss because there was insufficient evidence both that he was the perpetrator of the offenses and that there was a conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, noting that Mr. Parker identified the car and the defendant as the shooter at the scene; that the officers saw the defendant leaving the scene and the car he was in; that Mr. Parker gave a description of the defendant that same night; that the description matched a person seen on surveillance after the car crashed; that the defendant was the owner of the car; and that Mr. Parker identified the defendant as the shooter in court. The Court also rejected the defendant’s insufficiency of the evidence argument regarding the conspiracy. The Court relied on State v. Lamb, 342 N.C. 151 (1995), and State v. Miles, 267 N.C. App. 78 (2019), in concluding that there was sufficient evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude that the defendant acted in coordination with the other occupants of the vehicle to rob the Parkers with a dangerous weapon.

(2) The defendant next argued that the trial court erred by sustaining the State’s objection to the defendant’s question concerning a civil lawsuit filed by the Parkers against the owner of the parking lot alleging inadequate security. The defendant contended that the civil lawsuit was relevant because it showed that the Parkers had an interest in the outcome of the criminal prosecution. The Court has previously held that “where a witness for the prosecution has filed a civil suit for damages against the criminal defendant himself, the pendency of the suit is admissible to impeach the witness by showing the witness’s interest in the outcome of the criminal prosecution.” State v. Dixon, 77 N.C. App. 27, 31– 32 (1985); State v. Grant, 57 N.C. App. 589, 591 (1982). The Court concluded that because the civil suit was not filed against the defendant and because it was not necessary for the Parkers to prove in the civil suit that the defendant was the assailant, the pendency of the civil suit did not show Mr. Parker’s interest in the outcome of the criminal prosecution and was therefore not admissible to impeach the witness.

(3) The defendant’s final argument was that the trial court plainly erred by failing to exclude Mr. Parker’s in-court identification, which the defendant did not object to at trial. The defendant contended that the in-court identification was tainted by Mr. Parker’s exposure to media coverage of the case, his filing of a civil lawsuit that named the defendant as the assailant, the lapse of time, and his identification of someone other than the defendant in the photo lineup. The Court of Appeals concluded that these factors alone did not trigger due process concerns and that the alleged defects of the in-court identification were issues of credibility for the jury to resolve. The Court explained that absent any indication that the in-court identification was tainted by an impermissibly suggestive pre-trial identification procedure, there was no error, let alone plain error, in admitting Mr. Parker’s in-court identification.

 

The trial court erred in denying a motion to dismiss a first-degree burglary charge when it considered G.S. 14-54(a1) (breaking and entering with the intent to terrorize or injure an occupant) as the felony underlying the first-degree burglary charge and the evidence failed to support this theory, which was used as the sole basis for the conviction.

State v. McDaris, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Nov. 17, 2020).

At approximately 1:00 a.m. on January 1, 2018, the defendant woke Mr. and Mrs. Ridenhour by loudly banging on the front door of their residence. Mr. Ridenhour, thinking a neighbor was at the door, went to the front door and flipped the deadbolt. The defendant violently pushed the front door open, knocking Mr. Ridenhour backwards. The defendant entered the house and began beating Mr. Ridenhour, who shouted for his wife to call the police and grab his pistol. The defendant struck Mr. Ridenhour multiple times, causing him to fall down a flight of stairs and knocking him unconscious. Mrs. Ridenhour entered the hall, pointed a gun at the defendant, and told him to leave. The defendant then left the house, and Mr. Ridenhour regained consciousness and locked the door. The defendant briefly walked in the front yard but returned and began banging on the front door again. Caldwell County Sheriff’s Deputies arrived at the scene and detained the defendant at the front door. The defendant was indicted for first-degree burglary and the lesser included offense of felonious breaking and entering.

During a bench trial, the defendant twice moved to dismiss, arguing that the State had not presented sufficient evidence of his intent to commit an underlying felony when he entered the Ridenhour house, as required for first-degree burglary. The trial court denied both motions. In a subsequent charge conference, the trial court stated it was considering larceny, attempted murder, and a violation of G.S. 14-54(a1) (breaking or entering a building with intent to terrorize or injure an occupant) as potential underlying felonies for the first-degree burglary charge. However, the trial court, as finder of fact, convicted the defendant of first-degree burglary solely on the basis of G.S. 14-54(a1), stating that “the defendant . . . committed first-degree burglary by committing the felony of [G.S. 14-54(a1)] when he broke and entered into the building with the intent to terrorize and injure the occupant, because that’s what happened.” Slip op. at 5.

