State v. Davis: The Supreme Court Weighs in on Punishment under G.S. 20-141.4

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I blogged here about the court of appeals’ opinion in State v. Davis, ___ N.C. App. ___ (2010), a case in which the defendant was convicted of several offenses and sentenced to more than 35 years imprisonment for driving while impaired and crashing his truck into another truck, killing two people and seriously injuring a third. The state supreme court granted discretionary review and released its opinion in State v. Davis, 364 N.C. 297 (2010) on Friday, vacating judgments against the defendant for felony death by vehicle and felony serious injury by vehicle on the basis that the court was not authorized to punish the defendant for those offenses because he was sentenced for the more serious offenses of second-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury (AWDWISI) for the same conduct and consequences.

The supreme court’s analysis is straightforward.  First, the court held that the court of appeals erred in refusing to review the issue of whether the trial court lacked statutory authority to sentence the defendant for felony death by vehicle and felony serious injury by vehicle.  While constitutional arguments, such as the defendant’s argument that the multiple punishments constituted double jeopardy, must be raised at trial or are deemed waived, the court explained that a defendant may appeal from prejudicial statutory violations, regardless of whether he or she objected at trial.

On the substantive issue of statutory interpretation, the court found dispositive and clear G.S. 20-141.4(b), which provides:  “Unless the conduct is covered under some other provision of law providing greater punishment, the following classifications apply to the offenses set forth in this section.” Felony death by vehicle and felony serious injury by vehicle are codified in G.S. 20-141.4 as Class E and Class F felonies, respectively. The plain language of the statute provides that the classifications and corresponding ranges of punishment authorized for these offenses apply only when the conduct is not punished by a higher class offense. So, when a defendant such as Davis is punished for the more serious offenses of second-degree murder (a Class B2 felony) and AWDWISI (a Class E felony) for the same conduct for which he is convicted of felony death by vehicle and felony serious injury by vehicle, he may not be punished for the latter offenses.

Davis also was convicted at trial of impaired driving, a lesser included offense of the G.S. 20-141.4 offenses for which he was convicted.  The trial court arrested judgment for the impaired driving conviction.  Upon vacating the judgments for felony death by vehicle and felony serious injury by vehicle, the supreme court reinstated the impaired driving conviction and remanded for resentencing.

One comment on “State v. Davis: The Supreme Court Weighs in on Punishment under G.S. 20-141.4

  1. […] [Update: the state supreme court reviewed this case, reversing in part, as described here.] […]

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