Case Summaries – North Carolina Court of Appeals (July 7, 2020)

This post summarizes published criminal opinions of the Court of Appeals decided on July 7, 2020.

(1) Accessory after the fact and obstruction of justice are distinct offenses and evidence supported jury instructions on each; (2) Failure to instruct the jury on the defendant’s belief that the killing was justified by self-defense was not plain error

State v. Cruz, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 7, 2020). The defendant was convicted of accessory after the fact to a felony and felony obstruction of justice in Cleveland County relating to her efforts to assist a murder suspect (later convicted of second-degree murder) evade capture. (1) The defendant argued the statutory offense of accessory after the fact abrogated the common law offense of obstruction of justice in part, such that she could not be convicted of both. The North Carolina Supreme Court previously rejected this argument in In re Kivett, 309 N.C. 635, 670 (1983), which defeated this claim. The defendant also argued that the two offenses were the same for purposes of double jeopardy, in that they are greater- and lesser-included offenses of each other. This argument has also been rejected by the prior decisions of the Court of Appeals, as the offenses have different elements: “This Court has expressly held that accessory after the fact and obstruction of justice do not constitute the same offense, and that neither is a lesser-included offense of the other.” Cruz Slip op. at 9 (citation omitted). Substantial evidence supported each instruction as well. As to the accessory conviction, the evidence showed the defendant provided personal assistance to the suspect while knowing he was wanted for murder. As to the obstruction conviction, the defendant lied to detectives about seeing or communicating with the suspect and deleted information from her phone showing she was in communication with him after police expressed an interest in her phone. This evidence was sufficient to support the instructions for each offense and the trial court did not err by so instructing the jury.

(2) The trial court did not commit plain error by failing to instruct the jury that if the defendant believed the killing was done in self-defense, she could not be convicted of accessory after the fact. Even if the defendant believed the killing was justified, the evidence here was sufficient to raise “a reasonable inference that the [D]efendant knew precisely what had taken place,” as she had notice of the suspect’s outstanding arrest warrant for murder at the time of her assistance to the defendant and her deceptions to law enforcement. The convictions were therefore unanimously affirmed.

(1) Presence of pocketknife in center console did not support Terry frisk; (2) Defendant’s act of fleeing during an illegal search was not an intervening circumstance supporting application of attenuation doctrine; denial of motion to suppress reversed

State v. Duncan, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 7, 2020). The defendant was stopped by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer for a broken taillight and a passenger seatbelt violation. A second officer arrived shortly after the stop. The stopping officer saw an approximately five-inch closed pocketknife in the center console between the driver and passenger. The officer then asked the defendant to step out of the car so the knife could be secured and to check the defendant for weapons. The defendant exited the car and stated that having the knife was not a crime. The officer agreed, stating he was acting out of officer safety. The defendant stated he was not armed and did not consent to a frisk. When the officer said he was “just going to pat [Defendant] down,” the defendant said, “all right,” and raised his arms. The officer felt a bulge the size of a “large grape” near the defendant’s exterior coat pocket but could not locate the item within the pocket. The officer suspected the item was marijuana and asked the defendant about it. The defendant replied that it was an item he purchased from a store. When asked to remove the item, the defendant produced several items wrapped in plastic, telling the officer, “It’s not illegal, man.” The officer then grabbed the bulge from the outside, lifted the defendant’s coat, and reached inside an interior pocket. The defendant repeatedly asked for a supervisor on scene and protested: “This is not a Terry frisk, man. You’re illegally searching me.” At one point the defendant pushed the officer’s arm away. The officer did not remove his hands from the defendant’s pockets and the defendant eventually fled, falling nearby. As the defendant got up from the fall, the officer observed the defendant “digging in his waistband.”  The defendant was then tased and arrested at gunpoint. A bag was found nearby containing crack and powder cocaine. More crack, marijuana, and cash were found on the defendant. The defendant stated the drugs were for personal use during arrest processing. He was charged with possession with intent to sell or deliver cocaine and possession of cocaine and moved to suppress.

