This post summarizes the published criminal opinions from the Supreme Court of North Carolina released on October 20, 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.
Rule 404(b) testimony was admissible where alleged sexual assault was sufficiently similar and shared unique facts with the crime in question; trial court’s statement regarding “choice” during sentencing hearing was not obviously referencing defendant’s choice for a jury trial.
State v. Pickens, 276A22, ___ N.C. ___ (Oct. 20, 2023). In this Wake County case, the Supreme Court (1) affirmed the Court of Appeals holding that Rule 404(b) testimony was properly admitted, but (2) reversed the Court of Appeals decision vacating defendant’s sentence for improper consideration of the choice to pursue a jury trial, reinstating defendant’s original sentence.
From August-September of 2015, defendant, a middle-school chorus teacher, repeatedly raped and assaulted an eleven-year old student in the bathroom of the middle school as the student took her daily trips to the school nurse for medication. The student eventually reported the details of the assaults, leading to defendant’s trial for statutory rape and statutory sexual offense with a child in October of 2019. At trial, defendant filed a motion in limine to prevent the State from admitting testimony under Rule of Evidence 404(b) regarding defendant’s alleged rape of a previous student, but the trial court denied his motion. After the jury found defendant guilty of all charges, he was sentenced to three consecutive active sentences. During sentencing, the trial court addressed defendant regarding the testimony of the two victims and the traumatizing nature of the proceedings. At the end of this statement, the trial court said “[t]hey didn’t have a choice and you, [defendant], had a choice.” Slip Op. at 16. Defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeals majority found no error in admitting the Rule 404(b) testimony, but did find that the trial court improperly considered defendant’s choice to pursue a jury trial when imposing his sentence. The State subsequently appealed based upon the divided panel, leading to the current opinion.
Taking up (1), the Supreme Court explained that “Rule 404(b) has been characterized as a rule of inclusion, and evidence of prior bad acts is admissible unless the only reason that the evidence is introduced is to show the defendant’s propensity for committing a crime like the act charged.” Id. at 8. However, prior acts must be sufficiently similar and contain “some unusual facts that go to a purpose other than propensity” common to both crimes to be admissible under Rule 404(b). Id. at 13, quoting State v. Beckelheimer, 366 N.C. 127, 132 (2012). Here, the State offered testimony from a victim who was one of defendant’s chorus students in February of 2015. The victim testified that defendant raped her in his apartment while he was taking her to practice for a competition. The State offered this Rule 404(b) testimony to show defendant’s “intent, motive, plan, and design to sexually assault middle school students from schools where he was a teacher.” Id. at 10. Analyzing seven similarities and unique facts shared by assaults, the Court noted the age of the children, defendant’s use of his position as a teacher to gain access, and the style of intercourse defendant attempted with the children. The Court explained the proper analysis “involves focusing on the similarities and not the differences between the two incidents,” and concluded that admission of the Rule 404(b) testimony was not error. Id. at 13.
Turning to (2), the Court first noted the strong protection for an accused’s right to a trial by jury, and the necessity of a new sentencing hearing if the trial court imposed a sentence “at least in part because defendant . . . insisted on a trial by jury.” Id. at 15, quoting State v. Boone, 293 N.C. 702, 712 (1977). The issue in the current case was whether the “choice” referenced in the sentencing hearing was defendant’s decision to plead not guilty and pursue a jury trial. The Court examined relevant precedent and explained that the statement must be reviewed with the entire record. Here, reviewing the entirety of the trial court’s statement, it was unclear if the trial court was referring to defendant’s choice to pursue a jury trial or to “the egregious nature of [defendant]’s crimes and his decision to commit those crimes.” Id. at 20. The Court concluded that this ambiguity did not overcome the “presumption of regularity” enjoyed by the trial court’s sentence. Id. This led the Court to reinstate defendant’s original sentence.
Warrantless search of vehicle for driver’s identification after he fled the scene did not fall into any Fourth Amendment warrantless exception; search incident to arrest exception requires a contemporaneous arrest; automobile exception did not apply to immobilized vehicle.
