Case Summaries – N.C. Court of Appeals (Oct. 4, 2022)

This post summarizes the published criminal opinions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals released on October 4, 2022. These summaries will be added to Smith’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to the present.

Paved area next to fuel pumps constituted a “public vehicular area” under G.S. § 20-4.01(32) for search of an automobile; smell of heroin justified search under plain-smell doctrine.

State v. Parker, 2022-NCCOA-655, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Oct. 4, 2022). In this Guilford County case, defendant appealed his attempted heroin trafficking and possession of a firearm convictions pursuant to a plea agreement that preserved his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of defendant’s motion.

The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office conducted a narcotics investigation in May of 2019. As part of the investigation, a confidential informant made several purchases of heroin from a person who was associated with defendant. During a purchase set up by the confidential informant, the seller was observed getting into a black SUV, a vehicle later spotted by an officer at a fuel pump near the arranged buy. After spotting the black SUV officers detained defendant, who was operating the SUV, and searched the vehicle, finding heroin and a loaded firearm. At trial, defendant moved to suppress the warrantless search and seizure, which the trial court denied after finding probable cause for the search.

Reviewing defendant’s appeal, the Court of Appeals first examined the challenged findings of fact related to the officers’ testimony. Defendant argued that inconsistences between the testimony of the two officers meant that both could not be considered credible, and certain other findings of fact were inconsistent with the evidence presented. The court explained that slight inconsistencies between the testimony of two witnesses did not prevent both from being credible, and the trial court is tasked with evaluating the evidence and resolving inconsistencies. Because competent evidence supported the findings of fact even with the slight inconsistences, the court rejected defendant’s challenges.

The court then reviewed the probable cause for a search of defendant’s SUV and the seizure of heroin and a firearm found inside the vehicle. The court explained that the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment requires that the “vehicle be in a public vehicular area and the police have probable cause.” Slip Op. at 16. The first issue was whether defendant’s SUV was in a “public vehicular area” when searched; defendant argued that the area next to a fuel pump did not fall under the definition provided by G.S. § 20-4.01(32). The court explained that a “service station” is gas station for purposes of the statute, and although the fuel pump area may not be a “driveway, road, alley, or parking lot” as listed by the statute, this list is intended to be illustrative and not limiting. Slip Op. at 19. After examining applicable precedent, the court held that “the driving or parking area adjacent to a fuel pump at a service station is a ‘public vehicular area’” for purposes of G.S. § 20-4.01(32).

After determining that defendant’s SUV was in a public vehicular area, the court turned to the probable cause for searching the vehicle. Defendant argued that the plain view and plain smell doctrines could not support the search of the vehicle. Regarding the plain view doctrine, the court pointed out that the vehicle was in a public vehicular area and near the location of the drug buy the officers were observing. For the plain smell doctrine, the court noted that there was no applicable precedent regarding the smell of heroin supporting a search, but ample precedent used the smell of other narcotics, such as marijuana and cocaine, to support probable cause for a search. The court saw “no reason to treat the plain smell of heroin any differently than the plain smell of marijuana or cocaine” for purposes of the plain smell doctrine, and affirmed the trial court’s determination of probable cause for the search. Slip Op. at 29.

Failure to include the essential element of “abuse” rendered indictment for second-degree rape defective, leading to vacated conviction.

State v. Singleton, 2022-NCCOA-656, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Oct. 4, 2022). In this Wake County case, defendant appealed his conviction for second-degree rape due to a missing element in the charging indictment, and his conviction for first-degree kidnapping due to insufficiency of the evidence. The Court of Appeals found the charging indictment was flawed and vacated defendant’s rape conviction, but affirmed his conviction for kidnapping.

In November of 2017, a college student went to a bar in downtown Raleigh with a group of friends and became intoxicated. Security camera footage showed defendant helping the victim into his vehicle around 2:25am. The student remembered dancing with her sister and friends around 2:00am; her next memory was around 5:30am when she found herself in defendant’s vehicle while he was engaging in sexual intercourse with her. The student told defendant to stop, tried to find her cellphone, and then fled the vehicle when she could not find her phone. The student reported the incident and defendant was convicted of rape and kidnapping after a trial.

