Case Summaries: N.C. Court of Appeals (Oct. 17, 2023)

This post summarizes the published criminal opinions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals released on October 17, 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.

Trial court’s finding of credibility for deputy’s testimony resolved conflicting accounts between the deputy and defendant; defendant’s actions of cupping his hand and throwing away a marijuana blunt supported constructive possession of the drugs in question.

State v. Burleson, COA23-212, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Oct. 17, 2023). In this McDowell County case, defendant appealed his convictions for drug-related crimes and attaining habitual felon status, arguing error in (1) denial of his motion to suppress the results of a search and (2) denial of his motion to dismiss the charges. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In April of 2021, defendant and an acquaintance drove up to a driver’s license checkpoint operated by the McDowell County Sheriff’s Department. A sheriff’s deputy approached the truck and asked the two men if either of them were on probation; the driver told the deputy he was, while defendant, as the passenger, told the deputy he was not. The deputy subsequently asked if there was anything illegal in the vehicle, and if he had their consent to search the vehicle. The driver gave verbal consent to the search, and the deputy asked him to step out of the vehicle for a pat down. After checking the driver, the deputy moved to defendant, and asked him to exit for a pat down. While patting down defendant, the deputy noticed defendant cup his hand and make a throwing motion; when asked what he threw away, the defendant admitted it was a marijuana blunt. A subsequent search of the vehicle turned up bags of marijuana and methamphetamine. At trial, defendant moved to suppress the results of the search, arguing that it was conducted without valid consent of the owner or occupants, and without reasonable suspicion. Defendant also moved to dismiss the charges for insufficient evidence. Both motions were denied, and defendant was convicted.

Taking up (1), the Court of Appeals explained defendant’s argument hinged on conflicting testimony from the deputy and himself about the truck and any illegal contents. Defendant argued that the trial court should have made findings regarding this discrepancy and whether defendant was improperly detained without a Miranda warning. The court disagreed, explaining that “the trial court found [the deputy’s] testimony was credible and, in doing so, resolved any testimonial conflicts in [the deputy’s] favor.” Slip Op. at 8. Even assuming the deputy asked defendant about the truck in the manner defendant testified, the court explained that defendant made no incriminating statements in response, and only made an incriminating admission after the search turned up drugs in the vehicle.

In (2), defendant argued that the State failed to present sufficient incriminating circumstances to support his convictions. Because defendant “did not have exclusive possession of the truck in which the drugs were found, the State was required to provide evidence of other incriminating circumstances.” Id. at 11. The court found just such evidence in the testimony about defendant “cupping his hand, making a throwing motion with his back turned, and admitting to throwing a marijuana blunt” after the deputy asked him to exit the vehicle. Id. at 12. This behavior coupled with the drugs found in the center console supported defendant’s constructive possession for the convictions.

Federal carjacking offense was substantially similar to North Carolina common law robbery for purposes of prior record level calculation.

State v. Daniels, COA23-22, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Oct. 17, 2023). In this Mecklenburg County case, defendant appealed his convictions for attempted first-degree murder and various assault and firearms charges, arguing error in the determination of his prior record level by finding his federal carjacking conviction was substantially similar to common law robbery. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In 2018, defendant fired multiple shots during an altercation, one of which struck a child waiting at a bus stop, attracting the attention of an off-duty sheriff’s deputy. Defendant jumped into a vehicle, and as the driver sped away from the deputy, defendant fired multiple shots at the deputy’s vehicle. Defendant was eventually caught, and was convicted of all charges against him at trial. During the sentencing phase, the trial court considered whether defendant’s conviction for carjacking under 18 U.S.C. § 2119 was substantially similar to the North Carolina common law offense of robbery. After hearing from the parties, the trial court concluded that the State had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the two offenses were substantially similar, increasing defendant’s prior record level by four sentencing points.

The Court of Appeals began by noting the similarities between the two offenses, as “[b]oth the federal carjacking statute and North Carolina’s common law robbery require the forceful and violent taking of property.” Slip Op. at 9. Defendant raised four arguments on appeal. First, defendant argued that the similarity between the two offenses failed the test from State v. Sanders, 367 N.C. 716 (2014). The Court of Appeals disagreed, explaining “[h]ere, unlike in Sanders, the elements of carjacking and common law robbery require similar conduct, and no elements are mutually exclusive.” Slip Op. at 11. In defendant’s second argument, he pointed to the connection to interstate commerce requirement for the federal offense, an element not present in common law robbery. The court dismissed this argument, pointing to a similar determination in State v. Riley, 253 N.C. App. 819 (2017), and explaining that the additional federal element of “interstate commerce” did not distinguish the two crimes. Slip Op. at 13.

