Case Summaries – Supreme Court of North Carolina (April 16, 2021)

This post summarizes criminal decisions released by the Supreme Court of North Carolina on April 16, 2021.

In the absence of substantial evidence of incompetency, the trial court was not required to sua sponte conduct another competency hearing for a defendant found capable of proceeding eight months earlier.

State v. Allen, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Apr. 16, 2020). In 2015, the defendant was charged with several drug crimes and with having attained habitual felon status. In November 2016, a forensic psychologist evaluated the defendant and determined that he suffered from an intellectual disability, memory impairment, and overall neurological dysfunction, and that he was not capable of proceeding to trial. An evaluation in February 2017 by a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, reached the same conclusion. After another evaluation in June 2017, however, Dr. Berger concluded that the defendant was capable of proceeding to trial. At the ensuing pretrial competency hearing in August 2017, the trial court determined that the defendant was capable to proceed. The charges came on for trial in February 2018 and the defendant was convicted by a jury of several substantive drug crimes and then pled guilty to having attained habitual felon status. On appeal, a divided panel of the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court erred by failing to conduct another competency hearing before the defendant’s trial began. State v. Allen, 269 N.C. App. 24 (2019). The panel noted that the trial court has a constitutional duty to initiate competency hearings on its own motion if the record contains substantial evidence tending to show that the defendant might not be competent, and that there was such evidence in the defendant’s case, including his history of involuntary commitments, mental health history, significant intellectual disabilities, previous evaluations finding him incapable to proceed, and his mistaken responses to questions the trial judge posed to him at trial. The majority concluded that the evaluation from June 2017 “was not current, and may not have accurately reflected Defendant’s mental state at trial in February 2018,” and remanded the matter to the trial division to determine whether the defendant was competent at the time of trial. The dissent expressed the opinion that there was not “substantial evidence” tending to show the defendant might be incompetent at the time of trial.

On appeal, the Supreme Court considered whether there was substantial evidence sufficient to raise a bona fide doubt concerning the defendant’s competence at the time of trial. The Court reviewed the facts of the case, including the defendant’s mental health history and the course of treatment that ultimately led to the trial court’s determination that he was competent to proceed. The Court noted that, at the time the case was called for trial, neither party made any attempt to revisit the issue of the defendant’s competence. The Court was also unpersuaded that the defendant’s remarks to the trial judge during the plea colloquy on the habitual felon charge were substantial evidence of incompetence. In the absence of substantial evidence, the Court concluded that the trial court was entitled to rely on the pretrial competency determination completed eight months before trial. The Court therefore reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for proceedings not inconsistent with its opinion.

 

The trial court did not err by declining to give an instruction on voluntary intoxication when the defendant’s behavior did not show her to be utterly incapable of forming the intent to commit the crime

State v Meader, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Apr. 16, 2021). In 2018, the defendant was charged with felony breaking or entering a motor vehicle and other crimes for an incident involving the theft of several items from a car. Before trial, the defendant gave notice of her intent to raise a defense of voluntary intoxication. The trial court denied her request for an instruction on voluntary intoxication, concluding that the evidence showed that she spoke clearly, was responsive to questions, walked under her own power, and followed instructions from officers. The Court of Appeals held over a dissent that the trial court did not err in declining to give the instruction. State v. Meader, 269 N.C. App. 446 (2020). On appeal, the Supreme Court applied the standard that, to obtain a voluntary intoxication instruction, a defendant must produce substantial evidence supporting a conclusion that she was so intoxicated that she could not form the specific intent to commit the crime. Reviewing the evidence, the high court concluded that the defendant’s behavior, while periodically unusual, did not show her to be “utterly incapable” of forming specific intent. To the contrary, the evidence showed her to be aware of surroundings and in control of her faculties, both before and after the police arrived. The court thus held that the trial court did not err and affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Hudson, joined by Justice Morgan and Justice Earls, dissented. She wrote that the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the defendant, could lead a rational factfinder to conclude that she was unaware that she had taken another’s property.

 

Applying the proper statute, the defendant sufficiently preserved for appellate review his motion to sever defendants on the basis of antagonistic defenses

State v. Melvin, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Apr. 16, 2021). Six defendants were alleged to have committed an armed robbery at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Amphitheater. The trial judge granted the State’s motion to try three of the defendant’s jointly, including Mr. Melvin. Before and during trial, Melvin repeatedly moved to sever his case from that against one of his co-defendants, Mr. Baker. After all three defendants were convicted, Melvin and Baker appealed, arguing that the trial court should have granted their motions for severance based on antagonistic defenses. The Court of Appeals concluded unanimously that the that their claims were not properly preserved for appeal, because neither had expressly argued before trial that they planned to present antagonistic defenses. State v. Melvin, No. COA18-843, 2019 WL 614204 (N.C. Ct. App. 2019).

