Case Summaries — N.C. Court of Appeals (Nov. 3, 2020)

This post summarizes published opinions issued by the Court of Appeals of North Carolina on November 3, 2020.

(1) Presuming, without deciding, that defense counsel impliedly admitted in trial for felony breaking and entering that defendant committed misdemeanor breaking and entering, there was no Harbison error because counsel acted with defendant’s consent; (2) Prosecutor’s remarks attacking the credibility of the defendant’s expert witness were improper, but not so grossly improper as to impede defendant’s right to a fair trial; (3) Civil judgment for attorney’s fees is vacated and remanded to the trial court to allow the defendant an opportunity to be heard.

State v. Bowman, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Nov. 3, 2020).

The defendant was charged with first degree burglary after she was found inside the victims’ home in the early morning hours, having taken items from their cars and placed them inside a purse belonging to one of the homeowners. The defendant appeared to be impaired at the time she was arrested. She claimed during the encounter that, alternatively, she was an emergency medical worker, someone had chased her inside the house, and someone had invited her to the house.

(1) Before making an opening statement, defense counsel notified the court that he would be admitting  all of the elements of the charged offense besides intent. The trial court asked the defendant whether she understood and agreed with this decision. She said she did. While defense counsel’s express or implied admission of the defendant’s guilt of a charged offense to the jury without the defendant’s consent is per se ineffective assistance of counsel, such an admission may be made with the defendant’s consent. Here, the trial court had an exchange with the defendant where she expressed her understanding and agreed to admit the elements of felony breaking and entering other than intent. Therefore, even assuming, without deciding, that defense counsel impliedly admitted that defendant was guilty of misdemeanor breaking and entering, that admission was consensual and did not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel.

(2) An expert in forensic psychology testified for the defendant that she had diagnosed the defendant with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe alcohol use disorder, severe amphetamine use disorder, and a personality disorder. The expert testified that the defendant admitted to using methamphetamine daily and that such use can result in a methamphetamine-associated psychosis which presents with delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations. The expert characterized the defendant’s symptoms as congruent with this condition.

During closing argument, the prosecutor attacked the expert’s credibility, stating that “‘psychosis is quite convenient as an excuse’” and that the defendant “‘had Dr. James come and testify . . . with the end in mind.’” Slip op. at 14. The prosecutor argued to the jury that the expert  was “‘paid by the defense, for the defense, to give good stuff for the defense’” and that “‘[y]ou get what you put out. What you put in, you get out.’” Id. After questioning the utility of Dr. James’s diagnoses of the defendant, the prosecutor remarked to the jury, “‘So I ask you to take that for what it is. At the end of the day, hired by the defense, for the defense, to say good things for the defense . . . .’” Id. The defendant did not object to the remarks. The court of appeals held that the prosecutor’s remarks were improper because they went beyond arguing that the expert witness was potentially biased, which is permissible. Instead, the prosecution impermissibly suggested to the jury that the defendant’s expert was paid to fabricate an excuse for her conduct and acts, regardless of the truth. The court explained:

By arguing that psychosis was an “excuse,” Dr. James testified with an end in mind, Dr. James was paid “to give good stuff for the defense,” and Dr. James was hired “to say good things for the defense,” the prosecutor inappropriately suggested that Dr. James “should not be believed because [s]he would give untruthful or inaccurate testimony in exchange for pay.”

Slip op. at 14 (quoting, in last clause of last sentence, State v. Huey, 370 N.C. 174, 183 (2017)).

While these remarks were improper, the court of appeals held that in the absence of an objection by the defendant, they were not so grossly improper as to impede the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The court noted that similar remarks had been held not to amount to prejudicial error. Moreover, the court said it could not conclude that the remarks were so prejudicial as to merit a new trial considering the substantial amount of evidence tending to show that the defendant had the requisite intent for first-degree burglary.

(3) The Court vacated the civil judgment for attorney’s fees and remanded the matter to the trial court for a waiver by the defendant or a hearing on the issue. Although at trial the defendant stated she had no objection to the entry of a civil judgment, she did not know at that time the number of hours her appointed counsel planned to submit or what amount she would owe. She was, therefore, deprived of a meaningful opportunity to be heard before the judgment was entered.

 

The trial court abused its discretion when it ordered a bail agent to pay $500 in sanctions for failing to attach sufficient documentation with its motion to set aside a bond forfeiture and prohibited the bail agent from becoming a surety on bonds until the judgment was satisfied.

