Case Summaries: N.C. Supreme Court (August 19, 2022)

This post summarizes the published criminal opinions from the Supreme Court of North Carolina released on August 19, 2022. This summary will be added to Smith’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to the present.

Under N.C.G.S. § 15A-1354(a), a resentencing court has the discretion to run any sentences concurrently or consecutively if they were imposed at the same time, regardless of whether the sentences arose from the same criminal transaction.

State v. Oglesby, 2022-NCSC-101, ___ N.C. ___ (Aug. 19, 2022). In this Forsyth County case, the Supreme Court modified and affirmed the Court of Appeals majority opinion denying defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

In 2004, as a juvenile, defendant pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery, and was convicted of first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, and attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon. The two counts of armed robbery arose from the robbery of two convenience stores, a separate criminal transaction from the murder, kidnapping, and attempted robbery charges. The trial court provided a sentence of life without parole for first-degree murder, 95 to 123 months for each of the robbery charges, 77 to 102 months for the attempted robbery charge (later arrested by the court), and 29 to 44 months for the kidnapping charge, all to run consecutively.

After Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), defendant filed a motion for appropriate relief (MAR) attempting to have his life without parole sentence converted to life with the possibility of parole, and to have all his sentences run concurrently. Defendant’s MAR was allowed by the trial court, and proceeded to resentencing at a hearing in April 2021, where defendant’s counsel specifically told the court that the two armed robbery offenses were not under consideration for resentencing, despite being identified in the motion. Defense counsel told the court she was “not referring to the other armed robberies because they are not related, even though they were sentenced at the same time.” Slip Op. at ¶10. After the hearing, defendant was resentenced to life with the possibility of parole to be run consecutively with his sentence for first-degree kidnapping. The armed robbery charges were not altered.

On appeal, defendant argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel due to his counsel’s decision not to request concurrent sentences for all convictions. The Court of Appeals majority rejected this argument, noting that this interpretation of N.C.G.S. § 15A-1354(a) was “at best, resting on unsettled law, and at worst, meritless.” Slip Op. at ¶12, quoting State v. Oglesby, 2021-NCCOA-354 (2021). This conclusion was the basis for the Supreme Court’s modification.

Reviewing defendant’s appeal, the Supreme Court concluded that the Court of Appeals had incorrectly interpreted N.C.G.S. § 15A-1354(a), explaining “the resentencing court possessed the authority to choose to run his life with parole sentence consecutively or concurrently with the other sentences ‘imposed on [him] at the same time’ as his original sentence.” Slip Op. at ¶19. Turning to the merits of defendant’s claim of ineffective assistance, the court agreed with the Court of Appeals that defendant could not demonstrate prejudice, noting that the resentencing court chose not to run the murder and kidnapping charges concurrently after hearing the MAR, making it nonsensical that the resentencing court would have chosen to impose concurrent sentences for the two armed robbery charges in addition to the other two charges.

 

Right to confront or cross-examine witness during probation revocation hearing is limited; defendant failed to object or call witness for confrontation during probation revocation hearing, failing to preserve issue on appeal.

State v. Jones, 2022-NCSC-103, ___ N.C. ___ (Aug. 19, 2022). In this Durham County case, the Supreme Court modified and affirmed the Court of Appeals opinion denying defendant’s appeal of the revocation of his probation after a hearing.

Defendant was placed on probation in 2015 for discharging a weapon into occupied property and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Probation reports filed in 2017 alleged that defendant violated the terms of probation by committing new criminal offenses. The new criminal offenses were 2016 charges of possession of a firearm by a felon and carrying a concealed weapon that arose from a traffic stop. When the 2016 firearm charges went to trial, defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained through the traffic stop; the trial court denied that motion, but the jury did not reach a unanimous verdict, resulting in a mistrial on July 14, 2017. Subsequently the probation violations went to hearing on September 14, 2017, and the State sought to admit the order from the motion to suppress over the objection of defense counsel. Notably, defense counsel did not attempt to call the arresting officer to testify or request that he otherwise remain available to testify at the probation hearing. When the trial court admitted the order, the court also admitted the hearing transcript with the arresting officer’s testimony, and at the conclusion of the probation hearing the court found defendant had committed the violations and revoked defendant’s probation.

