Back in May, a divided Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the defendant was not entitled to a jury instruction on entrapment in an online solicitation of a minor case. Entrapment isn’t exactly a common defense (as Jeff noted here). When it comes up, it’s often in drug cases, but it can also arise in computer solicitation cases where law enforcement officers pretend to be underage. State v. Keller, ___ N.C. App. ___, 828 S.E.2d 578 (May 21, 2019), review allowed, ___ N.C. ___ (August 14, 2019), is an example of such a case and appears to be the second reported decision dealing directly with the defense in this context, so I wanted to flag it for readers. Fair warning, this post recounts some of the sexually graphic discussions at issue in the case. Continue reading
Tag Archives: jury instructions
Suppose the trial court, over the defendant’s objection, instructs the jury on a theory of a crime that is not supported by the evidence. Is the defendant entitled to automatic reversal on appeal? Or, alternatively, must the appellate court evaluate whether the erroneous instruction prejudiced the defendant? The North Carolina Supreme Court answered these questions in State v. Malachi, ___ N.C. ___ (2018), published last Friday, and applied its answer in State v. Fowler, ___ N.C. ___ (2018), decided the same day.
Last month, the court of appeals ruled that the pattern jury instruction for felony indecent exposure was inadequate given the facts of the case before it. The case is State v. Hoyle. Continue reading →
The general rule for a driver involved in a crash in which a person is injured or at least $1,000 in property damages occurs is this: The driver must stop his vehicle at the scene and must remain there with the vehicle until a law enforcement officer completes the crash investigation or authorizes the driver to leave and the vehicle to be removed. There is, however, an exception to this rule. That exception led to yesterday’s court of appeals opinion in State v. Scaturro, reversing a driver’s conviction on charges that he left the scene of a crash. Continue reading →
Some offenses can be proved by alternative theories. For example, impaired driving occurs when a person drives while (1) while under the influence of an impairing substance, (2) after consuming a sufficient quantity of alcohol that the person has an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more at any relevant time after the driving, or (3) with any amount of a Schedule I controlled substance or its metabolites in his or her blood or urine. See Jessica Smith, North Carolina Crimes: A Guidebook on the Elements of Crime (7th ed. 2012). The three options noted above constitute three separate theories upon which an impaired driving conviction can rest. Similarly, kidnapping occurs when a person (1) confines, (2) restrains, or (3) removes a person and other elements are satisfied. Id. The three options—confines, restrains, or removes—constitute three separate theories upon which a kidnapping conviction can rest. Sometimes alternative theories are bound up in the definition of an element of an offense. For example, first-degree sexual assault with a child requires, among other things, that the defendant engage in a “sexual act” with the victim. Id. The term sexual act is defined to include, in part, (1) cunnilingus, (2) analingus, (3) fellatio, and (4) anal intercourse. Id. These acts constitute separate theories that can support a sex offense conviction. Continue reading →
Shortly after I published last week’s post on State v. Babich, an astute reader asked about the court’s harmless error analysis. How, he inquired, could the improper admission of expert testimony that the defendant had an alcohol concentration of 0.08 be harmless error? Did the jury’s verdict indicate that it found the defendant guilty only under the “under the influence” prong of impairment rather than under the “alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more” prong? To answer these questions, I had to dig into the record on appeal and provide a bit of background on the requirement for jury unanimity in DWI cases. I thought others might be interested in my response.
I am working on a new edition of the self-defense book I wrote in 1996. As in the story of Rip Van Winkle, a lot has changed in twenty years. Most notably, the General Assembly adopted new statutes in 2011 on self-defense and related defenses. This blog post addresses one of those provisions, in G.S. 14-51.4, which disqualifies a person from relying on self-defense while committing, attempting to commit, or escaping from the commission of a felony. North Carolina appellate courts have not yet considered the meaning of this provision. Cf. State v. Rawlings, ___ N.C. App. ___, 762 S.E.2d 909 (2014) (felony disqualification did not apply to case in which defendant’s offense predated enactment of provision, and court expressed no opinion on proper construction of provision). Continue reading →
Whether there was probable cause to arrest the driver is a hotly litigated issue in cases involving impaired driving. Unfortunately, there aren’t all that many appellate opinions addressing the hard calls in this area. Instead, many resemble State v. Tappe, 139 N.C. App. 33, 38 (2000), which found probable cause based on “defendant’s vehicle crossing the center line, defendant’s glassy, watery eyes, and the strong odor of alcohol on defendant’s breath.” It is difficult to imagine a court ruling otherwise. A few years ago, the court of appeals decided a tougher issue in Steinkrause v. Tatum, 201 N.C. App. 289 (2009), aff’d, 364 N.C. 419 (2010) (per curiam), concluding that the “fact and severity” of the defendant’s one-car accident coupled with a law enforcement officer’s observation that she smelled of alcohol provided probable cause to believe she was driving while impaired. This past year, the court issued two significant published opinions on probable cause for impaired driving—State v. Overocker, __ N.C. App. __, 762 S.E.2d 921 (Sept. 16, 2014), and State v. Townsend, __ N.C. App. __, 762 S.E.2d 898 (Sept. 16, 2014),—as well as opinions in State v. Veal, __ N.C. App. __, 760 S.E.2d 43 (July 1, 2014), and State v. Wainwright, __ N.C. App. __, 770 S.E.2d 99 (2015), better defining the threshold for reasonable suspicion of DWI.
