Recently, I was teaching a class about the habitual felon laws when a participant asked a question that I had never considered. We know that a defendant convicted of drug trafficking may be convicted as a habitual felon, and when that happens, the defendant’s term of imprisonment is determined under Structured Sentencing based on the elevated offense class set forth in the habitual felon statutes, not based on the mandatory term of imprisonment set forth in the trafficking statute. But what about the mandatory minimum fine listed in the trafficking statute? Must that be imposed, or is the defendant “habitualized out” of all the sentencing-related provisions of the trafficking laws? Apparently, this issue comes up regularly in practice. Continue reading
Tag Archives: habitual felon
A person who has previously been convicted of three non-overlapping felonies who commits a new felony in North Carolina may be indicted for the new felony and may be separately indicted for obtaining habitual felon status. If the person is convicted of the new felony and of obtaining habitual felon status, the person is subject to more severe punishment for the new felony.
In State v. Waycaster, __ N.C. App. ___ (2018), the court of appeals considered whether the State could prove a prior conviction underlying the defendant’s habitual felon status by offering a printout from the state’s Automated Criminal/Infraction System (“ACIS”) into evidence.
Whenever a prior offense “raises an offense of lower grade to one of higher grade and thereby becomes an element” of the current offense (e.g., habitual larceny, habitual misdemeanor assault, habitual DWI, and second or subsequent charges for certain other offenses such as stalking, shoplifting, or carrying a concealed firearm), the state must plead and try the case in compliance with G.S. 15A-928. In short, this statute requires that: (i) an “improvised” name for the alleged offense must be used to avoid referring to any prior convictions; (ii) any prior offenses must be alleged in a separate indictment (or at least as a separate count within the indictment); (iii) the defendant must be separately arraigned on the alleged priors outside the presence of the jury; and (iv) if the defendant admits to the prior convictions, then that element has been proved and the state may not present evidence on it, nor will it be submitted to the jury.
When the state complies with these pleading rules, the result will be two separate indictments (or counts) pending in court, but of course there is really only one criminal offense being charged, and the defendant may only receive one punishment for it. What is the recommended procedure for how the charge(s?) and sentence(s?) should be reflected in the plea transcript or verdict form, and how should the court structure its judgment? This post offers a few thoughts and suggestions. Continue reading →
S.L. 2017-176 makes two important changes to which prior convictions can support a habitual felon charge. The legislation (1) clarifies the status of prior convictions from New Jersey and other states that don’t use the term “felony,” and (2) imposes a new requirement that a prior conviction from another state be for an offense that is “substantially similar” to a North Carolina felony. Continue reading →
Suppose a defendant is convicted of a Class F–I felony that requires registration as a sex offender. He is also convicted as a habitual felon. When sentencing the defendant as a habitual felon, the court obviously will select a minimum sentence appropriate for an offense that is four classes higher than the underlying felony. But what maximum sentence should the court impose? Should it use the regular maximum sentence from G.S. 15A-1340.17(e), or the elevated sex offender maximum from subsection (f)? Continue reading →
North Carolina has a lot of habitual offender laws: habitual felon, violent habitual felon, armed habitual felon, habitual breaking and entering, habitual impaired driving, and habitual misdemeanor assault. A question that comes up is the extent to which these laws may permissibly interact with one another. Today’s post considers a few of the combinations I get asked about from time to time. Continue reading →
A recent conversation reminded me about a question I’ve received several times over the years: On a habitual felon indictment, what should be listed as the offense date? The two main choices are (1) the date of the substantive felony with which the defendant is charged, and (2) the date of the last of the defendant’s previous convictions, i.e., the date that the defendant became a habitual felon. Continue reading →
In North Carolina we have a fair number of habitual and repeat offender punishment provisions—laws that increase a defendant’s punishment because of crimes he or she has committed in the past. Today’s post considers how the prior convictions needed to establish those enhancements factor into the defendant’s prior conviction level. Continue reading →
Last month, the court of appeals decided State v. Hogan, __ N.C. App. __, 758 S.E.2d 465 (2014), a case about the use of a defendant’s prior convictions from New Jersey in determining the defendant’s prior record level. It’s an interesting case and one that has implications for the use of such convictions in the habitual felon context, an issue I previously discussed here. (The comments to that prior post are unusually substantive and anyone who reads the post should also read the comments.)