On appeal, the defendant challenged the sufficiency of the evidence, specifically arguing that G.S. 14-54(a1) cannot be an underlying felony for first-degree burglary because “grammatically and logically, the initial breaking and entering must be distinct from the crime which a burglar subsequently intends to commit therein.” Slip op. at 6. The Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant, reasoning that “for G.S. 14-54(a1) to satisfy the felonious intent element of first-degree burglary, a defendant must (1) break and enter a dwelling (2) with the intent to therein (3) break or enter a building (4) with the intent to terrorize or injure an occupant” Slip op. at 8–9. (emphasis in original). The Court held that sufficient evidence was not presented to support the inference that the defendant broke and entered the Ridenhours’ residence with the intent to subsequently break or enter another building within the residence and therein terrorize the Ridenhours and as a result, the defendant’s motion to dismiss should have been granted. Moreover, the Court explained that in determining that the first-degree burglary charge was only supported by the defendant’s intent to violate G.S. 14-54(a1), the trial court acquitted the defendant of the other potential underlying felonies, including attempted murder, assault inflicting serious bodily injury, and larceny. The Court reversed the defendant’s first-degree burglary conviction and remanded for entry of judgment for misdemeanor breaking or entering, a lesser included offense that does not require proof of intent to commit an underlying felony.

 

The defendant failed to demonstrate reversible error in the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on “reasonable belief of consent” as a defense to the rape charge.

State v. Yelverton, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Nov. 17, 2020).

The defendant and his longtime friend, Ivy, began dating in 2017. Per Ivy’s clear and constant requests, their sexual contact with each other was limited to kissing and touching above the waist. Whenever the defendant tried to touch her below the waist, she told him to stop.

On August 1, 2017, Ivy visited the defendant at his home and went with the defendant into his bedroom where they began watching television. They then began to engage in “hot and heavy” physical contact, including kissing, touching Ivy’s breasts, and removing Ivy’s shirt, which she was “okay” with. When the defendant attempted to put his hand down Ivy’s shorts, she pushed him away and told him “no.” The defendant removed his hand momentarily but made repeated attempts. Ivy twisted her legs to keep them together, but eventually the defendant was able to remove her shorts. Ivy again told the defendant “no” and to stop because she “wasn’t ready for that.” The defendant then pinned Ivy’s hands over her head, pushed her underwear aside, and penetrated her vagina with his penis. Ivy told the defendant to stop and said “no,” but he continued to penetrate her. Eventually, Ivy gave up because the defendant did not listen.

After the events, Ivy got dressed and left the home. The defendant walked with her outside, asking if she was okay, to which she responded that she was. Ivy then left in her car. The defendant repeatedly texted Ivy after the incident, asking her via text to promise him she was okay and continuing to text her daily. The defendant made continued attempts to talk to and see Ivy, despite her pleas that he leave her alone. Five days after the incident, Ivy reported the incident to police.

The defendant was indicted on charges of second-degree forcible rape and attempted second-degree forcible rape. The defendant testified that he thought Ivy consented to sex although he admitted Ivy stated “she was not ready” that night and conceded that “she may have pushed me a little bit” when he initiated sexual contact. The defendant was found guilty of second-degree forcible rape and not guilty of attempted second-degree forcible rape.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred, or plainly erred, by failing to provide a jury instruction on the defense of consent based on the defendant’s “reasonable belief” that Ivy consented to the sexual acts. The Court of Appeals reviewed the argument under the plain error standard because the defendant did not request this instruction at trial. The Court rejected this argument, noting that neither the Court nor the State Supreme Court have recognized a “reasonable belief of consent” defense to rape. The Court cited State v. Moorman, 320 N.C. 387, 389–92 (1987), in which the Supreme Court held “that a defendant could be convicted of rape by force and against the will of the victim, who was incapacitated and asleep at the time, despite the defendant’s testimony that he mistook the victim for someone he knew and believed she consented to vaginal intercourse.” The Court concluded that because a defendant’s knowledge of whether the victim consented is not a material element of rape and mistaken belief in consent has not been recognized as a defense to rape, the trial court did not err in failing to provide an instruction to that effect. The Court contrasted other statutes involving rape and sex offense in which the General Assembly has used reasonableness language, such as with respect to revocation of consent in G.S. 14-27.20(1a)(b).

The defendant alternatively argued that he had been denied his right to effective assistance of counsel because his defense counsel did not request an instruction on the defendant’s reasonable belief of consent defense. The Court rejected that argument based on the conclusion that the defendant was not entitled to the instruction.

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