To prove that a person drove a vehicle while under the influence of an impairing substance in violation of G.S. 20-138.1(a)(3), the State must establish that the defendant was impaired by
- [a]lcohol ,
- a controlled substance under Chapter 90 of the General Statutes,
- some other drug or psychoactive substance capable of impairing a person’s physical or mental faculties, or
- a combination of these substances.
G.S. 20-4.01(14a) (defining impairing substance).
When a defendant is tried before a jury on such charges, who determines whether the defendant was so impaired? Obviously it is the jury. Right?
Pattern Jury Instructions. Readers may be surprised to learn that the pattern jury instructions direct the judge in such a case to tell the jury: “(Name substance involved) is an impairing substance.” North Carolina Pattern Instructions—Criminal 270.00. The judge then goes on to state that the defendant “is under the influence of an impairing substance when the defendant has taken (or consumed) a sufficient quantity of that substance to cause the defendant to lose the normal control of his bodily or mental faculties, or both, to such an extent that there is an appreciable impairment of either or both of those faculties.” Id.
Is an instruction from the judge that a particular substance is an impairing substance proper? Or does it improperly permit the judge to resolve a material fact, namely whether the specific substance the defendant is alleged to have taken or consumed is an impairing substance? The answer probably depends on the substance. For example, a judge’s instruction to the jury that “alcohol” or “a controlled substance under Chapter 90” is an impairing substance would not invade the province of the jury. That sort of instruction simply defines the term “impairing substance.” Likewise, an instruction that “a drug or psychoactive substance capable of impairing a person’s physical or mental faculties is an impairing substance,” is not objectionable.
Furthermore, there would appear to be no problem with a judge instructing the jury that any of the specific substances listed in Chapter 90 is an impairing substance. Thus, the judge could properly inform the jury that a substance such as cocaine, alprazolam (Xanax), or zolpidem (Ambien) is an impairing substance. See G.S. 90-90(1)c.; 90-92(a)(1)a.; 90-92(a)(1)ww.
In some drugged driving cases, however, the substance that a defendant is alleged to have consumed is not a controlled substance under Chapter 90. The State may contend, for example, that a defendant is impaired from inhalants or from prescription medication that is not a scheduled controlled substance. In this circumstance, it seems to me that it would be improper for the judge to instruct the jury that the specified drug (such as, for example, sertraline (Zoloft)) is an impairing substance.
Deadly Weapon Analogy. There is at least one other circumstance in which our state appellate courts have permitted judges to instruct the jury as to its determination on a material fact. In State v. Torain, 316 N.C. 111 (1986), the state supreme court determined that the trial court did not err in instructing the jury in a first-degree rape trial that “a utility knife is a dangerous or deadly weapon.” Id. at 116. The court relied on earlier opinions stating that when “the alleged deadly weapon and the manner of its use are of such character as to admit of but one conclusion, the question as to whether or not it is deadly, . . . is one of law, and the Court must take the responsibility of so declaring.” Id. at 119 (internal citations omitted). Even were this reasoning to be applied in the drugged driving context, however, it likely would authorize no more than instructing the jury that a specific substance scheduled under Chapter 90 is an impairing substance. Those substances are per se impairing in much the same way that certain weapons are per se deadly. The judge still must leave to the jury the determination of whether other types of “drugs or psychoactive substances” are impairing substances. Cf. Jessica Smith, North Carolina Crimes 120-121 (7th ed. 2012) (distinguishing circumstances involving weapons that “are deadly by their very nature” from those in which the jury must be permitted to decide whether the weapon is deadly).
What if the State fails to identify the impairing substance? In some circumstances, the State is unable to definitively identify the substance by which a defendant allegedly was impaired. This is not fatal to its case, however, as there is no requirement that the State prove the specific impairing substance consumed. See State v. Lindley, 286 N.C. 255 (1974) (state established prima facie case based in part on patrol officer’s testimony that the defendant was under the influence of “some drug”); State v. Cousins, No. COA01-796, 152 N.C. App. 478 (2002) (unpublished) (evidence of defendant’s poor performance on field sobriety tests, his refusal to submit to a blood test, and his admission to taking Lortab, a painkiller, were sufficient to show that he was impaired and that his impairment was caused by an impairing substance; the State was not required to produce expert testimony on the impairing effects of Lortab and whether defendant’s condition was consistent with someone who had taken Lortab). When this occurs, the court should instruct the jury on the definition of “impairing substance,” but should refrain from identifying any particular substance for which the State has failed to establish a prima facie case.