Case Summaries: Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (April 2023)

This post summarizes published criminal and related decisions released by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals during April 2023. Cases that may be of interest to state practitioners are summarized monthly. Previous summaries of Fourth Circuit decisions are available here. Continue reading

Open Carry and Reasonable Suspicion

A decade ago, I wrote a post about the circumstances under which police may stop a person who is carrying a gun openly. A lot has changed since then. The Supreme Court has strengthened the Second Amendment in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, 597 U.S. __ (2022). The General Assembly has eliminated the requirement that North Carolina residents obtain a permit before buying a handgun. See S.L. 2023-8. And empirical scholarship suggests that many more Americans are carrying guns on a daily basis. See Ali Awhani-Robar et al., Trend in Loaded Handgun Carrying Among Adult Handgun Owners in the United States, 2015-2019, Am. J. Pub. Health (2022) (finding that in 2019, “approximately 6 million [gun owners carried] daily,” which was “twice the 3 million who did so in 2015”). So it is a good time to revisit the question. Continue reading


News Roundup

In U.S. Supreme Court news, the Court recently stayed the execution of Richard Glossip. Mr. Glossip has spent 26 years on death row in Oklahoma. This was his ninth scheduled execution date. The state Attorney General agreed with Mr. Glossip that a stay was appropriate, categorizing the sentence as a “grave injustice” amid questions about the integrity of the conviction. The stay was obtained from the Court after the state parole board declined to recommend clemency and other state remedies were exhausted. Read on for more criminal law news. Continue reading

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May a Police Department Release its Own Body Worn Camera Footage to the Public?

Suppose that a police officer in a North Carolina city shoots and kills a person in an encounter that began with a traffic stop. There is extensive media coverage of the shooting. The mother of the person who died tells reporters that her son was driving home from work and never made it home. She describes her son as “a hard-working boy who never caused trouble for anybody.” The police chief has seen the recording from the officer’s body-worn camera. That footage shows the suspect jumping from his car and pointing a gun at the officer. The police chief wants to provide a copy of the recording to local reporters. May she do so?

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News Roundup

The week began with news that one of the men accused of murder in the death of Wake County Sheriff Deputy Ned Byrd had escaped from a Virginia jail early Sunday morning. Alder Alfonso Marin-Sotelo was being held at the Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville, Virginia on federal gun charges when he escaped around 1 a.m. Another inmate, Bruce Callahan, who also has North Carolina connections, escaped late Sunday night.

Unfortunately, jail staff did not notice that either inmate was missing until after 3 a.m. Monday, giving Marin-Sotelo more than a day’s head start. The FBI joined the search Monday and promptly arrested Marin-Sotelo’s sister in High Point alleging that she paid someone to leave in the jail parking lot the getaway car that Marin-Sotelo used to flee the area.

Yesterday Marin-Sotelo was captured by Mexican authorities in Guerrero, more than 2,400 miles from Farmville, Va. He now faces federal charges for escape in addition to the pending state charge for murder. Callahan, who was convicted of federal drug charges, is still at large. Continue reading

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Case Summaries: N.C. Supreme Court (April 28, 2023) and N.C. Court of Appeals (May 2, 2023)

This post summarizes one published criminal opinion from the Supreme Court of North Carolina released on April 28, 2023, and three published criminal opinions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals released on May 2, 2023. These summaries will be added to Smith’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to the present.

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The Role of Administrative Traffic Offenses in the North Carolina Criminal Justice System

This post explores the large role that administrative traffic offenses play in the state’s criminal justice system. The Lab’s Measuring Justice Dashboard shows that non-violent misdemeanor charges make up the bulk of the state system (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Composition of Charges in the State System, 2021

Figure Note: DWI refers to impaired driving offenses.

The Dashboard also shows that non-impaired driving traffic offenses make up the greatest share of these non-violent misdemeanor offenses and that seven of the top ten most commonly charged offenses in the entire system are administrative traffic offenses.

This isn’t just a North Carolina issue. As noted in a recent Lab briefing paper, the most common contact the public has with police is traffic stops. That paper notes that every day in the U.S., police pull over more than 50,000 drivers. Some stops are for roadway safety issues, but many are for minor violations. As seen in the national news, stops for minor violations can turn deadly, and research has found racial differences in traffic stops. Against this background, we wanted to know more about the role of misdemeanor administrative traffic violations in the state system. Here’s what we found.

In 2021, misdemeanor administrative traffic offenses accounted for nearly forty percent (39.7%) of all criminal charges statewide. In that year, North Carolina issued over 1.3 million charges; over 524,000 were for misdemeanor administrative traffic violations. That’s a big share of overall charges. We further explored the issue by looking at how things played out at the incident level. Specifically, we wanted to know: For what percent of incidents was a misdemeanor administrative traffic offense the highest charged offense? The answer at the incident level was similar to what we found at the charge level: In over one-third of all 2021 incidents (36.4%), a misdemeanor administrative traffic charge was the highest charged offense. Specifically, in 2021 those 1.3 million charges occurred in over 800,000 incidents; for nearly 300,000 of those incidents, a misdemeanor administrative traffic charge was the most serious offense charged.

Figure 2 presents a list of the ten most commonly charged misdemeanor administrative traffic offenses in North Carolina.

