This post summarizes one published criminal opinion from the Supreme Court of North Carolina released on April 28, 2023, and three published criminal opinions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals released on May 2, 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 did not err by allowing trial to proceed after defendant jumped from a balcony in the jail, severely injuring himself; hearing under G.S. 15A-1002 was statutorily sufficient even though trial court did not consider whether defendant’s jump represented a suicidal gesture; trial court was not presented with sufficient evidence of incompetence to trigger hearing under Due Process Clause.
State v. Flow, 202PA21, ___ N.C. ___ (Apr. 28, 2023). In this Gaston County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals decision finding no error when the trial court declined to conduct further inquiry into defendant’s capacity after determining that he voluntarily absented himself by jumping from a balcony on the sixth day of trial.
In May of 2018, defendant forced his way into the home of his ex-girlfriend and held her at gunpoint for several hours, raping her twice. Police eventually forced their way into the home and successfully rescued the ex-girlfriend from defendant. Defendant came for trial on charges of rape, burglary, kidnapping, sexual offense, possession of a firearm by a felon, and violation of a protective order beginning on December 9, 2019. After defendant decided not to testify or present evidence on his own behalf, the trial court conducted two colloquies with defendant to determine if he was making the choices freely and intelligently. The court conducted these colloquies on Friday, December 13, and again on Monday, December 16, 2019. After the second colloquy, the jury was brought back and heard closing arguments from both sides, and trial proceedings concluded for the day. On the morning of December 17, 2019, defendant leaped off a mezzanine in the jail, breaking his leg and ribs. Defense counsel then moved under G.S. 15A-1002 to challenge defendant’s competency. After hearing from defense counsel and the state, the trial court determined that defendant voluntarily absented himself from the trial, and the trial moved forward, ultimately resulting in defendant’s convictions. A unanimous panel at the Court of Appeals found no error by the trial court, distinguishing the circumstances from State v. Sides, 376 N.C. 449 (2020).
On appeal, defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to conduct an inquiry into his capacity to proceed, basing his arguments on G.S. §§ 15A-1001 & -1002, and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court reviewed these interrelated arguments de novo, first looking at the statutory claim. Here, defense counsel’s initial motion was sufficient to trigger G.S. 15A-1002’s hearing procedures, but the court explained the section only provides “sparse guidance regarding the procedural and substantive requirements of the competency hearing.” Slip Op. at 29. The court concluded that the inquiry here, where the trial court heard from both parties and accepted testimony on the events, was “statutorily sufficient because defendant was provided an opportunity to present any and all evidence relating to his competency that he was prepared to present.” Id. at 30. Even though the trial court did not consider whether defendant had attempted suicide by his jump, this did not show a failure to consider defendant’s capacity, as “[s]uicidality does not automatically render one incompetent,” and defendant could be suicidal without being incompetent, or vice versa. Id. at 31.
The court next moved to the Due Process Clause argument, explaining that the requirements for a constitutional competency hearing are more involved, but are only triggered when the trial court is presented with substantive evidence of defendant’s incompetence. Here, “the determinative issue [was] whether the trial court in the instant case had substantial evidence that defendant may have lacked capacity at the time of his apparent suicide attempt.” Id. at 36. The court first noted that, as explained in the statutory inquiry, defendant’s suicide attempt on its own did not represent substantial evidence of incompetence. Defendant pointed to three categories of evidence showing incompetence: (1) his actions before the arrest, including erratic behavior, the use of a racial slur, and the nature of his crimes, (2) his suicide attempt, and (3) testimony that defendant was heavily medicated and had trouble communicating in the hospital after his attempt at suicide. The court rejected number (3) immediately as it related to after the attempt, and again noted that number (2) by itself did not support incompetence. That left the evidence of number (1), which the court found was inadequate to show substantial evidence of incompetence. Additionally, the trial court was able to observe and interact with defendant over the course of the trial, and received evidence provided by defense counsel at the hearing, none of which indicated a history of mental illness or inability to participate or understand the legal proceedings prior to his suicide attempt. The court concluded that no substantial evidence existed to justify further inquiry.
Justice Earls dissented, and would have held that the trial court held an insufficient hearing under G.S. 15A-1002 and had sufficient evidence to require a competency hearing under the Due Process Clause. Id. at 45.
Testimony by officer in pursuit of defendant was sufficient evidence to support conviction with aggravating factor of speeding in excess of 15 mph over the speed limit.
State v. Chisholm, COA22-659, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 2, 2023). In this Cabarrus County case, defendant appealed her convictions for felony speeding to elude arrest, arguing error in denial of her motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence of speeding in excess of 15 mph over the speed limit. The Court of Appeals found no error.
In September of 2018, defendant was pulled over by officers for an expired plate. During the traffic stop, defendant failed to provide a license or registration, and gave the officers an incorrect name, but the officers determined her correct name through a search on their computer terminal. The officers asked defendant to confirm her name 20-30 times, but she refused; after this exchange, one of the officers struck the window attempting to remove defendant from the vehicle, and at that point defendant sped off from the traffic stop. The officers pursued defendant, and although she initially eluded them by driving at a high rate of speed, she eventually crashed and was discovered by the officers. Two aggravating factors elevated defendant’s offense to a felony, (1) speeding in excess of 15 mph over the speed limit, and (2) driving with a revoked license.
