Case Summaries – N.C. Supreme Court (June 5, 2020)

This post summarizes opinions issued by the Supreme Court of North Carolina on June 5, 2020.

(1) The defendant could not be separately convicted and punished for both habitual misdemeanor assault and felony assault inflicting serious bodily injury based on the same act; (2) the court must arrest judgment on one of the convictions.

State v. Fields, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (June 5, 2020). The defendant was convicted after a jury trial of habitual misdemeanor assault and felony assault inflicting serious bodily injury for the same assaultive act. The trial court imposed consecutive sentences. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by sentencing him for both habitual misdemeanor assault and the felony assault. The Court of Appeals vacated the habitual misdemeanor assault conviction, holding over a dissent that the defendant could not be sentenced for both crimes when the offenses arose from the same act. State v. Fields, ___ N.C. App. ___, 827 S.E.2d 120 (2019). The State appealed to the Supreme Court of North Carolina based on the dissent, and also sought discretionary review on the issue of whether, even if it was impermissible for the trial judge to sentence the defendant for both convictions, the Court of Appeals erred by vacating one of the convictions instead of arresting judgment on it. (1) On the first issue, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, concluding that the defendant could not be sentenced for both convictions that arose out of the same assaultive act. The misdemeanor assault statute, G.S. 14-33, includes prefatory language saying the law applies “[u]nless the conduct is covered under some other provision of law providing greater punishment”—language the appellate courts have generally interpreted to bar simultaneous punishments for the same act. Though the habitual misdemeanor assault statute, G.S. 14-33.2, does not include that language, the Supreme Court concluded that the principle still applies, as the misdemeanor assault is necessarily a part of the “upgraded” habitual misdemeanor assault conviction. The felony assault conviction based on the same assaultive act was a “provision of law providing greater punishment” that invoked the prefatory language of the misdemeanor assault statute, which in turn meant that the defendant could not be punished for habitual misdemeanor assault. (2) On the second issue, the Court concluded that the proper remedy when such prefatory language bars double punishment for the same act is to arrest judgment on one of the judgments, not to vacate it.

 

(1) Repeal of the Racial Justice Act violated the state and federal constitutional prohibitions on ex post facto laws; (2) the 2013 amendments to the RJA changing the evidentiary standards applicable to RJA claims violated the constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws; (3) the trial court erred by dismissing the defendant’s RJA motions without an evidentiary hearing and discovery.

State v. Ramseur, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (June 5, 2020). The defendant was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder based on offenses committed in 2007. He was sentenced to death in 2010. That same year he filed a motion for appropriate relief under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA), but the trial court did not rule on it until after the General Assembly amended the RJA in 2012 and then repealed it in 2013. The repeal was made retroactively applicable to all pending MARs filed before the effective date of the repeal. The trial court therefore determined that the repeal rendered the defendant’s MAR void and dismissed it. The trial court also ruled in the alternative that the defendant’s RJA claims were without merit and that no evidentiary hearing was necessary to resolve them.

The Supreme Court granted the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari. (1) The Court agreed with the defendant that retroactive application of the RJA repeal violated the prohibitions against ex post facto laws in the state and federal constitutions. The Court reasoned that this was the type of ex post facto law that inflicts a greater punishment for an offense than the law applicable when it was committed. Though the RJA did not exist when the defendant committed his crimes, the effective date coverage of the original RJA—which did include the defendant’s offense date—made the RJA applicable to crimes committed at that time. The Court concluded that the legislature’s repeal of a prior, retroactively-applicable ameliorative law like the RJA violated ex post facto principles. The Court rejected the State’s argument that the RJA was a mere procedural overlay that did not substantively change the law governing the death penalty. Through the RJA, the 2009 General Assembly affirmatively sought to allow the review of statistical evidence that the Supreme Court had not allowed in McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987), and to create a new claim for relief not otherwise available. The Court also acknowledged that the RJA repeal happened shortly after four defendants had obtained relief under the original Act, making relevant one of the policy purposes of the Ex Post Facto Clause: to restrain “arbitrary and potentially vindictive legislation.” Slip op. at 29.

