Case Summaries – Supreme Court of N.C. (June 17, 2022)

This post summarizes published criminal decisions from the Supreme Court of North Carolina released on June 17, 2022. These summaries will be added to Smith’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to present. These summaries were prepared by School of Government Legal Research Associate Alex Phipps, except for the summaries of Conner (prepared by Shea Denning) and Kelliher (prepared by Jamie Markham).

Trial court properly considered circumstantial evidence as sufficient to justify denial of defendant’s motion to dismiss.

State v. Dover, 2022-NCSC-76, ___ N.C. ___ (June 17, 2022). In this Rowan County case, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and determined that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence in the record to support denial of defendant’s motion to dismiss charges of robbery and first-degree murder.

At trial, evidence was admitted that defendant worked with the victim, had recently asked the victim for money (a request the victim denied), was in possession of a large amount of cash hidden in a suspicious manner, lied to police officers about his whereabouts on the night of the crime, and used his cellphone in the vicinity of the victim’s residence. Defendant’s motion to dismiss rested on the lack of direct evidence tying defendant to the crime, as no evidence directly showed that defendant entered the victim’s residence or stabbed the victim, and no evidence connected the cash in defendant’s possession directly to the victim.

The Supreme Court determined that the circumstantial evidence was sufficient to support the inference that defendant had the motive, opportunity, and means to commit the robbery and murder of the victim. The Court concluded that it was appropriate for the trial court to deny the motion to dismiss and permit the jury to act as factfinder on the ultimate question of guilt or innocence. Because the Court of Appeals did not rule on the denial of defendant’s motion for a mistral, that issue was remanded for consideration.

Justice Hudson, joined by Justice Earls, dissented from the opinion and objected to the majority’s analysis regarding the sufficiency of the circumstantial evidence in the record to support defendant’s convictions.

Rule 21 of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure did not restrict the discretion of the Court of Appeals to consider defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari.

State v. Killette, 2022-NCSC-80, ___ N.C. ___ (June 17, 2022). In this Johnston County case, defendant was charged with drug related offenses after two searches of his home turned up items and ingredients used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. The first search occurred in September of 2014, and the second occurred in June of 2015. After charges were filed resulting from both searches, defendant filed two motions to suppress the evidence obtained from these searches in March of 2017. Two separate orders were entered denying both of defendant’s motions to suppress, in May and June of 2017.

After the denial of defendant’s motions to suppress, defendant reached a plea agreement and pled guilty on July 6, 2017, to two counts of manufacturing methamphetamine along with dismissal of the remaining charges. Defendant then filed a handwritten appeal on July 10, 2017, challenging the denial of his motion to suppress the 2014 search. Defendant also filed a writ of certiorari because he had not notified the State of his intent to appeal prior to the entry of his plea. The Court of Appeals dismissed defendant’s appeal and denied his petition for a writ of certiorari in October of 2018. The court held that defendant had forfeited his right to appeal by failing to provide notice prior to entering his guilty plea, and Rule 21 of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure barred issuance of the writ. Defendant appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court remanded the case for reconsideration in light of two recent decisions, State v. Ledbetter, 371 N.C. 192 (2018), and State v. Stubbs, 368 N.C. 40 (2015). These decisions indicated that the Court of Appeals holds discretion to grant or deny a petition for writ of certiorari that is not limited by Rule 21. The Supreme Court instructed the Court of Appeals to exercise that discretion when considering defendant’s petition. However, in 2019 the Court of Appeals denied defendant’s petition for a second time, citing Rule 21 and a line of decisions indicating that defendant’s failure to provide notice of appeal barred granting his petition. Defendant again appealed the decision.

In the current opinion, the Supreme Court expressly held that the Court of Appeals has complete discretion to grant or deny defendant’s petition, regardless of Rule 21. Additionally, the Court explicitly overruled any precedent that held or implied that the Court of Appeals was constrained by Rule 21 when considering whether to grant a writ of certiorari under similar circumstances. The case was remanded a third time for consideration by the Court of Appeals.

Justice Berger did not participate in the consideration or decision for this case.

The Fourth Amendment did not prohibit officer’s search of defendant and seizure of narcotics found on defendant, despite the search and seizure occurring next door to the premises identified in the search warrant.

State v. Tripp, 2022-NCSC-78, ___ N.C. ___ (June 17, 2022). In this Craven County case, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded a Court of Appeals majority opinion overturning the denial of defendant’s motion to suppress and vacating defendant’s convictions. The Supreme Court determined that defendant was lawfully detained and searched during the execution of a search warrant even though he was not located on the premises identified by the warrant.