The trial court denied the motion. It found the frisk was not based on reasonable suspicion and was therefore unconstitutional, but the defendant’s act of fleeing sufficiently attenuated that violation from the discovery of evidence. The defendant was convicted of two counts of possession of cocaine at trial and appealed. A divided Court of Appeals reversed.

(1) The State argued that the frisk was justified by the presence of the knife in the center console—since the defendant was armed, he was dangerous—and that the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. The majority disagreed. Two officers were present, the defendant was stopped for equipment violations only, and the stop occurred in the middle of the day in uptown Charlotte near the courthouse. The defendant was generally cooperative, did not attempt to conceal the knife, got out of the car (and away from the knife) upon request, and did not otherwise act suspiciously. These facts were “entirely inapposite” from cases where police had “reason to suspect the defendant possessed and concealed a dangerous weapon on their person, coupled with behavior giving rise to a suspicion the defendant may be dangerous.” Slip op. at 12-13 (emphasis in original) (distinguishing State v. Malachi, ___ N.C. App. ___, 825 S.E.2d 666 (2019)). The trial court therefore did not err in concluding the frisk was unconstitutional.

(2) Under the attenuation doctrine, evidence that would be subject to suppression via the exclusionary rule is nonetheless admissible when the connection between the illegal action of law enforcement and the evidence is “remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance.” See Utah v. Strieff, ___ U.S. ___, 136 S. Ct. 2056 (2016). Courts must examine the closeness in time between the police illegality and the discovery of the evidence, any intervening circumstances, and the “purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct” when deciding whether the attenuation exception applies. Duncan Slip op. at 16 (citation omitted). As to the first factor, Strieff held that only the passing of “substantial time” between the police misconduct and the discovery of evidence favors attenuation. Because the discovery of evidence here occurred within minutes of the illegal frisk, this factor weighed against attenuation. As to the second factor, the trial court found that the defendant committed the crime of resisting a public officer by fleeing the encounter—officers then had probable cause to arrest for that offense and to search incident to the arrest, which was a sufficient intervening circumstance. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that even if the frisk was within the mission of the stop, the officer’s search of the defendant’s pocket for suspected marijuana was not. “Because the traffic stop was unlawful at the point of [the officer’s] unconstitutional search, the defendant had ‘the right to resist [the] unlawful arrest.’” Id. at 21. The court rejected the State’s contention that the defendant could have resisted the search by lesser means, pointing out that the defendant repeatedly asked for a supervisor, repeatedly objected to the search, and tried to remove the officer’s hand from his pocket before fleeing. Thus, the defendant’s flight did not constitute a crime or intervening circumstance weighing in favor of attenuation. The court observed that the final factor, the purpose and flagrancy of law enforcement misconduct, was the most significant factor in the analysis. The trial court found the officers acted in good faith and that this supported application of the attenuation doctrine. The majority again disagreed. “Instead of taking the opportunity—indeed, at Defendant’s invitation—to deescalate the situation, [the officer] proceeded with the flagrantly unconstitutional search.” Id. at 26. These “extraordinary facts” weighed against attenuation and in favor of suppression. The trial court’s order denying the motion to suppress was therefore reversed and a new trial ordered.

Judge Tyson dissented. He would have found that the frisk was justified and that attenuation applied to the extent the search became illegal, as well as other grounds supporting the denial of the motion.

Confession was voluntary and not the product of improper inducement

State v. Lee, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 7, 2020). The defendant was accused of killing his aunt in Lenoir County. Following his arrest, the defendant initially requested an attorney and was not interrogated, but later contacted detectives and signed a Miranda waiver. The defendant offered to make a full statement if he could see his family face-to-face again (visits at the jail were conducted by computer and phone only). Officers initially declined the offer but eventually agreed to a face-to-face family visit, and the defendant confessed. The trial court refused to suppress the statement and the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder at trial. He appealed, arguing that his confession was the product of improper inducement by police and therefore not voluntary.

