blank

Case Summaries – N.C. Supreme Court (August 14, 2020)

This post summarizes opinions issued by the Supreme Court of North Carolina on August 14, 2020.

 (1) Since the defendant timely moved to dismiss and timely renewed his motion, he sufficiently preserved for appellate review whether the State presented sufficient evidence of each element of the crime for which he was convicted; (2) The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss as the defendant falls within the “teacher” category as defined in G.S. 14-27.7.

State v. Smith, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (August 14, 2020). The defendant worked full-time at Knightdale High School, initially as an In-School Suspension teacher and then as a Physical Education teacher. Although not certified as a teacher, he worked the same hours as a certified teacher, which included a regularly scheduled planning period. During his time teaching at the school, the defendant met a minor, D.F., a student at the school. On October 29, 2014, D.F. went to the defendant’s home and later alleged the two engaged in sexual activity.

The defendant was indicted for two counts of engaging in sexual activity with a student pursuant to G.S. 14-27.7. At the close of the State’s evidence, defense counsel made a motion to dismiss based on insufficient evidence, asserting that the State’s evidence was conflicting. The trial court denied the motion. At the end of all the evidence, defense counsel renewed the motion to dismiss, asserting that there was no physical evidence. The trial court again denied the motion, and the defendant was ultimately convicted of two counts of sexual activity with a student.

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that (1) the evidence at trial did not establish that he was a “teacher” within the meaning of G.S. 14-27.7, and (2) alternatively, there was a fatal variance between the indictment and proof at trial since the indictment alleged that he was a “teacher,” but his status as a substitute teacher made him “school personnel” under G.S. 14-27.7(b). The Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant failed to preserved either argument for appellate review, reasoning that because the defendant’s motions to dismiss “focused on the veracity of D.F.’s testimony and the lack of physical evidence” that sexual conduct had occurred, the defendant preserved a sufficiency of the evidence argument for only that specific element. The Court of Appeals also concluded that the fatal variance argument was not preserved because it was not expressly presented to the trial court.

At the time that the Court of Appeals decided this case, the Supreme Court has not addressed the issue of when a motion to dismiss preserves all sufficiency of the evidence issues for appellate review. Subsequently, in State v. Golder, the Court held that “Rule 10(a)(3) provides that a defendant preserves all insufficiency of the evidence issues for appellate review simply by making a motion to dismiss the action at the proper time.” 374 N.C. 238 (2020). The Court held that because the defendant here made a general motion to dismiss at the appropriate time and renewed that motion to dismiss at the close of the evidence., his motion properly preserved all sufficiency of the evidence issues.

(2) On the merits of the case, the defendant argued that there was no substantial evidence that he was a “teacher” under the statute. G.S. 14-27.7(b) (2013) provides: “For purposes of this subsection, the terms “school”, “school personnel”, and “student” shall have the same meaning as in G.S. 14-202.4(d),” which in turn refers to G.S. 115C-332. The latter statute provides that “school personnel” includes substitute teachers, driving training teachers, bus drivers, clerical staff, and custodians. The Court determined that it was “evident that the General Assembly intended to cast a wide net prohibiting criminal sexual conduct with students by any adult working on school property” and that “a person’s categorization as a ‘teacher’ should be based on a common-sense evaluation of all of the facts of the case, not a hyper-technical interpretation based solely on the individual’s title.”

Despite his lack of certification, defendant was at the school on a long-term assignment, an employee of Wake County Public Schools, and held to the same standards as a certified teacher. Defendant taught at the school daily, had a planning period, and had full access to students as any certified teacher would. The only difference between the defendant and other teachers was his title based on his lack of a teaching certificate at that time. The Court held that the defendant was correctly deemed a teacher in this case and the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

 

There was no error in the trial court’s ruling where the State presented sufficient evidence at the defendant’s trial to show that the defendant possessed the requisite felonious intent by using force in an effort to regain money which was the subject of an illegal transaction.