Melvin sought and obtained discretionary review by the Supreme Court, asking the court to review the Court of Appeals’ decision as to his objection to joint trial with Mr. Baker. The Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the Court of Appeals erred by considering only Melvin’s pretrial motion for severance and not considering his subsequent motions made after the close of evidence, after closing argument, and after conviction before sentencing. Under G.S. 15A-927, a trial court must deny joinder or grant severance of defendants whenever (1) the court finds before trial that severance is necessary to protect a defendant’s speedy trial right or to promote a fair determination of guilt or innocence, or (2) the trial court finds during trial that severance is necessary to achieve a fair determination of guilt or innocence. The statute thus contemplates objections both before trial and during trial, and defendants may therefore preserve severance claims for appellate review by objecting at any point during the trial. The Court of Appeals’ conclusion that Melvin’s argument for severance was not preserved was based on that court’s erroneous application of the rule for motions to sever offenses, which, under G.S. 15A-952, must generally be made with specificity before trial. There is no similar statutory requirement for motions to sever defendants. Therefore, on the facts of this case, where Melvin objected to joinder prior to trial, moved to sever during trial based on a co-defendant’s testimony implicating him, and again moved to sever based on a co-defendant’s argument during closing that Melvin was guilty, the Court held that Melvin sufficiently preserved for appellate review his motion to sever defendants on the basis of antagonistic defenses. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for consideration of the claim on the merits.

Justice Berger, joined by Justices Newby and Barringer, wrote separately, concurring in the result only. He agreed that the Court of Appeals applied the wrong joinder statute, but said that the Supreme Court should have simply remanded the matter for consideration under the proper statute, rather than concluding that the matter was indeed preserved based on the defendant’s motions before the trial court.

 

The decision of the Court of Appeals that the defendant’s acts constituted a single assault was left undisturbed by a divided Supreme Court

State v. Prince, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Apr. 16, 2021). With one justice not participating in the case and the remaining six justices divided equally, the decision of the Court of Appeals was left undisturbed and stands without precedential value. The decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 843 S.E.2d 700 (2020), was previously summarized as follows:

The defendant was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury (Class C felony) and assault by strangulation (Class H felony) based on his assault of his wife. The defendant’s wife was rendered unconscious during the assault and was hospitalized for three days as a result of her injuries, which include bruises around her neck, brain bleed, multiple contusions, and burst blood vessels in her eyes.

The trial court consolidated the offense for judgment and sentenced the defendant to a minimum of 73 and a maximum of 100 months imprisonment.

The assault by strangulation statute, G.S. 14-32.4(b), provides that “[u]nless the conduct is covered under some other provision of law providing greater punishment, any person who assaults another person and inflicts physical injury by strangulation is guilty of a Class H felony.” Id. (emphasis added).

The defendant argued that on appeal that because his assaultive conduct was covered by a statute providing greater punishment—namely, the offense of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury, for which he was convicted—the trial court violated the statutory mandate in G.S. 14-32.4(b) when it sentenced him for assault by strangulation.

The State argued that there were two separate assaults supporting each of the charges. The assault leading to the more serious offense was with fists. The other assault was by strangulation.

Over a dissent, the Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant. It rejected the State’s argument on the basis that there was no evidence of a distinct interruption between the assaultive conduct. Instead, the evidence showed that the victim’s injuries resulted from a single, if prolonged, assaultive act. The appellate court held that because the two offenses arose from the same conduct, the trial court erred in sentencing the defendant for assault by strangulation. The court vacated the defendant’s conviction for assault by strangulation and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing.

A dissenting judge would have found no error on the basis that an assault by intentionally strangling the victim is not the same conduct as intentionally striking the victim with fists or hands.

 

The State has the burden of showing that a federal constitutional error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt

State v. Scott, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Apr. 16, 2021). In 2013, the defendant’s car collided with another vehicle, killing its driver. The defendant was taken to the hospital, where he was treated and released. The State later obtained an order directing the hospital to provide the defendant’s medical records and blood. Tests of the blood indicated a blood alcohol concentration of 0.22. The defendant was charged with second-degree murder and death by vehicle. Before trial, the defendant moved to suppress, arguing that the blood was obtained in violation of the state and federal constitutions because there was no exigent circumstance or finding of probable cause. The trial court denied the motion and the defendant was convicted. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred by denying the motion to suppress, but went on to conclude over a dissent that “Defendant ha[d] failed to carry his burden to show any prejudicial error in the denial of the motion to suppress.” State v. Scott, 269 N.C. App. 457 (2020). The dissent argued that the proper legal standard for evaluating whether a federal constitutional error is prejudicial is whether the State has proved its harmlessness beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. (Brook, J., dissenting). On appeal, the Supreme Court agreed with the dissent, holding that the Court of Appeals applied the incorrect standard and wrongly placed the burden on the defendant to show prejudice. The Court remanded the matter to the Court of Appeals for application of the proper standard.

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