Case Summaries – North Carolina Supreme Court (April 3, 2020) and United States Supreme Court (April 6 & March 23, 2020)

This post summarizes the published criminal cases from the North Carolina Supreme Court issued on April 3, 2020, and two decisions from the United States Supreme Court issued on April 6 and March 23, 2020.

Thanks to John Rubin and Chris Tyner for preparing the U.S. Supreme Court summaries.

Given the commonsense inference that vehicles likely are being driven by their owners, an officer’s knowledge that the registered owner of a vehicle has a revoked driver’s license provides reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop in the absence of information negating the inference that the owner is the driver.

Kansas v. Glover, 589 U.S. ___ (Apr. 6, 2020)

In this Kansas driving with a revoked license case, the Court held that when a police officer knows that the registered owner of a vehicle has a revoked driver’s license and lacks information negating an inference that the owner is the driver of the vehicle, a traffic stop is supported by reasonable suspicion and does not violate the Fourth Amendment.  Recognizing that persons other than the registered owner sometimes may be lawfully driving, the Court said that knowledge of a registered owner’s revoked license “provided more than reasonable suspicion to initiate [a] stop” based on the “commonsense inference” that, in the absence of negating information, vehicles likely are being driven by their registered owners.  The Court emphasized the narrow scope of its holding, saying that the presence of additional facts may dispel reasonable suspicion and offering the example of a situation where an officer observes that a driver does not appear to be the registered owner.

Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Ginsburg, wrote a concurring opinion expressing the view that the stop in this case was reasonable given the particular nature of Kansas motor vehicle law, where a license revocation usually is the consequence of serious or repeated offenses, and in light of the fact that the “barebones [evidentiary] stipulation” before the court demonstrated a total absence of “additional facts” that might “dispel reasonable suspicion.”

Justice Sotomayor dissented, criticizing the majority’s approach for “absolving officers from any responsibility to investigate the identity of a driver” when feasible and arguing that inferences contributing to reasonable suspicion must be based on specialized law enforcement training and experience rather than layperson “common sense.”

Kansas’ repeal of insanity defense and adoption of mens rea defense does not violate due process.

Kahler v. Kansas, ___ U.S. ___ (Mar. 23, 2020)

The defendant was convicted of and sentenced to death for killing his wife, who had filed for divorce, his two teenage daughters, and his wife’s grandmother, with whom the victims were staying. Before trial, the defendant filed a motion arguing that Kansas’ law on insanity violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Before statutory changes enacted in 1995, Kansas followed the M’Naghten test for insanity. Under that test, a defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity if either (1) he did not know the nature and quality of the act he was doing or (2) if he did know, he did not know his act was wrong. In 1995, Kansas legislatively abolished the M’Naghten insanity defense and adopted a mens rea defense. The pertinent statute provides that it is a defense to prosecution that the defendant, as a result of mental disease or defect, lacked the culpable mental state required as an element of the offense charged. The statute provides further that a mental disease or defect is not otherwise a defense. The Kansas courts rejected the defendant’s due process challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed.

The six-member majority began by observing that the M’Naghten insanity formulation consists of two tests: a cognitive incapacity test (the defendant did not know the nature and quality of his act); and a moral incapacity test (the defendant did not know his act was wrong). The Kansas’ mens rea defense, according to the Court, retains the cognitive incapacity test for insanity and jettisons the moral incapacity test. For a state rule on criminal liability to violate the Due Process Clause, it must offend “some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” Slip Op. at 14. The Court held that the moral capacity test is not such a principle and that the Due Process Clause does not compel states to adopt an insanity defense that turns on a defendant’s ability to know his act was wrong. The Court also noted that Kansas law allows a defendant to present mental health evidence at sentencing and that a judge may replace a defendant’s prison term with commitment to a mental health facility.

The three dissenting justices argued that Kansas had eliminated the core of the insanity defense by disallowing the defense for a defendant, who by reason of mental illness, “lacked the mental capacity necessary for his conduct to be considered morally blameworthy.” Dissenting Op. at 1. The dissent gave two examples to illustrate its view.

In Prosecution One, the accused person has shot and killed another person. The evidence at trial proves that, as a result of severe mental illness, he thought the victim was a dog. Prosecution Two is similar but for one thing: The evidence at trial proves that, as a result of severe mental illness, the defendant thought that a dog ordered him to kill the victim. Under the insanity defense as traditionally understood, the government cannot convict either defendant. Id. at 1–2.