Due process prohibits the admission of an involuntary confession by a person in custody. “[A] confession obtained by the improper ‘influence of hope or fear implanted in the defendant’s mind’ by law enforcement can render the confession involuntary.” Slip. op. at 5. However, for an inducement to be improper, it “must promise relief from the criminal charge to which the confession relates, not to any merely collateral advantage.” Id. at 6 (citations omitted). Here, the defendant initiated the contact with law enforcement and offered to confess in exchange for the family visit; the plan did not originate with law enforcement. The defendant also testified at suppression that he was motivated in part to confess after talking with his father, who encouraged the defendant to make a truthful statement. The totality of circumstances showed that the confession was knowing and voluntary. Further, the purported inducement here related only to a collateral advantage and did not promise relief from the crime. The denial of the motion to suppress was therefore unanimously affirmed.

(1) “Minor deviation” from pattern instruction on breaking or entering was not error and did not prejudice the defendant; (2) Error to instruct jury on actual possession where evidence did not support that theory, but no prejudice on the facts of the case; (3) Trial court retained jurisdiction to correct sentence the day after the initial sentencing notwithstanding notice of appeal

State v. McMillan, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 7, 2020). The defendant was tried in Guilford County on charges of discharging a weapon into occupied property, firearm by felon, first-degree burglary, trafficking cocaine, possession with intent, and two counts of habitual felon. At the charge conference, the defendant requested an instruction on misdemeanor breaking or entering, which the trial judge agreed to give. The defendant objected to jury instructions on actual and constructive possession for the drug offenses, but the trial court overruled the objection and instructed the jury on both theories of possession. The jury convicted on all counts and the defendant appealed.

(1) In its instruction to the jury on misdemeanor breaking or entering, the trial court deviated from the language of the pattern instruction. While the pattern instruction states the offense need not require felonious intent “so long as the breaking or entering was wrongful, that is, without any claim of right,” the trial court instructed the jury that the defendant could be found guilty of the crime if they believe he lacked felonious intent but acted “without consent of the owner or tenant.” Slip op. at 11-12. This “minor deviation” from the pattern instruction did not amount to error, as the instruction was supported by the evidence and “correct in law.” Id. at 13. Even assuming error, the defendant could not show prejudice—he did not make any claim of right to enter the property and the jury convicted on first-degree burglary in any event.

(2) As to the jury instructions on actual and constructive possession, it was error to instruct the jury on actual possession where no evidence supported that theory. However, the defendant again could not demonstrate prejudice. The evidence of defendant’s constructive possession of the drugs was “exceedingly strong,” and this defeated any claim of prejudice.

(3) At the initial sentencing hearing, the trial court failed to impose a sentence for one of the two habitual felon convictions. The next day, the trial court realized its error and imposed the second habitual sentence. The defendant gave notice of appeal following the first hearing and contended the trial court lacked jurisdiction to sentence the defendant at the second hearing. The trial court normally loses jurisdiction to act once notice of appeal has been given. However, G.S. 15A-1448(a)(3) authorizes the trial court to act to correct a sentencing error within 14 days of the original sentence, even if the defendant has given notice of appeal and even without a motion for appropriate relief. See State v. Lebeau, ___ N.C. App. ___, 843 S.E.2d 317 (April 21, 2020). The trial court was required to sentence the defendant as a habitual felon once the verdict was returned and doing so was not a substantive amendment of the sentence but merely a “statutorily ‘necessary by-product’ of the sentence.” McMillan Slip op. at 20. The trial court therefore retained jurisdiction to correct the sentence, and the convictions were unanimously affirmed.

(1) Use of the word “victim” in reference to the accuser by multiple witnesses for the State was not improper vouching or plain error; (2) Defendant could not show prejudice for ineffective assistance claim based on defense counsel’s failure to object to the use of “victim” by State’s witnesses; (3) Use of “victim” by the trial court in jury instructions was not plain error

State v. Womble, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 7, 2020). In this Moore County case, the defendant was convicted of first-degree rape and sex offense, crime against nature, possession of firearm by felon, communicating threats and various assaults stemming from attacks on his estranged then-wife. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court plainly erred by permitting multiple witnesses for the State to refer to the woman as the “victim,” that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to those references, and that the trial court plainly erred by using “victim” to describe the woman in its jury instructions.