(2) The Court next considered whether retroactive application of the 2012 RJA amendments to the defendant also violated the prohibition against ex post facto laws. The 2012 amendments made three significant changes to the law. And because the 2012 legislation included a severability clause, the Court analyzed each of them separately. The first change was to eliminate the mandatory requirement for an evidentiary hearing upon the filing of an RJA claim. The Court concluded that this was a procedural change that—despite working to the disadvantage of some defendants, including Mr. Ramseur—did not implicate the prohibition on ex post facto laws. The second change altered the evidentiary requirements for establishing racial discrimination in an RJA claim in several ways, including shrinking the relevant geographic region from the entire state to the specific county or prosecutorial district, limiting the relevant time for consideration, and mandating that statistical evidence alone is insufficient to establish a meritorious claim. The Court concluded that this second set of changes implemented a more stringent standard of proof for establishing discrimination that cannot permissibly apply retroactively. The third change added a waiver provision, saying that a defendant must waive any objection to imposition of a sentence of life without parole as a prerequisite for asserting an RJA claim. The Court declined to address the constitutionality of that change because it was not at issue in Mr. Ramseur’s case. In summary, the 2012 amendment eliminating the mandatory hearing requirement could permissibly apply to an RJA claim asserted before the amendments became law, but the other evidentiary changes could not. Therefore, the evidentiary rules of the original RJA must apply to pre-amendment filings like Mr. Ramseur’s.

Finally, the Court concluded that the trial court erred by concluding without an evidentiary hearing that the defendant’s RJA MARs were without merit. The defendant’s motions included extensive evidence, stated with particularity, tending to show race was a significant factor in imposition of death sentences within the meaning of the RJA. The Court said the motions also established that the defendant was entitled to discovery of State files under G.S. 15A-1415(f). The Court remanded the case for proceedings not inconsistent with its opinion.

Justice Newby dissented, concluding primarily that the RJA amendments and repeal did not violate ex post facto principles because they left the defendant no worse off than he was when he committed his offense in 2007, before the RJA was enacted.

 

(1) Repeal of the Racial Justice Act was unconstitutional as applied to the defendant; (2) the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief was not procedurally barred; and (3) the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief without an evidentiary hearing in light of the evidence in his motion.

State v. Burke, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (June 5, 2020). The defendant was sentenced to death for first-degree murder in 1993. He filed a first motion for appropriate relief in 1997, which was denied in 2011. He filed a new MAR under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (the RJA MAR) in 2010, amending it twice after the General Assembly amended the RJA in 2012 and then repealed it in 2013. In 2014, the trial court dismissed the defendant’s amended RJA MAR as procedurally barred and, in the alternative, as being without merit. On appeal, the Supreme Court vacated the trial court’s orders and remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with the Court’s opinion in State v. Ramseur, ___ N.C. ___ (2020), summarized above. The General Assembly’s 2013 repeal of the RJA was unconstitutional as applied to the defendant under the state and federal constitutions, and the 2012 amendment can only be applied insofar as it affects procedural aspects of his claim. The Court held that the trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s RJA MAR was procedurally barred, as the original version of the RJA included language, then codified in G.S. 15A-2012(b), allowing defendants to seek relief “[n]otwithstanding any other provision or time limitation” in the MAR article. The Court also concluded that the trial court abused its discretion by dismissing the defendant’s claims without an evidentiary hearing in light of the evidence presented in his motion, including evidence that race was a factor in jury selection, sentencing, and capital charging decisions in the relevant jurisdictions; statistical evidence from Michigan State University College of Law; expert testimony and evidence from another RJA case; and evidence of race-based juror strikes in his own case. The Court remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with its opinion. Justice Newby dissented for the reasons stated in his dissent in Ramseur.

 

The defendant did not show any fair and just reason for withdrawing his guilty plea before sentencing.

State v. Taylor, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (June 5, 2020). In 2011 the defendant was charged with first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon for his participation in a murder allegedly committed by Taurus Locklear and Shawn Jones. A plea agreement allowed the defendant to plead guilty to second-degree murder and other crimes in exchange for his cooperation in the pending prosecutions of Locklear and Jones. The trial court accepted the guilty plea in 2014, but deferred sentencing pending the resolution of the case against Locklear. However, in 2015 the State dismissed the charges against Locklear due to issues with the witnesses and evidence against him. At that point, the defendant moved with withdraw his guilty plea. At an evidentiary hearing in April 2016 two officers gave inconsistent accounts of the defendant’s statements during their investigation of the case. At a subsequent hearing in June 2016, the defendant’s lawyer testified that, in light of his own failure to examine the discrepancies between the officers’ accounts, he gave ineffective assistance in the plea agreement process, and that the defendant should therefore be entitled to withdraw his plea. The trial judge denied the motion and entered judgment. The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals considered whether the defendant had shown “any fair and just reason” for withdrawing the plea—the proper standard for evaluating a motion filed prior to sentencing. Applying the factors spelled out by the Supreme Court in State v. Handy, 326 N.C. 532 (1990), the Court of Appeals concluded over a dissent that the trial court did not err by denying the motion. The defendant appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, concluding that the defendant failed to show any fair and just reason for withdrawing the guilty plea. The Court examined each of the Handy factors in turn. As to the first factor, whether the defendant asserted his legal innocence, the Court concluded that the fact that the defendant’s guilty plea was not a no contest or Alford plea weighed against allowing him to withdraw it. As to the second factor, the strength of the State’s proffer of evidence, the Court noted that the factual basis for the plea presented by the State was “essentially uncontested” and therefore sufficient. As to the third factor, the length of time between entry of the guilty plea and the desire to change it, the Court concluded that the 18-month delay in this case did not favor allowing the defendant to withdraw the plea. As to the fourth factor, the competency of counsel, the Court agreed that the factor was inconclusive. Taking all of the factors into consideration, the Court ultimately agreed with the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that the defendant failed to show “any fair and just reason” to withdraw the guilty plea. The Court dismissed the defendant’s related ineffective assistance of counsel claim without prejudice to his right to file it as a motion for appropriate relief.