The Court of Appeals first reviewed the charging indictment for defendant’s rape conviction, explaining that in North Carolina, one purpose of a charging indictment is to confer jurisdiction on the trial court. Failure to allege each element of a crime is a jurisdictional defect that cannot be waived. The court noted applicable precedent showing that an indictment may use different language that the statute that creates the offense, but the language used must be sufficiently similar to represent all elements of the crime alleged. In the current matter, the indictment used the phrase “engaged in vaginal intercourse” as opposed to the statute’s “carnally know and abuse.” Slip Op. at 7. The court explained that this was not sufficient because the indictment did not include “abuse,” as “[t]he inclusion of ‘abuse” is necessary to describe that [d]efendant knew and took advantage of [the victim’s] physical inability to resist his advances.” Id. Because of this flaw, the court vacated the judgment of rape and dismissed the indictment without prejudice.

Reviewing defendant’s argument of insufficiency of the evidence for his kidnapping conviction, the court found ample evidence in the record to support the elements of first-degree kidnapping. Explaining the evidence, the court found that defendant transported defendant for purposes of a felony and released her in an area that was unknown to her and not safe in her intoxicated condition.

Structured Sentencing Act does not require trial court to apply mitigating factors when sentencing defendant within the presumptive range for offense.

State v. Freeman, 2022-NCCOA-654, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Oct. 4, 2022). In this Wake County case, defendant petitioned for writ of certiorari after pleading guilty to robbery and trafficking heroin charges, arguing the trial court did not properly consider mitigating factors during his sentencing. The Court of Appeals disagreed, denying the petition for writ.

Defendant argued that his cooperation and testimony against a co-conspirator represented mitigating factors the trial court should have applied in sentencing. Summarizing why defendant’s petition did not have merit, the court noted that defendant’s appeal was based on precedent related to the Fair Sentencing Act, which was repealed and replaced with the Structured Sentencing Act. Under the Structured Sentencing Act, a trial court is under no obligation to mitigate a sentence, and in the current matter the trial court sentenced defendant within the presumptive range for his offenses. The court explained that “[b]ecause the trial court sentenced defendant within the presumptive range, as this Court has stated many times, it was not required to find mitigating factors or sentence defendant to a mitigated sentence.” Slip Op. at 5.

Clear and positive evidence of each element of larceny justified denial of defendant’s requested jury instruction on attempted larceny.

State v. Sisk, 2022-NCCOA-657, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Oct. 4, 2022). In this McDowell County case, defendant appealed his conviction for felony larceny, arguing the trial court erred by denying his request for a jury instruction on the lesser included offense of attempted larceny. The Court of Appeals found no error with the trial court.

In September of 2018, defendant placed several items in a shopping cart at a Tractor Supply store, then pushed the items through the anti-shoplifting alarms and out into the parking lot to a vehicle, disregarding staff who yelled after him that he had not paid for the items. When defendant reached the waiting car, he loaded the items into the back seat; however, after an argument with the driver, defendant threw the items out of the car into the parking lot and the vehicle drove away with defendant inside. When the matter reached trial, defendant was convicted of felony larceny under G.S. § 17-72(b)(6) because had previously been convicted of four misdemeanor larceny offenses.

The court examined the trial court’s denial of the instruction on attempted larceny, noting that in North Carolina a judge must submit a lesser included offense to the jury unless “the State’s evidence is clear and positive as to each element of the offense charged and there is no evidence showing the commission of a lesser included offense.” Slip Op. at 6-7, quoting State v. Peacock, 313 N.C. 554, 558 (1985). Outlining each element of common law larceny, the court explained that it consisted of (1) taking of property, (2) carrying it away, (3) without the owner’s consent, and (4) with the intent to deprive the owner of the property. The court then walked through each element, as the defendant clearly took the property out the doors of the Tractor Supply store, disregarding the anti-shoplifting alarms and warnings from staff, and proceeded to a waiting car in the parking lot. Although defendant argued that leaving the items in the parking lot showed only an attempt at larceny, the court disagreed, explaining “the larceny was completed before Defendant removed the items from the vehicle and abandoned them.” Id. at 10. Because the evidence in the record clearly showed each element of larceny, the court held that an instruction on attempted larceny was not required.