Defendant was the subject of a narcotics investigation and sold heroin to a confidential informant during a controlled buy arranged by the Craven County Sheriff’s Office. Officers obtained a search warrant for the premises used by the defendant during the controlled buy of narcotics, but not for a search of defendant’s person. When executing the search warrant, an officer observed defendant at a neighboring property owned by defendant’s grandfather. The officer detained the defendant, saw what appeared to be a baggie visible in the pocket of defendant’s pants, and patted down the defendant, ultimately finding a baggie containing narcotics. Defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained through that search.

The Supreme Court found that all findings of fact challenged by defendant were supported by competent evidence in the record. The Court then examined whether the search of defendant and warrantless seizure of the narcotics were lawful. Based upon State v. Wilson, 371 N.C. 920 (2018), the Court held that a search warrant carries with it the authority for law enforcement to detain occupants on or in the vicinity of the premises being searched, and defendant was just 60 yards from the premises and close enough to pose a safety threat. The frisk of defendant was justified by the risk that he would be carrying a firearm, given the connection between guns and drug activity. After determining the law enforcement officer had authority to detain and frisk defendant, the Court held that the “plain view” and “plain feel” doctrines supported the warrantless seizure of the baggie found in defendant’s pocket, which was later determined to be a heroin/fentanyl mixture. This analysis determined that the search of defendant was constitutional and the seizure of the baggie of narcotics was permitted, supporting the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress.

Justice Barringer concurred in part and concurred in the result, but felt that the reasonable suspicion standard under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), would have supported the search and seizure, not necessitating the full analysis the majority utilized.

Justice Earls, joined by Justices Hudson and Morgan, dissented and took issue with the majority’s characterization of defendant as an “occupant” while not located on the premises, ultimately disagreeing with the majority’s interpretation of the Wilson analysis as well as the concurrence’s Terry justification.

Juvenile offenders who have received sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole must have the opportunity to seek parole after serving no more than 40 years of incarceration

State v. Conner, 2022-NCSC-79, ___ N.C. ___ (June 17, 2022). In this Columbus County case, the juvenile defendant pled guilty to the first-degree murder and first-degree rape of his aunt, offenses he committed and was arrested for when he was 15 years old.­­ The trial court conducted a sentencing hearing under the statutory procedures enacted to conform to the United States Supreme Court’s determination in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), that the Eighth Amendment bars the automatic, mandatory imposition of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile defendant. Based on its finding of numerous mitigating factors, the trial court imposed a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 25 years for first-degree murder. The trial court further sentenced the defendant to 240-348 months of imprisonment for the first degree rape, and ordered that the two sentences run consecutively. As a result, the defendant was to become eligible for parole after being incarcerated for 45 years, at which point he would be 60 years old.

The defendant appealed, raising, in addition to other arguments, the claim that the consecutive sentences were the functional equivalent of a sentence of life without parole and thus were unconstitutional when imposed on a juvenile who was not determined to be incorrigible or irredeemable. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals rejected this argument. The defendant appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

On this issue of first impression, the Supreme Court reasoned that at some point multiple terms of active consecutive sentences imposed upon a juvenile offender, even if they expressly provide for parole, become tantamount to a life sentence without parole. This occurs when the offender has been incarcerated for such a protracted period of time that the possibility of parole is no longer “plausible, practical, or available.” Slip op. at 47. A juvenile offender entitled to parole based on the trial court’s determination that he is neither incorrigible nor irredeemable must be afforded an opportunity for parole that is “realistic, meaningful, and achievable.” Id. A sentence that fails to afford that opportunity violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments as well as the more protective provisions in Article I, Section 27 of the North Carolina Constitution barring cruel or unusual punishments.

In determining the maximum amount of time that a redeemable juvenile offender may serve before becoming parole eligible, the Court found it necessary to balance guidance from the United States Supreme Court that parole eligibility should be sufficiently far in the future to provide a juvenile offender time to mature and rehabilitate but sufficiently early to allow the offender to experience worthwhile undertakings outside of prison in the event parole is granted. The Court said it also had to give due weight to the trial court’s discretion to determine whether multiple sentences will run concurrently or consecutively pursuant to G.S. 15A-1354. Drawing from the United States Sentencing Commission’s guidance regarding determination of a de facto life sentence, the Court established forty years of incarceration as the point in time at which a juvenile offender who has not been deemed incorrigible or irredeemable by a trial court, and who is serving a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, is eligible to seek parole. The Court thus reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals on this issue and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for further remand to the trial court.