The only issue on appeal was whether sufficient evidence was admitted to show speeding in excess of 15 mph over the speed limit, as defendant stipulated that her license was revoked at the time of the incident. The Court of Appeals examined three elements, whether the prosecution admitted sufficient evidence of: (1) the posted speed limit on the relevant highway, (2) defendant’s speed eluding arrest, and (3) the officers’ precise speed in pursuit of defendant. Examining (1), the court explained that testimony from one of the officers regarding the posted speed limit established substantial evidence that the limit was 45 mph. Turning to (2), the court noted that testimony from one of the officers regarding an estimated speed for the defendant was adequate to support the allegation that defendant was traveling in excess of 15 mph over the speed limit. The court found the officer had a “reasonable opportunity” to observe the speed of defendant’s vehicle, and any question about the credibility of the officer’s testimony was one for the jury, not a matter of admissibility. Slip Op. at 13-14. Finally, considering (3), the court found that while no direct testimony established the speed of the officers in pursuit, sufficient evidence of guilt was present, including a photograph of the serious wreck of defendant’s car, and the testimony offered by the officer regarding her excessive speed. As a result, the court found sufficient evidence to support each element of the offense and no error.
Defendant’s decision to testify on topics that he had previously objected to meant that he had lost the benefit of his objection, rendering any error harmless.
State v. Lamb, COA22-477, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 2, 2023). In this Guilford County case, defendant appealed his convictions for felony cocaine possession and misdemeanor marijuana and drug paraphernalia possession, arguing error in the denial of his motion to suppress testimony obtained in violation of his Miranda rights and limitation of his cross-examination of an officer testifying against him. The Court of Appeals dismissed defendant’s appeal.
In October of 2017, a vehicle with defendant as a passenger was pulled over for expired tags; when officers approached the vehicle, they smelled marijuana. Officers observed a book bag in the back seat of the vehicle, and asked the occupants who owned the bag. Defendant answered that the book bag was his, and a subsequent search of the bag turned up a digital scale and a lockbox containing a handgun and cocaine. Defendant denied that the lockbox was his. At trial, the officer testified, over defendant’s objection, regarding defendant’s statement that the book bag was his. On cross-examination, defense counsel attempted to elicit testimony regarding defendant’s statement that the lock box inside the book bag was not his, but the prosecutor objected on hearsay grounds. The trial court sustained this objection, which led to defendant’s decision to take the stand and testify that the lock box was not his and he did not have a key to it.
Looking at defendant’s objections, the Court of Appeals noted that the statements defendant objected to, (1) his ownership of the book bag, and (2) his lack of ownership for the lock box, were both admitted several times. Defendant himself testified that he owned the book bag and did not own the lock box when he took the stand. Quoting State v. Terry, 337 N.C. 615 (1994), the court noted “[w]here evidence is admitted over objection, and the same evidence has been previously admitted or is later admitted without objection, the benefit of the objection is lost.” Slip Op. at 6. Ultimately, “all of the statements central to Defendant’s arguments on appeal were admitted into evidence several times, either without objection by Defendant, during Defendant’s cross-examination of the State’s witnesses, or during Defendant’s own testimony.” Id. at 8. The court rejected defendant’s argument that he was compelled to testify, noting that the trial court’s ruling on the hearsay objection left him with a choice of trial strategy, not an obligation to testify. As a result of defendant’s actions, he rendered the alleged errors harmless, leading the court to dismiss his appeal.
Exigent circumstances justified warrantless blood draw; evidence of impairing substances in defendant’s blood represented sufficient evidence to dismiss motion.
State v. Cannon, COA22-572, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 2, 2023). In this Edgecombe County case, defendant appealed his convictions for second-degree murder and aggravated serious injury by vehicle, arguing error in the denial of his motion to suppress a warrantless blood draw and motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence. The Court of Appeals found no error and affirmed.
In June of 2015, defendant crossed the centerline of a highway and hit another vehicle head on, causing the death of one passenger. Officers responding to the scene interviewed defendant, and noted his responses seemed impaired and the presence of beer cans in his vehicle. A blood draw was performed at the hospital, although the officer ordering the draw did not read defendant his Chapter 20 implied consent rights or obtain a search warrant before the draw. The results of defendant’s blood draw showed a benzodiazepine, a cocaine metabolite, two anti-depressants, an aerosol propellant, and a blood-alcohol level of 0.02.
Reviewing defendant’s argument that no exigent circumstances supported the warrantless draw of his blood, the Court of Appeals first noted that defense counsel failed to object to the admission of the drug analysis performed on defendant’s blood, meaning his arguments regarding that exhibit were overruled. The court then turned to the exigent circumstances exception to justify the warrantless search, noting that the investigation of the scene took significant time and defendant was not taken to the hospital until an hour and forty-five minutes afterwards. Acknowledging Supreme Court precedent “that the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream cannot, standing alone, create an exigency in a case of alleged impaired driving sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant,” the court looked for additional justification in the current case. Slip Op. at 11. Here the court found such justification in the shift change occurring that would prevent the officer from having assistance, and the delay in going to obtain a warrant from the magistrate’s office that would add an additional hour to the process. These circumstances supported the trial court’s finding of exigent circumstances.
The court then turned to defendant’s argument that insufficient evidence was admitted to establish he was impaired at the time of the accident. The record contained evidence that defendant had beer cans in his truck along with an aerosol can of Ultra Duster, and several witnesses testified as to defendant’s demeanor and speech after the accident. The record also contained a blood analysis showing defendant had five separate impairing substances in his system at the time of the accident, “alcohol, benzyl ethylene (a cocaine metabolite), Diazepam (a benzodiazepine such as Valium), Citalopram (an anti-depressant) and Sertraline (another anti-depressant called “Zoloft”).” Id. at 16. The court found that based on this evidence there was sufficient support for denying defendant’s motion.