 

The Court of Appeals erred in upholding the trial court’s finding that the defendant failed to establish a prima facie case of racial discrimination under Batson.

State v. Bennett, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (June 5, 2020). The defendant was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon and multiple drug crimes including drug trafficking. During jury selection, the State peremptorily challenged two potential jurors who were black before accepting a white juror. The defendant made a Batson motion, arguing that there was no basis aside from race for excusing the first two jurors. The trial court concluded that the defendant had not made a prima facie showing of racial discrimination, noting in particular that the State had “excused two, but kept three African Americans.” The defendant was convicted and appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, holding that the defendant failed to make a prima facie case that the State’s challenges were racially motivated. State v. Bennett, 262 N.C. App. 89 (2018).

On discretionary review, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals. As a preliminary matter, the Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that the record contained sufficient information about the relevant jurors’ race to permit a substantive review of the defendant’s Batson claim. There was no dispute among counsel for the parties or the trial judge concerning the racial identity of the relevant jurors, resulting in what amounts to a stipulation to their racial identity. The Court then concluded that the Court of Appeals erred in upholding the trial court’s rejection of the defendant’s Batson claim. After noting that a numerical analysis of strike patterns with respect to race is not necessarily dispositive, the Court said that the pattern here—where the State had challenged two of five African American prospective jurors but no white jurors, and where all of the State’s peremptory challenges were used to excuse black prospective jurors—was sufficient to raise an inference of purposeful discrimination when there was no other immediately obvious justification for the challenges. The Court rejected the State’s argument that the State’s acceptance rate for African American prospective jurors (three out of five) was higher than in many previous cases affirming trial court findings of no purposeful discrimination. Those cases included other distinguishing facts beyond the acceptance rate, such as the State using peremptory challenge on at least one white prospective juror, or a juror expressing reservations about the death penalty. Having found that the trial court erred at step one of the Batson analysis, the Court remanded the matter for a hearing to complete the second and third steps of the required analysis.

Justice Newby dissented, writing that the defendant did not preserve the race of the jurors for the record, and that Court therefore should not have reached the merits of his claim. And even if the issue had been preserved, he would have concluded that the trial court did not clearly err.

 

A state trial judge must summarily deny an application for the writ of habeas corpus from a petitioner held pursuant to an immigration-related arrest warrant or detainer by a sheriff who is a party to a 287(g) agreement.

Chavez v. McFadden, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (June 5, 2020). Carlos Chavez and Luis Lopez, initially charged with state crimes and held in pretrial detention in the Mecklenburg County Jail, both became eligible for release from their state charges on October 13, 2017. But they were not released. The Sheriff, a participant in a § 287(g) agreement with the Department of Homeland Security, continued to hold them on immigration-related warrants and detainers. That same day, both men filed petitions for a writ of habeas corpus. A superior court judge entered orders finding that the men were being unlawfully detained and ordered their discharge from custody. The Sheriff declined to release either petitioner and delivered them to federal immigration custody. In November 2017, the Sheriff filed petitions for writ of certiorari with the Court of Appeals to review the trial judge’s orders, and a writ of prohibition seeking to preclude similar orders in the future. The next month, the Court of Appeals allowed the petitions and entered an order prohibiting a trial court from issuing a writ of habeas corpus for a person detained pursuant to a 287(g) agreement. The following year the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court orders for lack of jurisdiction, concluding that they infringed upon the federal government’s exclusive authority over immigration matters. Chavez v. Carmichael, 262 N.C. App. 196 (2018).

