Case Summaries: NC Supreme Court (May 6, 2022)

This post summarizes published criminal law decisions from the North Carolina Supreme Court released on May 6, 2022. These summaries will be added to the School’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to present.

 

There was sufficient evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt of embezzlement of a controlled substance by an employee of a registrant or practitioner.

State v. Woods, 2022-NCSC-56, ___ N.C. ___ (May 6, 2022). In this Mecklenburg County case, the Supreme Court affirmed per curiam State v. Woods, 275 N.C. App. 364 (2020), a case in which the Court of Appeals majority determined there was sufficient evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt of embezzlement of a controlled substance by an employee of a registrant or practitioner under G.S. 90-108(a)(4).

 

Checking station to detect motor vehicle violations and impaired driving was reasonable and constitutional as the relevant factors weighed in favor of the public interest.

State v. Cobb, 2022-NCSC-57, ___ N.C. ___ (May 6, 2022). In this Harnett County case, the defendant pled guilty to impaired driving after the trial court denied her motion to suppress evidence obtained at a checking station set up to ensure compliance with Chapter 20 and to detect impaired driving.  The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s order denying the motion to suppress, determining that the trial court did not adequately weigh the factors necessary to determine whether the public interest in the checking station outweighed its infringement on the defendant’s Fourth Amendment privacy interests. The State appealed. The Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the order of the trial court, finding that the unchallenged findings of fact supported the conclusion that the checking station was reasonable and constitutional as the relevant factors (gravity of public concern, degree to which seizure advances public interest, and severity of the interference with individual liberty) weighed in favor of the public interest. The Supreme Court cited the trial court’s findings that the checkpoint was carried out on a heavily traveled road pursuant to a plan that required the stopping of all vehicles during a time frame conducive to apprehending impaired drivers. The Court further relied upon the trial court’s findings that the checking station was operated under a supervising officer and that most drivers were stopped for less than one minute.

 

The trial court plainly erred by admitting and relying upon testimony that violated the defendant’s attorney-client privilege while assessing an alleged speedy trial violation under the balancing framework of Barker v. Wingo.

State v. Farook, 2022-NCSC-59, ___ N.C. ___ (May 6, 2022).  On discretionary review of a unanimous opinion of the Court of Appeals, 274 N.C. App. 65 (2020), the Supreme Court held in this Rowan County case that the trial court plainly erred by admitting testimony that violated the defendant’s attorney-client privilege and consequently reversed the trial court’s order relying on that testimony in denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss on speedy trial grounds.

The defendant was represented by four different attorneys over the six-year period from his arrest in June 2012 to his trial in October 2018 on various charges, including second-degree murder and attaining violent habitual felon status, arising from his involvement in a fatal motor vehicle crash in 2012. At a September 2018 hearing on the defendant’s speedy trial motion to dismiss, the trial court admitted testimony without objection from one of the defendant’s former attorneys, Davis, concerning his representation of the defendant and their communications about Davis’s strategic decision to delay the defendant’s trial. The Supreme Court determined that it was plain error to admit this testimony as it violated attorney-client privilege and served as the sole basis for the trial court’s conclusion in a Barker inquiry that the presumption of prejudice from the six-year delay between arrest and trial was rebutted.  The Court rejected the State’s argument that the defendant waived the privilege by filing a pro se IAC motion, explaining that the motion was a “legal nullity” given that the defendant was represented by counsel at the time and thus “was not allowed to file pro se motions.” The Court went on to explain that the trial court had misapplied the proper standard for evaluating prejudice to a defendant resulting from a delayed trial by (1) assessing the prejudice of the delay to the State’s case and (2) concluding that the defendant was not prejudiced because he did not prove actual prejudice. The Court remanded the case for the trial court to consider any competent non-privileged evidence while applying the balancing framework and proper prejudice standard from Barker v. Wingo.

Justice Berger, joined by Chief Justice Newby and Justice Barringer, dissented, expressing the view that the majority improperly shifted the burden of proof from the defendant to the State and eliminated the Barker requirement that a defendant demonstrate prejudice caused by the delay.  The dissent also expressed the view that the defendant had waived his attorney-client privilege.

 

Trial court lacked a sufficient factual basis to accept defendant’s guilty plea to several assault charges arising from one assaultive episode as the facts established at the plea hearing did not establish a distinct interruption between assaults.

State v. Robinson, 2022-NCSC-60, ___ N.C. ___ (May 6, 2022). In this Buncombe County case, the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ determination that the trial court lacked a factual basis to accept the defendant’s guilty plea, but modified the holding of the Court of Appeals by vacating the plea arrangement and remanding for further proceedings.

Defendant pled guilty to four charges resulting from his assault and strangulation of his then-girlfriend over the course of a single evening after reportedly holding the victim captive in her home for three days. As provided by the plea agreement between the defendant and the State, the trial judge sentenced the defendant to four consecutive sentences for the four offenses charged:  assault on a female, violation of a domestic violence protective order, assault inflicting serious bodily injury, and assault by strangulation. The defendant subsequently petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which was granted by the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals filed a divided opinion reversing the trial court’s judgment and sentence, and the State appealed.

Applying its ruling in State v. Dew, 379 N.C. 64 (2021), that a single assaultive episode will support multiple assault charges only when there is a clear break delineating the end of one assault and the beginning of another, such as an intervening event, significant lapse of time, or change in location, the Supreme Court concluded that the facts presented at the defendant’s plea hearing did not establish such a distinct interruption. Instead, the factual statements provided at that hearing described a confined and continuous attack in which the defendant choked and punched the victim in rapid succession and without interruption. Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ ruling that the trial court erred when it accepted the plea and entered judgment on the three different assault charges (assault on a female, assault inflicting serious bodily injury, and assault by strangulation).

The Supreme Court disagreed, however, with the Court of Appeals’ prescribed remedy of arresting judgment on the lesser assault charges (assault on a female and assault by strangulation) and remanding for resentencing on assault inflicting serious bodily injury and violation of a DVPO. Noting that it is not the role of an appellate court to accept certain portions of a plea arrangement while rejecting others, the Supreme Court modified the holding of the Court of Appeals by vacating the entire plea arrangement.

Chief Justice Newby, joined by Justice Barringer, dissented on the basis that the prosecutor’s factual summary and testimony from the victim tended to show there was a distinct interruption between each assault.

 

Assuming without deciding that officer expressed improper lay opinion that the defendant was the operator of the moped that crashed, the error was not prejudicial because other admitted evidence included substantially similar information.

State v. Delau, 2022-NCSC-61, ___ N.C. ___ (May 6, 2022). In this Buncombe County case, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals that the trial court committed prejudicial error in admitting an officer’s testimony that the defendant was driving his moped when it crashed. The Supreme Court noted that a warrant application for the defendant’s blood that was signed by the testifying officer was admitted without objection at the defendant’s trial on impaired driving charges. That application stated the officer’s conclusion, based on the circumstances he observed following the crash, that the defendant was operating the moped. In addition, the defendant’s cross-examination of the officer brought out much of the same information. Thus, the Supreme Court held that the defendant did not meet his burden to establish that a different result would have been reached had the objected-to testimony been excluded.