State v. Doss, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Nov. 3, 2020).

The defendant was arrested for impaired driving and posted bond on same day through the bail agent. The defendant subsequently failed to appear, and an order was issued for her arrest. The court subsequently mailed a bond forfeiture notice to the bail agent. The bail agent filed a motion to set aside the forfeiture using form AOC-CR-213, checking box two which provides that “[a]ll charges for which the defendant was bonded to appear have been finally disposed by the court other than by the State taking a dismissal with leave as evidenced by the attached copy of the official court record” and box four, which provides that “[t]he defendant has been served with an order for arrest for the failure to appear on the criminal charge in the case in question as evidenced by a copy of an official court record, including an electronic record.” Slip. op. at 2-3. An ACIS printout showing that the defendant had been assigned a new court date was attached to the motion.

The local board of education opposed the motion and claimed the right to seek sanctions for reimbursement of all attorney fees and expenses incurred in objecting to this motion if the bail agent provided additional documentation after the date of the objection. Before to the hearing on the board’s objection to the motion to set aside, the bail agent provided the board’s counsel with additional documentation that demonstrated the order for arrest had been served. At the hearing, the board’s counsel conceded that the additional documentation was sufficient to set aside forfeiture, and the trial court granted the bail agent’s motion to set aside. The trial court also ordered sanctions against bail agent in the amount of $500 for failure to attach sufficient documentation to the motion to set aside. Further, the trial court prohibited the bail agent from becoming “surety on any bail bond in Jones County until” it satisfied the judgment.

The court of appeals determined that a trial court may only impose sanctions under G.S. 15A-544.5(d)(8) when the motion to set aside is denied. A trial court cannot order both that the forfeiture be set aside and that sanctions be imposed. Thus, it held that the court abused its discretion when it granted the motion to set aside and imposed sanctions against the bail agent.

The court also held that the board failed to make a proper motion for sanctions as the record did not indicate that the board filed or served the bail agent with a motion for sanctions and notice of the hearing 10 days prior to the hearing.

Further, the court of appeals determined that the trial court exceed its authority by prohibiting the bail agent from becoming surety on any future bonds in Jones County until the judgment was satisfied. Lastly, the appellate court reasoned that the trial court erred in determining that the motion “contained insufficient documentation” as the ACIS printout that was attached to the motion is an official court document. For all of these reasons, the court of appeals determined that the trial court abused its discretion when it sanctioned the bail agent.

 

(1) Defendant failed to properly preserve for appellate review the denial of her motion to suppress; (2) The trial court did not err by denying defendant’s motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence; (3) The trial court did not err in sentencing the defendant based on a grossly aggravating factor for which the State filed to provide the statutorily required notice.

State v. McGaha, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Nov. 3, 2020).

The defendant was stopped by a state trooper who saw her driving erratically. The defendant smelled of alcohol, had slurred and mumbled speech, and stumbled and staggered when she got out of her car. She registered a positive result on a portable breath test and was arrested for driving while impaired. She subsequently refused to submit to a breath test. The defendant pled guilty in district court to driving while impaired and appealed. In superior court, the defendant moved to suppress evidence and requested a bench trial. The superior court denied the motion to suppress and found the defendant guilty. At sentencing, the court found the grossly aggravating factor of a prior impaired driving conviction within seven years of the date of the offense and imposed a Level Two sentence. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress, the evidence was insufficient to support her conviction, and that the trial court erred in in sentencing her based on a grossly aggravating factor for which the State filed to provide the statutorily required notice.

(1) The court of appeals determined that the defendant did not properly preserve the denial of her motion to suppress for review on appeal as she did not renew her objection when the evidence was offered for consideration at her bench trial. And because the defendant did not argue plain error on appeal, the court did not review the denial of the motion for plain error.

(2) The court of appeals determined that the trial court did not err by denying defendant’s motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence. The trooper testified as to his opinion that the defendant was impaired by alcohol. He based that opinion on seeing the defendant stumbling and staggering when she got out of her car, smelling a moderate odor of alcohol on her breath, hearing her mumbled and slurred speech, and observing her erratic driving. Evidence of the defendant’s refusal to submit to a breath test at the police station also was admissible evidence of impairment. The appellate court held that, viewed in the light most favorable to the State, this evidence was sufficient to show that the defendant was under the influence of an impairing substance.