Figure 2. Ten Most Commonly Charged Misdemeanor Administrative Traffic Offenses with Charge Counts, 2021


As shown in Figure 2, three misdemeanor administrative traffic offenses make up the lion’s share of charges: Expired registration card or tag; Driving while license revoked, non-impaired revocation; and No operator’s license. After these top ten, charge counts drop precipitously. In spot eleven, for example, is driving a vehicle that is not registered or does not have a current registration plate, with 5,551 charges.

With other criminal justice data points, we’ve found that state numbers hide county-level variation. That’s true here as well. At the county level, the percent of incidents involving a misdemeanor administrative traffic offense as the highest charge ranges from a low of 18.2% for Gates County to a high of 60.1% for Mitchell County.

What does this mean for criminal justice policy? We’re non-advocacy, so we don’t push policy options. We do, however, help leaders understand the range of available legal and evidence-based policy options. Leaders across the state have been telling us that their primary public safety concern is solving and preventing violent and serious crime. They also have been telling us that law enforcement units are experiencing severe staffing challenges. As a result, they are asking for help understanding a range of options for policing and responding that promote public safety and a fair and effective system. Those concerns have driven our work in the Alternative Responder space. That work holds potential to remove or reduce law enforcement involvement in responding to people in crisis, freeing them up to focus on serious threats to safety by using alternative responses that can better connect people to needed community services. Likewise, these data points, showing heavy use of law enforcement and court resources for misdemeanor administrative traffic violations, may point to other solutions. One option already is being explored in North Carolina and across the country: policies to limit law enforcement involvement in non-roadway safety traffic issues. Again, we’re not advocating for that solution. Rather, we’re simply presenting it as a policy option. If you’re interested to learn more about jurisdictions that have made those changes, check out a new Lab briefing paper here. Among other things, it lists jurisdictions that have adopted municipal bans on certain traffic stops and policy changes implemented by Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to do the same.

I’ll end with a few clarifying points about our research:

What do you mean by an “incident” and why collapse charges to the incident level? We consider an incident to be all charges against a person on the same date and in the same county. Some counties charge all offenses that occur at the same time in the same case. Others charge across two or more cases. By collapsing to the incident level, we can compare county-level data. Also, collapsing charges down to the incident level lets us zero in on the most serious charge involved in the encounter.

What’s your hierarchy for determining the highest charge? In our hierarchy, felonies are at the top and administrative traffic offense are at the bottom. Here’s the full hierarchy: Any felony offense > Any non-traffic misdemeanor charge (like, misdemeanor larceny or misdemeanor possession of marijuana) > Any non-administrative traffic offense (like speeding or impaired driving) > Any administrative traffic offense.

What’s an administrative traffic offense? We categorized every single traffic offense in the state Administrative Office of the Courts Offense Code Spreadsheet as administrative or non-administrative. Administrative offenses include, for example, offenses pertaining to licenses, permits, titles, plates, weigh stations, inspections, and insurance. Other types of administrative offenses include parking violations and driving with license revoked. Non-administrative offenses include, for example, any type of impaired driving; moving violations like speeding and driving left of center; fleeing to elude offenses; racing; reckless driving; vehicle theft; hit and run; false reports; and vehicle tampering offenses.

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We’ll be loading all of this information onto the Dashboard in coming months. If you’re interested in this data for your county, please reach out.

Lab Project Manager Ethan Rex and Lab Legal Research Specialist M. Jeanette Pitts  contributed to this post.

The UNC School of Government is non-partisan, non-advocacy and responsive to the needs of public officials. We do not advocate for any political ideology or policy outcome or allow our personal beliefs or those of our audiences to influence our work.

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Is NC’s Disorderly Conduct at Schools Statute Unconstitutionally Vague?

I started wondering about that question after reading a recent decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, Carolina Youth Action Project v. Wilson, 60 F.4th 770 (4th Cir. 2023) (summarized here). There, the court struck down two South Carolina state laws aimed in large part at regulating conduct and speech in and around schools. Those laws are similar to our version of disorderly conduct by disrupting schools. This post examines the holding of Carolina Youth Action Project and its potential implications for North Carolina law. Continue reading

Authenticating Photographs Obtained from Social Media Platforms

In my last post, I wrote about how a party might authenticate a Facebook direct message or other text-based electronic communication. That post focused on how the proponent of the evidence might establish who wrote the message, i.e., authorship. But what if a party wants to introduce a photograph that was posted on a social media platform? The concept of authorship doesn’t really apply, and in the age of Photoshop and AI-generated images, courts may have serious concerns about the accuracy of online images. Continue reading

News Roundup

The state legislature continues to be in full swing. While much talk here on campus centers on a bill that would eliminate academic tenure, the criminal justice community is likely more interested in legislation that would expand warrantless cell phone surveillance. WRAL reports here that “[p]olice could track people’s cell phones in real time — without a warrant — under a bill that passed a state House committee Wednesday.” The bill in question is H719, and at a glance, it would allow the SBI to use a pen register or trap and trace device without court approval for up to 48 hours to find a runaway child or missing person, or when there is “immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury.” The bill has passed out of a House committee but its ultimate fate is uncertain. Keep reading for more news. Continue reading

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