On appeal, defendant argued that admission of the transcript with testimony from the arresting officer deprived him of his right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against him. Examining defendant’s appeal, the Supreme Court explained that “a probation revocation proceeding is not a criminal trial,” and defendant was not entitled to the full Sixth Amendment rights afforded in a criminal prosecution. Slip Op. at ¶13. Instead, defendant was entitled to a more limited set of rights for probation revocation hearings. Slip Op. at ¶14, quoting Black v. Romano, 471 U.S. 606, 612 (1985). The court noted that traditional rules of evidence do not apply, and N.C.G.S. § 15A-1345(e) establishes the procedural requirements for a probation revocation hearing. Slip Op. at ¶15. In particular, N.C.G.S. § 15A-1345(e) provides that defendant “may confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses unless the court finds good cause for not allowing confrontation.” However, defendant’s objection during the probation hearing was not because of his inability to cross-examine the arresting officer, but instead because the order on the motion to suppress was irrelevant since the jury did not convict defendant of the crimes. Slip Op. at ¶19.

Because defendant’s objection was not clearly about confrontational rights, and defendant never attempted to actually confront or cross examine the arresting officer at the probation hearing, the Supreme Court found that he failed to preserve the issue on appeal. Further, the court noted that this was not a situation where a statutory mandate would preserve the objection, because the “plain language of N.C.G.S. § 15A-1345(e) contains a conditional statutory mandate which means normal rules of preservation apply unless the trial court fails to make a finding of good cause when the court does not permit confrontation despite a defendant’s request to do so.” Slip Op. at ¶26. The trial court never received a request for confrontation, and never indicated that it would not permit confrontation or examination, meaning no finding of good cause was necessary.

Justice Earls dissented from the majority opinion.

 

Trial court erred denying indigent defendant’s request for transcript; denial of request for transcript was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt due to overwhelming evidence of guilt.

State v. Gaddis, 2022-NCSC-102, ___ N.C. ___ (Aug. 19, 2022). In this Union County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals majority opinion denying defendant’s appeal of his conviction for driving while impaired and related driving offenses.

In 2018, defendant was charged with multiple offenses after driving a pickup truck with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.12. Defendant was declared indigent and received appointed counsel; he went to trial on the charges July 15, 2019. After the trial the jury deadlocked and the trial court declared a mistrial. After the first trial, defendant’s counsel withdrew, and new counsel was appointed. On August 26, 2019, defendant’s new counsel filed a motion for a transcript of the first hearing, and requested a continuance (because defendant was indigent, the transcript would have been provided for free). The trial court denied the motions for transcript and continuance, and the matter went forward for a second trial on September 3, 2019. On the first day of the second trial, defendant’s counsel submitted renewed motions for a transcript and a continuance, both of which were denied by the trial court. Defendant was eventually convicted of all charges and appealed, arguing that the trial court’s denial of his motion for a transcript deprived him of the ability to impeach the State’s witnesses.

Examining defendant’s appeal, the court explained that an indigent defendant does not have an absolute right to a free transcript. Instead, when considering an indigent’s request for a free transcript, courts must apply a two-part test to determine (1) the value of the transcript to defendant, and (2) the availability of alternatives that would fulfil the same function. Slip Op. at ¶16, quoting Britt v. North Carolina, 404 U.S. 226, 227 (1971). Here, the court determined it was likely that the trial court did not perform the Britt analysis and erred by denying the motion for transcript. Slip Op. at ¶19. However, the court went on to explain that under the harmless-error doctrine and N.C.G.S. § 15A-1443(b), trial court’s error is prejudicial “unless the appellate court finds that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” Slip Op. at ¶20. In this circumstance, “overwhelming evidence of guilt may render error of constitutional dimension harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” Slip Op at ¶21, quoting State v. Bunch, 363 N.C. 841, 845-46 (2010).

The Supreme Court found just such overwhelming evidence supporting the guilty verdicts in this case. The court noted that “[e]ven if defendant had the transcript of the prior trial to impeach the testimony of [State’s witnesses], there still existed overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt,” including a recorded admission by defendant “that he was the driver of the vehicle when it was wrecked” and a blood sample taken from defendant showing he was intoxicated after being taken into custody. Slip Op. at ¶24. Based on this overwhelming evidence, the trial court’s error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Justice Earls dissented from the majority opinion.