(3) The State failed to file notice of its intent to rely at sentencing upon the aggravating factor of a prior impaired driving conviction. Such notice is required by G.S. 20-179(a1)(1) for misdemeanor impaired driving charges appealed to superior court. The court explained that the right to notice of the State’s intent to rely on a prior conviction is a statutory right, not a constitutional one, and thus may be waived. The defendant admitted to the prior conviction on cross-examination, and her counsel stipulated at sentencing that she “‘did have the prior DWI.’” Slip op. at 12. Moreover, defense counsel did not object to the court’s consideration of the prior conviction as an aggravating factor. The court of appeals determined that the defendant’s admission and her counsel’s stipulation along with her failure to object to lack of notice at the sentencing hearing amounted to a waiver of her statutory right to notice.

 

(1) The trial court did not err by sentencing the defendant for both insurance fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses; (2) The trial court did not err by failing to set a completion date for imprisonment imposed as a condition of special probation.   

State v. Ray, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Nov. 3, 2020).

The defendant was charged with insurance fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses based on her submission of claims for living expenses that she did not incur. Following Hurricane Matthew, the defendant submitted a lease agreement purportedly signed by her stepfather providing that the defendant would pay $100 per day to stay in his home. Defendant’s stepfather subsequently told investigators that he did not have a lease agreement with the defendant and that she had not stayed in his home. The defendant was convicted of both charges at a jury trial.  The trial court consolidated the convictions for judgment and sentenced the defendant to 10 to 21 months imprisonment, suspended for 24 months of supervised probation. The trial court ordered the defendant to serve 60 days imprisonment as a condition of special probation.  The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by sentencing her for both obtaining property by false pretenses and insurance fraud for the same alleged misrepresentation. She also argued that the trial court improperly delegated its authority to the defendant’s probation officer by failing to set a date by which the term of special probation had to be completed.

(1) The court of appeals determined that the trial court did not err by sentencing her for  obtaining property under false pretenses and insurance fraud even though both offenses arose from the same misrepresentation. To determine whether multiple punishments may be imposed for multiple convictions in a single trial based on a single course of conduct, the court must look to the intent of the legislature. Each of the offenses for which the defendant was convicted contained an element the other did not. Insurance fraud requires proving that the defendant presented a statement in support of a claim for payment under an insurance policy; obtaining property by false pretenses requires proving that the defendant’s misrepresentation did in fact deceive. Based on the separate and distinct elements that must be proven, the appellate court reasoned that the legislature clearly expressed its intent to proscribe and punish a misrepresentation intended to deceive under both statutes. Additionally, the court noted that the subject of each crime is violative of two separate, distinct social norms: “Where obtaining property by false pretenses is generally likely to harm a single victim, a broader class of victims is harmed by insurance fraud.” Slip. op. at 8. Finally, regarding the history of the treatment of the two crimes for sentencing purposes, the court noted that previous panels had sustained sentencing for convictions of obtaining property by false pretenses and insurance fraud arising from the same misrepresentation. For these reasons, the court of appeals determined that the trial court did not err by consolidating the Class H felony convictions for judgment and sentencing the defendant in the high presumptive range for one Class H felony.

(2) The trial court did not err by delegating authority to the defendant’s probation officer and by not setting a completion deadline for the active term of the sentence as a condition of special probation. G.S.15A-1351(a) permits a trial court to require that a defendant submit to periods of imprisonment during probation at “whatever time or intervals within the period of probation . . . the court determines,” so long as the total period of such confinement does not exceed one-fourth of the maximum sentence imposed. It further requires that imprisonment imposed as a condition of special probation be completed within two years of conviction.

In this case, the trial court sentenced the defendant to 10 to 21 months of imprisonment and suspended that sentence for 24 months of supervised probation. As a condition of probation, the trial court ordered the defendant to serve 60 days of imprisonment as a condition of special probation. The court specified that the defendant was “‘TO SERVE 30 DAYS AT ONE TIME AND 30 DAYS AT ANOTHER TIME AS SCHEDULED BY PROBATION.’” Slip op. at 11. The court of appeals held that the trial court appropriately determined the “intervals within the period of probation” as two 30-day periods, and the completion date was set by statute as August 27, 2021—which, in defendant’s case, was both the end of the two-year probationary period and two years from the date of conviction.

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