Justice Berger, joined by Chief Justice Newby and Justice Barringer, dissented, reasoning that the defendant’s sentence did not violate the Eighth Amendment or corollary provisions of the North Carolina Constitution because the State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime. The dissent criticized the majority for transforming the opportunity to obtain release required by the Constitution to an opportunity to seek parole early enough to experience meaningful life outside of prison based on policy preferences.

(1) A sentence of life without parole violates the federal and state constitutions for a juvenile homicide offender who has been found to be neither incorrigible nor irredeemable. (2) Any sentence or combination of sentences that requires a juvenile offender to serve more than 40 years before becoming eligible for parole is a de facto sentence of life without parole under the state constitution.

State v. Kelliher, 2022-NCSC-77, ___ N.C. ___ (June 17, 2022). This Cumberland County case came before the Supreme Court on discretionary review of the opinion of the Court of Appeals, 273 N.C. App. 616 (2020). The defendant, James Kelliher, pled guilty to two counts of first-degree murder for crimes committed when he was 17 years old in 2001. He received consecutive sentences of life without parole. After the Supreme Court of the United States decided Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), the defendant was resentenced to consecutive sentences of life with the possibility of parole after 25 years, which would make him parole eligible after 50 years, when he will be 67 years old. The Court of Appeals concluded that because the trial court had found that Kelliher was “neither incorrigible nor irredeemable,” the lengthy period he would have to serve before being eligible for parole was a de facto sentence of life without parole in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

After the Court of Appeals decided the case but before it was heard before the Supreme Court of North Carolina, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S. Ct. 1307 (2021) (summarized here), holding that no specific findings are required to authorize a sentence of life without parole for a defendant who was a juvenile at the time of the offense. The decision in Jones prompted the State to argue before the Supreme Court that the defendant’s federal and state constitutional claims lacked merit.

The Court held that it violates the Eighth Amendment and article I, section 27 of the state constitution to sentence a juvenile defendant who, like Kelliher, has been determined to be “neither incorrigible nor irredeemable” to life without parole. The Court rejected the State’s argument that Jones repudiated the substantive Eighth Amendment rule of Miller and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016). Rather, Jones merely established that the Eighth Amendment does not require a sentencing court to make a specific finding that a juvenile homicide offender is permanently incorrigible before sentencing him or her to life without parole. Jones did not change the rule from Miller and Montgomery that a sentence of life without parole is unconstitutional for a defendant found to be “neither incorrigible nor irredeemable.”

The Court next considered whether Kelliher’s lengthy aggregate parole-eligibility period amounted to a de facto sentence of life without parole. The Court observed that the focus of the United States Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence as applied to youthful defendants has been on “the nature of the offender, not the circumstances of the crime.” Slip op. ¶ 42. Therefore, the Court concluded, the underlying rule should not differ between sentences arising from a single offense and those arising from multiple offenses. Applying that principle, the Court concluded that Kelliher’s 50-year aggregate parole eligibility period is a de facto sentence of life without parole within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Court went on to conclude that article I, section 27 of the North Carolina Constitution offers even broader protection for the defendant than the Eighth Amendment in this context. The Court disavowed a prior case, State v. Green, 348 N.C. 588 (1998), in which it had said that cruel and/or unusual punishment claims under article I, section 27 and the Eighth Amendment had historically been analyzed the same. Analyzing that broader protection in light of a clear majority of other jurisdictions to have considered the issue, the Court concluded that a 50-year parole eligibility period deprived the defendant of a meaningful opportunity to be released. In answer to the ultimate question of “how long is too long” under the state constitution, the Court “identif[ied] forty years as the threshold distinguishing a permissible sentence from an impresmissible de facto life without parole sentence for juveniles not found to be irredeemable.” Slip op. at ¶ 68. That number was informed by data from the United States Sentencing Commission, which has defined any sentence of 470 months (39 years and 2 months) or longer as a de facto life sentence in light of the average life expectancy of an inmate, as well as employment and retirement data from North Carolina.

The Court clarified that its interpretation of what constitutes cruel or unusual punishment as applied to a juvenile offender does not extend to adult offenders.

Having concluded that a 50-year parole-eligibility period constituted an impermissible de facto life without parole sentence, the Court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to enter two concurrent sentences of life with the possibility of parole after 25 years, as that would be the only sentencing option that would not run afoul of the Court’s 40-year parole-eligibility threshold.

The Chief Justice, joined by Justice Berger and Justice Barringer, dissented, writing that North Carolina’s post-Miller statutory scheme for sentencing juvenile defendants, including the authority to impose consecutive sentences, complies with the federal and state constitutions, and that the consecutive sentences imposed here were not improper.