Superior court proceedings. The defendant in Hogan pled guilty to assault by strangulation after choking his girlfriend. In the course of calculating the defendant’s prior record level, the superior court judge counted as a felony a prior conviction of “third degree theft” that the defendant incurred in New Jersey. According to the defendant’s brief, that decision moved the defendant from prior record level IV to V.
Defendant’s argument: New Jersey doesn’t have “felonies.” The defendant appealed, arguing in part that the judge erred in counting the New Jersey conviction as a felony. The court of appeals summarized his argument as follows: “[B]ecause New Jersey does not use the term ‘felony’ to classify its offenses, the trial court could not properly determine that third degree theft is a felony for sentencing purposes.” This argument links into G.S. 15A-1340.14(e), which states that for prior record level purposes, an out-of-state conviction normally “is classified as a Class I felony if the jurisdiction in which the offense occurred classifies the offense as a felony” (emphasis supplied). The defendant argued, and the court of appeals acknowledged, that New Jersey “does not use the term ‘felony.’” Instead, it has four degrees of “crimes,” plus a set of less serious offenses called “disorderly persons offenses.”
Court’s ruling: “crimes” are felonies. The court of appeals found, however, that a third degree crime was punishable by three to five years in prison, and that New Jersey’s own courts had recognized that such a crime is comparable to a common law felony. In other words, “New Jersey courts have clearly recognized that their third-degree crimes are felonies by a different name.” Thus, the court rejected the defendant’s argument and affirmed his sentence.
Relationship to habitual felon. The court noted that in previous cases, it had been skeptical of the use of New Jersey convictions as previous convictions supporting a habitual felon charge. It declined to apply the reasoning of those cases in the Structured Sentencing context, stating that “[t]here is no suggestion in the sentencing statutes that the Legislature intended to single out New Jersey convictions for such unfavorable treatment.”
Importantly, the court also stated that even if it were to apply the habitual felon cases in the prior record level context, “this case is distinguishable in that the State presented a ‘certification’ that third degree theft is considered a felony in New Jersey,” which is precisely what previous cases like State v. Lindsey, 118 N.C. App. 549 (1995), suggested might be needed to allow New Jersey convictions to be used to support a habitual felon allegation. The State apparently introduced a criminal history printout from a New Jersey computer system that contained a statement certifying the record as accurate and described the theft conviction as a “felony.”
A few important points. There are a couple of takeaways here:
- First, the defendant has asked the state supreme court to review the case. The supreme court hasn’t yet ruled on whether it will do so, but has issued a temporary stay. If it does review the case, its ruling might impact the habitual felon cases as well as the prior record level cases, depending on the court’s result and reasoning.
- Second, the discussion of the certification from New Jersey is a road map for prosecutors trying to use a New Jersey conviction to support a habitual felon charge. The court of appeals’ previous opinions in the habitual felon context haven’t been clear about what sort of certification was required before a New Jersey conviction could be used, so Hogan is the best place to look. A possible defense response would be that the discussion in Hogan about the certification is dicta.
- Finally, first and second degree crimes, which are more serious than the offense at issue in Hogan, also appear to be felonies under the court’s analysis. But it is not as clear that fourth degree crimes, which are punishable by up to 18 months imprisonment, count as felonies. The trial judge in Hogan apparently didn’t think so, as he declined to treat the defendant’s other New Jersey prior – a fourth degree crime – as a felony. I tend to think otherwise, for the reasons given in my prior blog post, but I don’t think that Hogan is conclusive one way or the other.
As always, comments are welcome if folks think the analysis above is incorrect or incomplete. (Or exceptionally incisive, of course, though I don’t seem to get too many comments in that vein!)
I recently finished an Administration of Justice Bulletin about the habitual felon, violent habitual felon, and habitual breaking and entering laws. It’s a substantial expansion and revision of a paper I wrote in 2008. I creatively named it North Carolina’s Habitual Felon, Violent Habitual Felon, and Habitual Breaking and Entering Laws. It’s available here, for free, in PDF format. I hope it’s useful. As always, I welcome comments and feedback of any kind about the paper. It doesn’t address the brand-new armed habitual felon law, created by S.L. 2013-369, effective October 1, 2013, but that law is patterned after the habitual felon law so many of the interpretive issues will be the same.