State v. Cox, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (August 14, 2020). The defendant, along with two others, went to the home of an individual to whom they paid cash to provide them with controlled substances. The individual neither obtained the illegal drugs nor returned any of the drug purchase money to the defendant. At the home of the individual, the individual was assaulted, accompanied by a demand for the return of the money. While leaving, the defendant fired a shot into the residence. The defendant was arrested and charged with first-degree burglary, conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon, and discharging a weapon into an occupied property. At trial, the defendant moved to dismiss the charges against him for insufficiency of the evidence, and the trial court denied the motion. The defendant was found guilty on all charges.

The Court of Appeals reversed the defendant’s conviction for conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon and felonious breaking or entering. The Court of Appeals relied on State v. Spratt, 265 N.C. 524 (1965), and State v. Lawrence, 262 N.C. 162 (1964), in concluding that the defendant could not be guilty of conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon because the defendant did not have the requisite felonious intent when attempting to take property from the individual, under a bona fide claim of right to the money which had been given on defendant’s behalf. The Court of Appeals also held that the lack of felonious intent negated the defendant’s ability to be convicted of the offense of felonious breaking or entering, and remanded the matter in order for the trial court to enter judgment against defendant for misdemeanor breaking or entering, which does not require felonious intent.

The Supreme Court held that the case precedent on which the Court of Appeals relied did not apply to the facts at hand. The Court concluded that “neither Spratt, nor Lawrence, nor any other case in this state has heretofore authorized a party to legally engage in ‘self-help’ by virtue of the exercise of a bona fide claim of right or title to property which is the subject of an illegal transaction,” and therefore held that there was no error in the defendant’s convictions of the offense of conspiracy to commit armed robbery with a dangerous weapon and the offense of felonious breaking or entering.

 

The defendant presented sufficient evidence at trial to support the defendant’s requested instructions to the jury on self-defense and the defense of habitation.

State v. Coley, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (August 14, 2020). The defendant was indicted for attempted first-degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury, and possession of a firearm by a felon. On June 7, 2016, the defendant was sitting outside of a neighbor’s house with a group of friends when the defendant’s house guest, Garris, approached defendant and punched him. The defendant got up and began walking home, followed by Garris. When the defendant arrived at his residence, he was thrown against the door and hurled over two chairs by Garris. Garris left the residence and returned with a friend, at which time he continued to strike the defendant. Garris left the home a second time and returned shortly thereafter. At that time, the defendant retrieved a gun and shot Garris, injuring him.

At trial, the defendant gave notice of his intent to rely on self-defense. The trial court denied the defendant’s requested instruction to the jury on self-defense and the defense of habitation. The jury found the defendant guilty of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and possession of a firearm by a felon. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by (1) denying his request to instruct the jury on self-defense, (2) failing to instruct the jury on the “stand-your-ground” provision, and (3) denying his request to instruct the jury on the defense of habitation. The Court of Appeals agreed, concluding that there was a reasonable possibility that the jury would have reached a different result if the defendant’s requested jury instruction had been given to the jury.

The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Court of Appeals, concluding that, viewing the evidence at trial in the light most favorable to the defendant, the defendant was entitled to both instructions. The Court recognized that “the right to use deadly force to defend oneself is provided both by statute and case law.” The defendant relied on both the self-defense statute, G.S. 14-51.3, and the defense of habitation statute, G.S. 14-51.2. The Court reviewed both, as well as the right not to retreat when defending against an aggressor. The Court determined that the defendant in the instant case presented competent and sufficient evidence to warrant the self-defense instruction.

The dissenting Court of Appeals judge focused primarily on the defendant’s testimony at trial about the firing of a warning shot, concluding that the warning shot rebutted the statutory presumption of “reasonable fear of imminent death or serious bodily harm” and thereby precluding a jury instruction on self-defense and defense of habitation. The Court noted that the dissenting Court of Appeals judge’s perspective ignored the principle that although there may be contradictory evidence from the State or discrepancies in the defendant’s evidence, the trial court must nonetheless charge the jury on self-defense where there is evidence that the defendant acted in self-defense.

 

The admission of an ACIS printout for the purpose of establishing the defendant’s habitual felon status was proper.

State v. Waycaster, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (August 14, 2020). After violating his probation, the defendant was indicted on charges of interfering with an electronic monitoring device and attaining the status of a habitual felon. The habitual felon indictment charged defendant with attaining habitual felon status based on three prior felony convictions in McDowell County: (1) a June 4, 2001 conviction for felonious breaking and entering; (2) a February 18, 2010 conviction for felonious breaking and entering; and (3) a July 22, 2014 conviction for safecracking. At trial, the State admitted into evidence certified copies of the judgments for the latter two convictions to prove their existence.