Under Kansas’ law, the defendant in Prosecution One could defend against the charge by showing that his mental illness prevented him from forming the mens rea for murder (intentional killing of a human being). The defendant in Prosecution Two has no defense under Kansas law because he acted with the necessary level of intent. The dissent observed that mental illness typically does not deprive individuals of the ability to form intent; rather, it affects their motivations for acting. As a result, Kansas’ approach requires conviction of a broad swath of defendants who would be adjudged not guilty under any traditional formulation of the insanity defense. In the dissent’s view, this result “offends deeply entrenched and widely recognized moral principles underpinning our criminal laws.” Id. at 21. The dissent rejected the idea that consideration of mental capacity at sentencing satisfies due process, finding that an insane defendant should not be found guilty in the first place.

Trial court did not commit prejudicial error by overruling defendant’s objections and allowing prosecutor’s comments about race during closing argument; assuming without deciding that the comments were improper, defendant failed to show prejudice.

State v. Copley, __ N.C. __ (Apr. 3, 2020)

In this first-degree murder case, the defendant, who was white, was charged with shooting through a window in his garage door and killing the victim, who was black. The victim was one of a group of about 20 people who had briefly gone to a party at a nearby house, and he was shot and killed when he ran through a portion of the defendant’s yard. The defendant admitted to the shooting, but argued that he was acting in self-defense and defense of habitation. At trial, the defendant testified that he had yelled at the group to “shut the f— up” and they yelled back “f— you; go inside; white boy.” The state’s evidence included a recorded 911 call in which the defendant reported there were “hoodlums” racing in the street (the defendant later admitted this was false) and stated that he was “going to kill him,” he was “locked and loaded,” and he would “secure the neighborhood.”

During closing arguments, the prosecutor stated that the issue of race was “the elephant in the room” since it had been raised during jury selection and alluded to during the defendant’s evidence and closing argument. The defendant objected, but the trial court overruled the objection and allowed the prosecutor to argue that if the defendant’s fear of the victim was based on the victim’s race, then it was not a reasonable fear that would support a claim of self-defense: “Now, reasonableness and that fear, a fear based out of hatred or a fear based out of race is not a reasonable fear, I would submit to you. That’s just hatred. And I’m not saying that’s what it is here, but you can consider that. And if that’s what you think it was, then maybe it’s not a reasonable fear.” The defendant was convicted and appealed. Citing State v. Jones, 355 N.C. 117 (2002), the Court of Appeals held that the prosecutor’s statements regarding race were an improper appeal to bias and reversed the conviction. [Note: For further discussion of the Court of Appeals decision, see Emily Coward, “State v. Copley: Addressing Race During Closing Argument,” N.C. Criminal Law Blog (June 18, 2019).]

The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, finding that neither the majority nor the dissent had conducted a “complete prejudice analysis” in the case. The higher court acknowledged Jones but explained that it was an inadequate basis for comparison because the challenged statements in Jones arose during the closing arguments in the sentencing phase of a death penalty case. To properly evaluate prejudice during the guilt-innocence phase of a non-capital case, the reviewing court must also consider: (i) the other evidence of the defendant’s guilt; and (ii) the remainder of the closing argument. Assuming without deciding that the challenged statements were improper, the defendant failed to establish prejudice in this case. First, viewing the comments about race “in the context of the entire closing,” the court found that the comments were only a small part of an argument that primarily focused on the defendant’s lack of credibility, the strong evidence of his guilt, and the absence of a basis for claiming self-defense, which undermined a finding of prejudice. Second, in light of all the other “compelling evidence” of the defendant’s guilt in this case (e.g., incriminating statements recorded on the 911 call, firing through a closed garage door, challenges to the defendant’s credibility, and his admission to the shooting), the defendant failed to meet his burden of demonstrating a reasonable possibility that the jury would have acquitted him in the absence of the prosecutor’s comments. The appellate court’s decision was reversed, and the case was remanded for ruling on the defendant’s remaining arguments.

Justice Earls wrote separately in concurrence to address the unresolved issue of whether the prosecutor’s comments were improper. Derogatory or inflammatory statements appealing to bias or prejudice are improper, but neutral and non-derogatory statements regarding race are permissible if they bear a material relevance to an issue in the case (such as motive). Justice Earls concluded that the prosecutor’s statements in this case were not an appeal to racial animus; instead, they addressed relevant issues of race that had arisen during jury selection and the defendant’s testimony. Therefore, it was “proper and permissible for the prosecutor to urge the jury not to allow any racial considerations or stereotypical assumptions about young black men to impact their ultimate decision about what was reasonable fear in these circumstances.”

Statute prohibiting the possession of “any gun” on educational property was ambiguous as to whether possession of multiple guns at the same time supported multiple convictions; therefore, applying the rule of lenity in the defendant’s favor, only one conviction was proper.

