This post summarizes criminal decisions released by the Supreme Court of North Carolina on August 13, 2021.
A defendant does not forfeit their Fifth Amendment right to silence if they give notice of intent to offer an affirmative defense. The State may not preemptively impeach a defendant who has not testified.
State v. Shuler, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (August 13, 2021). The defendant was charged with felony trafficking in methamphetamine and misdemeanor simple possession of marijuana. Prior to trial, the defendant filed a notice of her intent to rely upon the affirmative defense of duress. At trial, the detective who was present at the scene testified for the State during its case-in-chief. Over defense counsel’s objection, the State asked the detective if the defendant made “any statements” about another person when she handed over the substances in her possession, to which the detective responded in the negative.
The defense counsel asked for the court to excuse the jury and moved for a mistrial arguing that the State’s questions had “solicited an answer highlighting [the defendant’s] silence at the scene.” Slip op. at ¶ 6. After conducting a voir dire to determine the admissibility of the detective’s testimony, the trial court ultimately allowed the State to ask the question again when the jury returned. After the State’s case-in chief, the defendant took the witness stand to testify in her own defense. At the close of all the evidence, the trial court instructed the jury on the defense of duress, and the jury ultimately found the defendant guilty of both charges.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals unanimously found no error in the jury’s verdicts or in the judgment, concluding that because defendant gave notice of her intent to assert the affirmative defense of duress before she testified, the trial court did not err in admitting the detective’s testimony of the defendant’s silence during the State’s case-in-chief.
The Supreme Court granted review to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred by holding that a defendant who exercises their Fifth Amendment right to silence forfeits that right if they give notice of intent to offer an affirmative defense. The Court held that when the defendant gave pre-trial notice of her intent to invoke an affirmative defense under statute, she did not give up her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent or her Fifth Amendment right to not testify, and the State was not permitted to offer evidence to impeach her credibility when she had not testified. Here, at the time the State elicited the impeachment testimony from the detective, the defendant had not testified and retained her Fifth Amendment right not to do so. Thus, the Court held it was error to admit the detective’s testimony into evidence.
The trial court did not commit error in denying the defendant’s request to suppress the controlled substances which were discovered as a result of the Terry search of the defendant’s vehicle.
State v. Johnson, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (August 13, 2021). An officer on patrol ran the license plate of the car the defendant was driving and discovered that the license plate was registered to another car. The officer initiated a traffic stop. As the officer approached the driver’s side of the car, he noticed that the defendant had raised his hands in the air. On inquiry, the defendant denied the presence of any weapons in the car. When the officer explained that the mismatched license plate served as the reason for the traffic stop, the defendant responded that he had just purchased the car in a private sale that day. The defendant produced his driver’s license, the car’s registration, and bill of sale. The officer sensed that the defendant seemed nervous and was “blading his body” as he searched for the requested documentation. Slip op. at ¶ 3.
When the officer ran the defendant’s information through the police database, he found that the defendant had been charged with multiple violent crimes and offenses related to weapons over the span of several years. When the officer returned, he asked the defendant to step out of the car with the intent of conducting a frisk of defendant’s person and a search of the vehicle. The defendant consented to be frisked for weapons, and a pat down of the defendant’s clothing revealed no weapons or other indicia of contraband. The defendant refused to grant consent to search the car, but the officer explained that he was going to conduct a limited search of car nonetheless based on the defendant’s “criminal history . . . and some other things.” Slip op. at ¶ 5. The officer found a baggie of powder cocaine and arrested the defendant.
The defendant was indicted for possession of cocaine. At trial, the defendant file a motion to suppress, which the trial court ultimately denied. The defendant agreed to plead guilty to felony possession of cocaine and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia. The defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, affirmed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress. The defendant appealed to the Supreme Court based on the dissenting opinion from the Court of Appeals.
The defendant’s first argument was that the officer did not have a reasonable suspicion that defendant was armed. In rejecting this argument, the Court noted that the officer rendered uncontroverted testimony that he conducted a late-night traffic stop of the defendant’s vehicle in a high-crime area and encountered the defendant who acted very nervous, appeared to purposely hamper the officer’s open view of the defendant’s entry into the vehicle’s center console, and possessed a criminal history which depicted a “trend in violent crime.” Slip op. at ¶ 18. The Court thus concluded that the officer’s suspicion of the defendant’s potentially armed and dangerous status was reasonable.
The defendant next argued that the Terry search of defendant’s vehicle represented an unconstitutional extension of the traffic stop. The Court rejected this argument, noting that the testimony rendered by the officer as to the actual chain of events and the observations by the officer which culminated in the Terry search did not equate to a conclusion that the officer unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop.
The defendant finally argued that the Court’s correction of the trial court’s supposed error should result in an outcome which vacates the trial court’s order and overturns defendant’s conviction. The Court concluded that the unconflicted evidence introduced by the State at the suppression hearing was sufficient for the trial court to make findings of fact and conclusions of law that the investigating officer had reasonable suspicion to conduct a Terry search of the defendant’s person and car. The Court thus left the lower court’s ruling undisturbed.
Justice Earls, joined by Justice Hudson, dissented. She wrote that the result reached by the majority is a decision inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment and fails to consider the racial dynamics underlying reasonable suspicion determinations.
(1) The MAR court erred in summarily dismissing the defendant’s guilt-innocence phase IAC claims without an evidentiary hearing. (2) The MAR court erred in dismissing the defendant’s shackling claim as procedurally barred without conducting an evidentiary hearing.