Defendant pointed to the sentencing enhancements of the federal statute not present in the North Carolina offense for his third argument. The court again disagreed, noting the N.C. Supreme Court has explained “the test in Sanders does not ‘require identicalness between compared statutes from different states and mandate identical outcomes between cases which originate both in North Carolina and in the foreign state.’” Id. at 15, quoting State v. Graham, 379 N.C. 75, 84 (2021). Finally, defendant argued that the North Carolina offense was broader than the federal offense, as the federal offense is limited to theft of motor vehicles. This final argument also failed, as the court referenced State v. Key, 180 N.C. App. 286 (2006), and concluded that the two offenses were substantially similar as “both the federal carjacking statute and North Carolina common law robbery require a non-consensual taking of property under threat, force, or intimidation.” Slip Op. at 17.

Trial court erred by extending probationary term without a finding of good cause, and by imposing an additional 45-day active term beyond the statutory deadline.

State v. Jackson, COA22-984, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Oct. 17, 2023). In this Perquimans County case, defendant appealed the trial court’s finding that he violated the terms of his probation, arguing the trial court extended his probation after the probationary term had expired without a finding of good cause. The Court of Appeals agreed, vacating the order and remanding to the trial court to determine if good cause exists.

Defendant, a town council member, was placed on probation for striking another council member in October 2018. After entering an Alford plea to assault of a government official, defendant was sentenced in December 2019 to 60 days of imprisonment, suspended for 24 months supervised probation with 15 days of active term, and a curfew from 7pm to 6am. Defendant’s probation officer filed violation reports alleging that defendant violated the curfew and left the county without prior approval. The matter was initially set for an August 2020 hearing, but after continuances, the matter did not reach a hearing until February of 2022. By that time, defendant’s probationary term had expired, ending in December 2021. After the February 2022 hearing, the trial court entered an order extending defendant’s probation for another 12 months and ordering a 45-day active term as a condition of special probation. Defendant appealed.

The Court of Appeals looked first to G.S. 15A-1344(f), which allows a trial court to extend probation after the expiration of the term in certain circumstances. Relevant for this case, a trial court must find that the defendant violated a condition of probation, and then make a finding under (f)(3) that “for good cause shown and stated the probation should be extended.” Slip Op. at 4. The court explained that “A finding of good cause ‘cannot simply be inferred from the record.’” Id., quoting State v. Morgan, 372 N.C. 609, 617 (2019). Because the hearing here occurred after defendant’s probation term expired, and the record contained no finding of good cause to satisfy G.S. 15A-1344(f)(3), the court remanded for further determination by the trial court.

The court also vacated the 45-day active term imposed after the expiration of defendant’s probation, finding error by the trial court for two reasons. First, under the calculation required by G.S. 15A-1351(a), “the maximum period of confinement that could have been imposed as a condition of special probation was 15 days,” which defendant had served at the beginning of his sentence. Id. at 6. Second, because the statute sets an outer deadline of “the end of the probationary term or two years after the date of conviction, whichever comes first,” defendant’s additional 45-day active term was outside the acceptable period. Id. at 7.

[Opinion withdrawn by Court of Appeals]

State v. Lester, COA23-115, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Oct. 17, 2023). This opinion was withdrawn by the Court of Appeals. Any future opinion will be provided on the blog when it is released.

Trial court’s order granting relief from bond forfeiture was not supported by evidence of extraordinary circumstances and represented abuse of discretion.

State v. Mohammed, COA23-198, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Oct. 17, 2023). In this Durham County case, the Durham Public Schools Board of Education (Board) appealed an order granting relief from a judgment of bond forfeiture, arguing the bond surety company did not make a showing of extraordinary circumstances to justify relief. The Court of Appeals agreed, reversing the trial court’s order for abuse of discretion.

Defendant in the underlying criminal case was arrested in February 2020, and released on a $5,000 secured bond. At defendant’s January 2022 court date, he failed to appear, leading the trial court to issue a bond forfeiture notice with a final judgment date of June 16, 2022. On the same day as the final judgment, the bail agent filed a motion to set aside the forfeiture, arguing that defendant had died. Instead of attaching a copy of the defendant’s death certificate to the motion, the bond agent attached a handwritten note stating “[d]efendant died and we are getting a copy of death certificate.” Slip Op. at 2. The Board objected and moved for sanctions, pointing out that the motion did not contain actual evidence of defendant’s death; the trial court imposed $2,500 in sanctions and left the final judgment in place. After the State moved to dismiss the charges against defendant, the surety filed another motion for relief from the final judgment of forfeiture, this time attaching a photograph of defendant’s death certificate from Cook County, Illinois. The trial court ultimately left the sanctions in place, but granted the surety relief from the bond forfeiture, concluding that extraordinary circumstances justified relief. The Board appealed.

The Court of Appeals found the trial court abused its discretion in granting the motion for relief, as no evidence in the record supported a finding of extraordinary circumstances under G.S. 15A-544.8(b)(2). While the surety’s counsel argued that obtaining the death certificate was difficult and required a search for family members, the record contained no sworn testimony or affidavits supporting this assertion. The court pointed out “[c]ounsel’s arguments were not evidence, and the record is devoid of evidence to support the trial court’s finding” that extraordinary circumstances occurred. Id. at 6. Because no evidence in the record supported the trial court’s conclusion, “the trial court’s conclusion that extraordinary circumstances existed could not have been the result of a reasoned decision.” Id.