The Supreme Court allowed discretionary review and affirmed in part. The Court concluded as a threshold matter that although the matter was rendered moot when the Sheriff turned the men over to immigration authorities, the case fell within the scope of the public interest exception to the mootness doctrine. Proceeding to the merits, the Court concluded that a state court judge cannot interfere with the custody and detention of individuals held pursuant to federal authority, which includes state officials acting in accordance with a § 287(g) agreement. A trial court has jurisdiction to determine as an initial matter whether it has the authority to issue the writ, but once that initial examination of the application shows that the petitioner is being held pursuant to an immigration-related warrant or detainer, the trial court should summarily deny the application. Here, the applications, on their face, informed the judge that the petitioners were being held on immigration related process by a custodian who was a party to a § 287(g) agreement, and should therefore have been denied. The Court said the Court of Appeals erred to the extent that it held that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to make even an initial determination as to the basis for the petitioners’ detention, and also by addressing the extent to which habeas relief is available to petitioners detained on immigration-related documents by sheriffs who are not parties to § 287(g) agreements. In a footnote, the Court vacated the portion of the Court of Appeals’ decision ordering that a copy of its decision be sent to the Judicial Standards Commission.

 

The trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury on entrapment.

State v. Keller, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (June 5, 2020). The defendant was charged with solicitation of a child by computer under G.S. 14-202.3 after he responded to a Craigslist personal advertisement posted by a police detective posing as a 15-year-old. At trial the defendant requested a jury instruction on the defense of entrapment, which the trial court denied. The defendant was convicted and appealed. A divided Court of Appeals affirmed, with the majority concluding that the defendant’s request for an entrapment instruction was properly denied when the evidence showed that he was willing to engage in criminal activity and defendant failed to show that he was not predisposed to commit the act. State v. Keller, ___ N.C. App. ___, 828 S.E.2d 578 (2019). The dissenting judge would have concluded that the defendant was entitled to the instruction.

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded for a new trial. A defendant is entitled to jury instructions on entrapment if he presents “some credible evidence” tending to show that he was a victim of entrapment. Here, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant, the Court concluded that he made the requisite showing. The defendant testified that he initially believed the undercover detective to be 18 years old because Craigslist requires age verification to post a personal ad. And once the detective said via email that he was 15, the defendant repeatedly said they would have to wait to have sex until the detective was of age, at which point the detective steered the conversation back toward sex. Taking those facts as true, the Court concluded that a reasonable juror could have found that the defendant did not have a willingness or predisposition to commit the charged crime, and that he was thus entitled to an instruction on entrapment. The Court also concluded that the trial court erred by finding that the defendant’s request for a jury instruction on entrapment was inconsistent with his testimony that he traveled to meet the detective to help him, not to commit a sexual act with him. In general, a defendant cannot simultaneously deny committing an act and also say that he was entrapped into committing it. Here, however, the defendant did not deny the act, but rather only disputed his criminal intentions for the meeting. The entrapment defense therefore remained available. Finally, the Court held that the error was prejudicial and remanded for a new trial.

Justice Newby dissented, joined by Justice Morgan, stating his view that the entrapment defense is not available to a defendant who does not admit to all the elements of the charged offense, and that the defendant’s continued pursuit of the undercover detective even after learning that he was underage showed a predisposition to commit criminal acts that barred an entrapment defense.

 

The State may amend a criminal pleading after arraignment through a statement of charges if doing so does not change the nature of the charges.

State v. Capps, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (June 5, 2020). The defendant was charged by arrest warrant with misdemeanor injury to personal property, misdemeanor larceny, and reckless driving after he cut off the end of a truck stop’s air hose, attempted to strike his passenger with it, and then quickly fled with it when confronted by an undercover officer. He was convicted in district court and appealed to superior court. Before trial in superior court, the State moved to amend the charging language to correct the name of the corporate property owner for the injury to personal property and larceny charges. The prosecutor made the amendment on a misdemeanor statement of charges form with no objection from the defendant. The defendant was convicted and appealed. A divided Court of Appeals held that the superior court lacked jurisdiction to try the charges amended through the statement of charges, reasoning that under the language of G.S. 15A-922(e), a statement of charges may be filed after arraignment only if the defendant objects to the State’s original pleading. State v. Capps, ___ N.C. App. ___, 828 S.E.2d 733 (2019). The State appealed and the Supreme Court reversed, reinstating the convictions. The Court held that warrants may be amended at any time when doing so does not materially affect the nature of the charged offense or is otherwise authorized by law. And the State may make the amendment though a statement of charges, because the General Assembly intended statements of charges to be generally treated like amendments. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the defendant’s objection to the sufficiency of a warrant is a necessary prerequisite to a post-arraignment statement of charges.

 

 

Comments are disabled