State v. Conley, __ N.C. __ (Apr. 3, 2020)

The defendant in this case was in possession of five guns and two knives on educational property. After threatening a school bus driver and attempting to shoot the first responding deputy, the defendant was taken into custody after a struggle with additional officers. Following a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of attempted first degree murder, five counts of possessing a gun on educational property, and one count each of possessing a knife on educational property, cruelty to animals, and assault by pointing a gun. On appeal, the defendant argued that it was error to enter judgment on five separate counts of possessing a gun on educational property because the language in G.S. 14-269.2(b) which prohibits possessing “any gun” is ambiguous as to whether it authorizes multiple punishments for the simultaneous possession of more than one firearm. The Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that the language was ambiguous, and therefore under the rule of lenity the statute had to be construed as permitting only a single conviction even if the defendant possessed more than one firearm.

The North Carolina Supreme Court granted the state’s petition for discretionary review and affirmed the ruling from the Court of Appeals. Citing State v. Garris, 191 N.C. App. 276 (2008), a case in which the Court of Appeals addressed similar statutory language prohibiting possession of “any firearm” by a convicted felon and held that only one conviction for the possession of multiple firearms was proper, the higher court agreed that the language was ambiguous in this case because it could be construed as referring to either a single or multiple firearms. Pursuant to State v. Smith, 323 N.C. 439 (1988), another case involving ambiguity as to the number of permissible convictions, when a statute fails to “clearly express the General Assembly’s intent as to the allowable unit of prosecution” the “ambiguity should be resolved in favor of lenity toward the defendant.” The court rejected the state’s arguments in favor of a contrary interpretation that would permit multiple convictions, holding that it “would be an act of pure judicial speculation in guessing which interpretation the legislature actually intended.”

Justice Morgan dissented, joined by Justice Newby. The dissent distinguished the cases cited in the majority opinion by arguing that the legislative intent to permit multiple convictions under this particular statute can be inferred from the unique dangers posed by guns on educational property “and the legislature’s clear intent to protect a vulnerable population from potential school shootings.”

Defendant’s motions to dismiss at trial adequately preserved all challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence and could be argued on appeal; however, the state presented sufficient evidence to withstand those challenges.

State v. Golder, __ N.C. __ (Apr. 3, 2020)

The defendant in this case was not a licensed bondsman, but over a period of five to six years he paid an employee at the clerk’s office to make entries into a computer record system indicating that the defendant had filed motions to set aside the bond forfeiture in numerous cases, even though no motions had been filed. Since no motions were actually filed or served on the district attorney or board of education, neither agency was on notice to file a response within the statutorily required 20-day period, meaning the bond forfeitures would be set aside automatically. The clerk was eventually fired for his role in the scheme and began cooperating with the State Bureau of Investigation. The defendant was ultimately convicted of aiding and abetting obtaining property by false pretenses, accessing a government computer, and altering court records, as well as unlicensed bail bonding.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in denying his motions to dismiss on the grounds that the state had failed to present sufficient evidence that he (i) aided and abetted the commission of the felony offenses, or (ii) obtained property in excess of $100,000, since at the time the false representations were made the interests of the state and the school board in the bonds to be forfeited were only speculative. The Court of Appeals rejected both arguments, finding that they were not properly preserved at trial. The aiding and abetting argument was never specifically raised in the defendant’s motions, and while the defendant did raise the property argument in his first motion to dismiss, his later motion to dismiss at the close of all the evidence only challenged the dollar value of the property rather than the issue of whether it qualified as a thing of value at all, so the court ruled that the second argument was likewise barred on appeal.

The North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed and held that the defendant properly preserved both arguments for appeal. Distinguishing objections and constitutional challenges which must be specifically argued at trial to be preserved, the arguments challenging the sufficiency of the evidence in this case were properly preserved under Rule 10(a)(3) of the Rules of Appellate Procedure. A motion to dismiss “places an affirmative duty upon the trial court to examine the sufficiency of the evidence against the accused for every element of each crime charged,” so the “simple act of moving to dismiss at the proper time preserved all issues related to the sufficiency of the evidence for appellate review.” The jurisprudence of the Court of Appeals that has attempted to distinguished between general and specific motions to dismiss for sufficiency of the evidence “and to assign different scopes of appellate review to each category, is inconsistent with Rule 10(a)(3).”

Turning to the merits of the defendant’s arguments, the court held that the state presented sufficient evidence to withstand a motion to dismiss on both issues. First, viewed in the light most favorable to the state, the evidence established that the defendant aided and abetted the clerk’s actions by meeting with him and agreeing to the scheme, sending him text messages with instructions and case names, and paying him for entering the fraudulent motions. Second, G.S. 14-100 covers both obtaining and attempting to obtain a thing of value, so the defendant’s efforts to reduce the amount he would have to pay on the forfeited bonds constituted a “thing of value” within the broad scope of the statute.

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