State v. Julius, 95A22, ___ N.C. ___ (Oct. 20, 2023). In this McDowell County case, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision affirming the denial of defendant’s motion to suppress the results of a warrantless vehicle search. The Supreme Court held that the search and seizure were not justified under any applicable warrantless search exception and remanded the case to the trial court.
In May of 2018, sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene of a hit-and-run where a vehicle was partially submerged in a ditch. The driver fled the scene before deputies arrived due to outstanding warrants against him, but defendant was present and spoke to the deputies about the accident, explaining that it was her parents’ car but she was not the driver. Because defendant could identify the driver only by his first name, one of the deputies began searching the vehicle for his identification without consent from defendant. Eventually the deputy discovered a box that contained methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia, defendant was arrested, and a search of her backpack found additional contraband. At trial, defendant moved to suppress the results of the search, arguing it violated the Fourth Amendment; the trial court denied the motion and she was convicted of possession and trafficking in methamphetamine. On appeal, the Court of Appeals majority affirmed the denial of defendant’s motion, finding that the warrantless search was incident to arrest and permitted. The dissent disagreed, noting the driver was not arrested, and pointed out the automobile was immobile meaning the automobile exception also did not apply. Defendant appealed based upon this dissent, leading to the current case.
The Supreme Court noted that “the Court of Appeals held that the search incident to arrest exception justified the warrantless search and merely noted without further explanation that the search still could have been justified as ‘an inventory [search] or for officer safety.’” Slip Op. at 8. For (A) search incident to arrest, the Court explained that this exception is motivated by officer safety and preservation of evidence. Under applicable precedent, officers may search the area of a vehicle within reaching distance of a suspect being arrested, and may conduct a search before an arrest, if the arrest occurs contemporaneous with the search and probable cause existed. Here, the driver fled the scene and could not reach any part of the vehicle. Additionally, “the State presented no evidence at the suppression hearing that [the driver] was ever arrested, let alone arrested contemporaneously with the search of the vehicle.” Id. at 11. Moving to defendant, who was a bystander outside the vehicle, “[t]here was no evidence presented at the suppression hearing that the interior of the vehicle was accessible to defendant or that there were any safety concerns for the officers.” Id. Under these circumstances, the Court held that the search incident to arrest exception was inapplicable.
The Court then turned to (B) the automobile exception, and explained “[m]obility of the vehicle is a fundamental prerequisite to the application of the automobile exception.” Id. at 12, quoting State v. Isleib, 319 N.C. 634, 637 (1987). Here, this essential principle was missing, as the vehicle was stuck in a ditch. The Court observed that “[i]n fact, [a deputy] testified that he called a tow truck to remove the vehicle from the ditch.” Id. at 13. The Court held this exception was also inapplicable to the case, and no other exceptions plausibly applied.
After determining the evidence was gathered in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the Court moved to whether the exclusionary rule, which would exclude the results of the search, should apply. Because the trial court previously concluded a valid search occurred, it never considered whether the exclusionary rule was an appropriate remedy. As a result, the Court remanded the matter for consideration of whether to exclude the evidence.
Chief Justice Newby concurred in part and dissented in part by separate opinion, and would have held that the deputies acted reasonably and did not violate the Fourth Amendment while searching the vehicle for the driver’s identification. He concurred that the appropriate resolution if the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated was to remand to the trial court. Id. at 18.
Justice Riggs did not participate in the consideration or decision of the case.
Supreme Court held discretionary review of unpublished Court of Appeals opinion was improvidently allowed.
State v. Arthur, 393PA21, ___ N.C. ___ (Oct. 20, 2023). In this New Hanover County case, the Supreme Court per curiam held that defendant’s petition for discretionary review of the unpublished decision State v. Arthur, 2021-NCCOA-548, 279 N.C. App. 684 (table), 2021 WL 4535680 (Oct. 5, 2021), was improvidently allowed. In the unanimous unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeals found no error where a sheriff’s deputy offered lay witness testimony based upon his training and experience that a substance was marijuana, and held that defendant’s habitual felon sentence did not represent cruel and unusual punishment.