When Can the State Use Testimony from the Probable Cause Hearing at Trial?

My colleague, Phil Dixon, blogged about the Court of Appeals’ decision in State v. Joyner, 284 N.C. App. 681 (2022), here. In Joyner, the court ruled that the State did not run afoul of the Confrontation Clause when it introduced the victim’s testimony from a civil 50C hearing at the defendant’s criminal trial. Last year, the court decided State v. Smith, 287 N.C. App. 614 (2023) (unpublished), a case that provides an interesting counterpoint to Joyner. In Smith, the State recorded the victim’s testimony from the probable cause hearing in district court and moved to admit the testimony at trial in superior court after the victim became unavailable. The trial court admitted the testimony, but the Court of Appeals reversed. It ruled that the opportunity to cross-examine the victim at the probable cause hearing was not “adequate” to comport with constitutional requirements, vacated the convictions for first-degree kidnapping and human trafficking, and ordered a new trial.

Although the opinion is unpublished, the State did not seek further review, and the Smith decision has important implications for practitioners. This post examines those issues and offers advice for defenders when the State attempts to introduce recorded testimony from a probable cause hearing at trial.

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Failure to Appear at Civil No-Contact Hearing Was a Prior Opportunity for Cross-Examination and Constituted an Implied Waiver of Confrontation Rights at Subsequent Criminal Trial

The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment generally guarantees a criminal defendant the right to confront and cross-examine his accusers in person. If a witness was available for an earlier trial or other proceeding and the defendant had an opportunity and motive to cross-examine the witness there, the witness testimony from the earlier proceeding may be admitted at a later criminal trial without offending the Confrontation Clause if the witness is unavailable at the time of trial. We have known for some time that this “prior opportunity for cross-examination” can be met at various stages of a criminal proceeding. See State v. Rollins, 226 N.C. App. 129 (2013) (testimony from plea hearing provided prior opportunity for cross); State v. Ross, 216 N.C. App. 337 (2011) (same for testimony at probable cause hearing); State v. Ramirez, (2003) (same for testimony at bond hearing, although the case was decided under hearsay rules and not expressly as a confrontation issue); State v. Chandler, 324 N.C. 172 (1989) (same for testimony from a prior trial); State v. Giles, 83 N.C. App. 487 (1986) (same for testimony from a juvenile transfer hearing). In all those cases, though, the defendant was present at the earlier proceeding, was represented by counsel, and the earlier proceedings could naturally be viewed as a part of the underlying criminal case. In State v. Joyner, 2022-NCCOA-525, ___ N.C. App. ___ (2022), the Court of Appeals expands the concept of prior opportunity to cross to a civil hearing where the defendant did not attend the hearing and was not entitled to counsel. Read on for the details.

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