(1) A total of eight witnesses for the State used the term “victim” in reference to the woman, five of whom were law enforcement officers and four of whom were expert witnesses. The defendant contended this amounted to improper vouching for the accuser’s credibility and argued the trial court should have intervened ex mero motu. The court found that the defendant could not show prejudice and therefore could not establish plain error. “…[T]he strength of the State’s evidence against defendant . . . outweighed any potential subliminal effect of the witnesses’ occasional references to [the woman] as the victim.” Slip. op. at 13.

(2) For the same reasons, the defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim failed. The defendant could not demonstrate a reasonable possibility of a different result at trial had his counsel objected to the uses of the word “victim” and therefore could not establish prejudice under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

(3) According to the defendant, the trial court’s use of the word “victim” in its jury instruction violated the statutory mandate against expression of judicial opinion. Rejecting this argument, the court observed:

Our Supreme Court has consistently rejected a defendant’s attempt to couch the trial court’s use of the term “victim” in its jury instructions as an improper expression of judicial opinion in violation of N.C.G.S. §§ 15A-1222 and 1232. . . Likewise, our Supreme Court has rejected arguments that the trial court’s use of the term “victim” in its charge to the jury amounts to plain error . . . Id. at 17.

Any constitutional challenge to the jury instructions on this point was not raised in the trial court and therefore waived on appeal. The convictions were thus unanimously affirmed.

(1) Evidence was sufficient to show a taking by force from the victim’s presence; (2) Any Rule 404(b) error based on testimony that the defendant provided the victim heroin was not prejudicial; (3) Attorney fee order vacated and remanded for hearing where defendant had no notice or opportunity to be heard

State v. Young-Kirkpatrick, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 7, 2020). The defendant in this Davidson County case was tried for common law robbery, habitual misdemeanor assault, and habitual felon. The charges stemmed from an incident between the defendant and his then-girlfriend at her residence, resulting in him assaulting her, damaging her car, and ultimately taking her car after she fled inside the home. The defendant had recently purchased the car for the woman and had been reimbursed by her family for its value, and this was apparently part of the argument. At trial, evidence was also presented that the defendant provided the victim heroin during their relationship. The defendant was convicted on all counts and appealed.

(1) The defendant argued there was insufficient evidence that he used force to take the car or that he took property from the victim’s presence. The court rejected the arguments, observing that “even when there is some attenuation between the use of force and the taking, the action can still amount to a continuous transaction.” Slip op. at 7. Here, the defendant’s acts of assaulting the victim and stealing her car occurred within a 20-minute time period in the victim’s front yard, and evidence showed that the argument and assault were related to the car. Viewed in the light most favorable to the State, the victim fled in response to the defendant’s assault, and the defendant took her car immediately afterwards. This was sufficient to show a continuous transaction linking the defendant’s use of force to the taking of property. The same facts showed that the taking occurred “in the presence of” the victim. In the words of the court:

If the force . . . for the purpose of taking personal property has been used and caused the victim in possession or control to flee the premises and this is followed by the taking of the property in one continuous course of conduct, the taking is from the “presence” of the victim.” Id. at 8 (citation omitted).

The trial court did not therefore err in denying the motion to dismiss the common law robbery charge for insufficient evidence.

(2) The defendant argued that the testimony about him giving the victim heroin during their relationship was unduly prejudicial and violated N.C. Evid. R. 404(b). Assuming without deciding that the admission of this testimony violated Rule 404(b), any error was harmless in light of “overwhelming evidence” of the defendant’s guilt.

(3) The trial court erred by failing to give the defendant notice and an opportunity to be heard on attorney fees. The record contained no colloquy between the trial judge and the defendant on the issue and no other evidence showed that the defendant was given a chance to be heard. Thus, the civil judgement on attorney fees was vacated and the matter remanded for hearing on that issue only. The convictions were otherwise unanimously affirmed.

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