State v. Allen, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (August 13, 2021). The defendant was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2003. The defendant challenged his conviction and sentence on direct appeal, but the Supreme Court unanimously found no error. The Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari. Subsequently, the defendant filed a motion for appropriate relief (MAR) in Superior Court in July 2007. Six years later, and before the MAR court ruled on his MAR, the defendant filed a supplemental motion for appropriate relief (SMAR) amending some of his previous claims and adding two additional claims. The MAR court dismissed each of the defendant’s claims, and the defendant appealed to the state Supreme Court.
(1) Of the twelve total claims raised in the defendant’s MAR and SMAR, five of them directly related to his allegation that his trial attorneys rendered unconstitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) during the guilt-innocence phase of his trial by failing to investigate, develop, and utilize various sources of exculpatory evidence. The Supreme Court held that the MAR court erred in summarily dismissing the defendant’s guilt-innocence phase IAC claims without an evidentiary hearing because “some of his asserted grounds for relief required the [MAR] court to resolve questions of fact.” Slip op. at ¶ 3. The Court concluded that because the defendant presented evidence which, if proven true would entitle him to relief, he is entitled to an evidentiary hearing in accordance with statutory mandate.
(2) The Supreme Court held that the trial court erred in summarily ruling that the defendant’s claim alleging he was impermissibly shackled in view of the jury was procedurally barred because the record did not contain facts necessary to a fair resolution of the claim. The Court vacated the relevant portion of the MAR court’s order and remanded for an evidentiary hearing to obtain the facts necessary to determine whether his claim is procedurally barred and, if not, whether it has merit.
The Court affirmed the MAR court’s disposition of all other claims raised in the defendant’s MAR and SMAR.
The Court of Appeals erred in granting defendant a new trial on the charge of conspiracy to commit murder based on an instructional error where there was overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt.
State v. Chavez, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (August 13, 2021). A few days after the defendant was evicted from her apartment, the defendant, along with one identified companion and one unidentified companion, broke into her landlord’s home. The defendant was armed with a machete and both companions were armed with a hammer. When the three entered the landlord’s bedroom, the defendant immediately announced to the landlord that she was there to kill him. The defendant threw the machete at the landlord, and the companions proceeded to beat him and strike him in the head with the machete and the hammer. The defendant then began to attack the landlord’s girlfriend and baby with the machete. The girlfriend was able to escape with the baby and called 911. At trial, the defendant was found guilty of attempted first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, concluded that the trial court plainly erred by instructing the jury on the conspiracy to commit first-degree murder charge. The majority reasoned that the indictment named only the identified companion as the defendant’s co-conspirator, and the evidence presented at trial supported a finding that the defendant conspired with both an identified and an unidentified companion, but the jury instructions instructed that a conspiracy could be found if “the defendant and at least one other person entered into an agreement.” Slip op. at ¶ 7. Accordingly, the majority held that the defendant’s fundamental right to be informed of the accusations against her was violated.
The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals, holding that the defendant failed to demonstrate prejudice because the State presented overwhelming and uncontroverted evidence of defendant’s guilt at trial, and the Court of Appeals erred by failing to perform the required prejudice analysis required for plain error review. The Court concluded that given the overwhelming evidence of a conspiracy between the defendant and the identified companion to kill the landlord, there was not a reasonable probability that the jury would have returned a different verdict had the companion been identified in the jury instructions as the defendant’s co-conspirator rather than a mere instruction that an agreement must be reached with at least one other person.
The trial court’s comments were not improper expressions of opinion that prejudiced defendant.
State v. Austin, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (August 13, 2021). The defendant was indicted for assault on a female, habitual misdemeanor assault, and attaining habitual felon status. Following the presentation of the evidence at trial, the trial court instructed the jury on the charges of assault on a female and habitual misdemeanor assault. During the initial instruction on the charge of assault on a female, the trial court stated, in part:
For you to find the defendant guilty of this offense, the State must prove three [things] beyond a reasonable doubt:
First, that the defendant intentionally assaulted the alleged victim. It has been described in this case by the prosecuting witness that the defendant hit her upon her head, that he hit her on her arms, about her body.
You are the finders of fact. You will determine what the assault was, ladies and gentlemen. The Court is not telling you what it is, I’m just giving you a description. And there was also testimony by the witness that the defendant asked her to perform, by force, another act, which could be considered an assault. But you will determine what the assault was. I’m not telling you what it is. And if what I’m saying is the evidence and your recollection is different from what I say, you still should rely upon your recollection of the evidence, as to what the assault is that has been testified to in this case.
Slip op. at ¶ 6. The defendant did not object to any of the trial court’s jury instructions at trial, and he was found guilty of assault on a female and habitual misdemeanor assault. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court had improperly expressed its opinion during jury instructions that an assault had occurred. The Court of Appeals found no error and upheld defendant’s conviction.
Based on a dissenting opinion, the defendant appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court’s comments were improper expressions of opinion which prejudiced the defendant. In affirming the decision of the Court of Appeals, the Court concluded that even assuming the trial court violated the statutory prohibitions against the expression of opinion, the defendant cannot show a reasonable possibility of a different result. The Court reasoned that the State presented evidence at trial which satisfied the elements of the predicate assault, and the trial court’s instruction made clear that the jury alone was responsible for making this determination
Justice Earls dissented, writing that the majority failed to give proper weight to the statutory mandate against expression of opinion by refusing to engage meaningfully in a prejudice analysis and instead ignoring any impact the judge’s instructions had on the jury.