Acting Indirectly

I was recently updating a list of review questions for a course on larceny offenses when I came across a version of this scenario: a woman tells her friend that she left one of her items behind in the store and asks the friend to go retrieve it for her, but in fact the woman never purchased it. If the friend goes back and gets it, what’s the crime and who gets charged?

The question usually prompts a good discussion about conventional charging options like conspiracy, acting in concert, aiding and abetting, or being an accessory. Phil Dixon wrote this helpful post summarizing the most common theories of principal liability and their pleading requirements, but none of those are a perfect fit for these facts. The woman wasn’t present at the scene and didn’t personally take the item, and the friend was unaware of what was happening so there was no common purpose or criminal intent on her part.

I think the best answer is the rarely mentioned “other” theory of principal liability we have in North Carolina: Acting Indirectly, also known as the Innocent Agent doctrine.

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The Right to Be Present at Sentencing

A North Carolina defendant has a common law right to be personally present when a criminal sentence is pronounced. That right is separate from the constitutional right to be present at trial, State v. Pope, 257 N.C. 326 (1962), and a waiver of the sentencing right should not be inferred from the defendant’s absence at trial. When a defendant is tried and found guilty in absentia (because he or she fled in the middle of the trial, or perhaps behaved in a disorderly fashion), we generally recommend that prayer for judgment be continued until the defendant can be brought before the court for sentencing. See Jessica Smith, N.C. Superior Court Judges’ Benchbook: Trial in the Defendant’s Absence. In one case the court of appeals held that a trial judge did not err by proceeding to sentence a defendant after he fled the courthouse, primarily because his lawyer remained and did not ask for a continuance. State v. Miller, 142 N.C.App. 435 (2011). But in light of earlier cases, the better practice is to wait. See, e.g., State v. Stockton, 13 N.C. App. 287 (1971) (citing several supreme court cases deeming sentences entered in a defendant’s absence to be defective).

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