Although the State could not obtain the original judgment associated with the June 4, 2001 conviction, the State introduced as an exhibit a computer printout from the Automated Criminal/Infraction System (ACIS). The Clerk of Court for McDowell County testified that ACIS is a statewide computer system relied on by courts and law enforcement agencies for accessing information regarding a defendant’s criminal judgments, offense dates, and conviction dates, manually entered into the database by an employee in the Clerk of Court’s office. The ACIS printout offered by the State showed that the defendant had been convicted of felonious breaking and entering on June 4, 2001, and the Clerk testified that the printout was a “certified true copy of the ACIS system.” The trial court admitted the printout into evidence over the defendant’s objection, and the jury found that the defendant had attained the status of a habitual felon.

On appeal, the defendant unsuccessfully argues that the trial court improperly allowed the ACIS printout because G.S. 14-7.4 contained the exclusive methods for proving prior convictions in a proceeding to determine habitual felon status. The Court of Appeals concluded that the statute was permissive and did not exclude methods of proof not specifically delineated in the Habitual Felons Act. The Supreme Court affirmed. The Court relied on the presence of the word “may” in the statute, as well as its prior interpretation of the Fair Sentencing Act, which contained similar language.

The dissenting Court of Appeals judge concluded that the introduction of the printout violated the best evidence rule because the printout was introduced as evidence of the defendant’s prior convictions and was not the original judgment. The majority rejected this argument, noting that the best evidence rule applies only when the contents of a document are at issue. The Court reasoned that here, the issue was not the contents of the conviction but rather the existence of the conviction. However, in a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Beasley noted that the nature of the Habitual Felons Act requires that the State prove that the defendant did, in fact, commit three prior felony offenses, and to do so requires the court to consider the contents of the record to be introduced for the purpose of confirming “that said person has been convicted of former felony offenses.” While the Chief concluded that the best evidence rule did apply to the introduction of the printout, the Chief noted that the State complied with the rule through the printout coupled with the Clerk’s testimony.

 

The North Carolina Constitution does not allow for the repeal of the Racial Justice Act (RJA) to be retroactive because to do so would violate double jeopardy.

State v. Robinson, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (August 14, 2020). The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1994. The defendant filed a timely motion for appropriate relief pursuant to the RJA in 2010. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court resentenced the defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Following resentencing of three other defendants under the RJA, the General Assembly repealed the RJA. The repeal stated that it was retroactive and voided all pending motions for appropriate relief but did not apply to a trial court order resentencing a defendant to life without parole if that order was affirmed on appellate review.

A joint hearing was thereafter held by a different trial judge on the motions for appropriate relief by the four defendants, to consider whether the defendant’s claims were rendered void by the RJA repeal. While the trial court found that the defendant’s rights had not vested and that the RJA repeal was not an ex post facto law, the Supreme Court held that the trial court erred by failing to consider the defendant’s double jeopardy argument.

The Supreme Court held that the initial trial court’s order resentencing the defendant to life in prison was an acquittal for purposes of double jeopardy. The Court reasoned that once the trial court found that the defendant had proven all of the essential elements under the RJA to bar the imposition of the death penalty, he was acquitted of that capital sentence, jeopardy terminated, and any attempt by the State to reimpose the death penalty would be a violation of the state constitution. One justice, concurring, agreed with the three-member majority that the judgment and commitment order in which the defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was a final judgment, for which appellate review was neither sought nor obtained, and that double jeopardy barred further review.

Justice Newby, in dissent, argued that the majority opinion presented three grounds for its ruling, only one of which garnered four votes, resulting in the narrow holding that the State failed to appeal the amended judgment and commitment order so that order is final. Justice Ervin, in dissent, concluded that based on the Court’s holding in State v. Ramseur, 843 S.E.2d 106 (N.C. 2020), the case should be remanded to the trial court for a full hearing on the merits of the defendant’s RJA claim at a proceeding where the State has a further opportunity to respond.

Comments are disabled