The Sixth Amendment provides that a person accused of a crime “shall enjoy a public trial.” This right is grounded in the belief that judges and prosecutors will carry out their duties more responsibly in open court than they might in secret proceedings as well as the notion that a public trial encourages witnesses to come forward and discourages perjury. See Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 46 (1984).
The right to open trial proceedings is not absolute; it operates as a strong presumption rather than a guarantee. The presumption may be overcome in rare cases by other compelling rights and interests, such as the defendant’s right to a fair trial, the government’s interest in limiting the disclosure of sensitive information, and the need to protect the personal dignity of a testifying and vulnerable witness. See id. at 45; Bell v. Jarvis, 236 F.3d 149, 167-68 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc).
Before a judge may close criminal trial proceedings to the public, (1) the party seeking to close the courtroom must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced by open proceedings; (2) the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding; and (3) the trial court must make findings that are adequate to support the closure. Waller, 467 U.S. at 48. Finally, even if justified, (4) the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect the identified interest. Id. This four-part inquiry is referred to as the Waller test.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals in the recent case of State v. Miller, COA22-561 ___ N.C. App. ___ (Feb. 21, 2023) considered whether a trial court’s order closing the courtroom satisfied the Waller test and thus the Sixth Amendment.
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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. Continue reading →
A new case from the Supreme Court of North Carolina gives us a chance to revisit the issue of a defendant’s confrontation rights at a probation violation hearing. Continue reading →
Ramos v. Louisiana, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last Monday and summarized here, holds that the Sixth Amendment impartial jury guarantee gives defendants a right to a unanimous jury verdict in state trials. The case is making waves for reasons tangential to the dispute between the parties: in a dizzyingly split opinion, the justices argue more over the meaning of stare decisis (the court’s obligation to follow its prior holdings) than whether defendants in state courts may be convicted by a less-than-unanimous jury. This aspect of the opinion has been widely discussed (see analysis here, here, here, and here), and foreshadows the justices’ likely battle over an upcoming reproductive rights case. Since the divergent perspectives on stare decisis have been covered elsewhere, I will consider another issue that split the justices: the legal relevance of the nonunanimous jury law’s Jim Crow origins.
First, a pop quiz
Did North Carolina ever allow non unanimous jury verdicts in criminal trials? Read on for the answer. Continue reading →
One person convicted of misdemeanor impaired driving may be placed on probation and ordered to complete 24 hours of community service. Another may receive an active sentence of three years’ imprisonment. The severity of the sentence depends largely on the presence of aggravating factors, which must be proved by the State.
When a misdemeanor impaired driving conviction entered in district court is appealed for trial de novo in superior court, the State must notify the defendant no later than ten days before trial that it intends to prove one or more aggravating factors. G.S. 20-179(a1)(1). If the State fails to provide that notice, the factors may not be used by the superior court to determine the defendant’s sentence. The court of appeals recently affirmed in State v. Hughes, ___ N.C. App. ___ (April 16, 2019), that there is no exception to this rule for aggravating factors that were found by the district court below.
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In McCoy v. Louisiana, 584 U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 1500 (2018), the US Supreme Court held that a defendant’s Sixth Amendment counsel right was violated when trial counsel admitted guilt over the defendant’s intransigent objection. In this post, I’ll discuss what impact, if any, McCoy has on North Carolina law. Continue reading →
[Editor’s note: Today’s post was written by Alyson Grine and Emily Coward. Until last year, Alyson was the Defender Educator at the School of Government. She is now an Assistant Professor of Law at NCCU, but she continues to work with the School of Government’s Indigent Defense Education team on the NC Racial Equity Network. Emily is a Research Attorney with the Indigent Defense Education team at the School of Government.]
Summary: In its March 6 opinion in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the U.S. Supreme Court carved out an exception to the “no impeachment” rule for cases in which a juror makes a clear statement that he or she relied on racial bias in voting to convict a criminal defendant. In such cases, the evidentiary rule preventing the court from hearing juror testimony about statements made during deliberations must give way so that the court may consider whether the alleged racial bias violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. We may be opening ourselves up to accusations that we are seeking to extend our moment in the spotlight by blogging about this case: as mentioned in last week’s News Roundup, the manual we co-authored, Raising Issues of Race in North Carolina Criminal Cases, was cited by Justice Alito in his dissenting opinion. However, as this opinion marks the beginning of a new chapter in the centuries old “no impeachment” rule, it’s important for North Carolina practitioners to understand its implications. Continue reading →
Twenty-five years ago the North Carolina Supreme Court departed from national standards on attorney-client decision-making and gave clients greater control over the direction of their case, including trial strategy and tactics. Since then, the North Carolina courts have sorted through various matters on which attorneys and clients have disagreed. A recent decision, State v. Ward (Nov. 1, 2016), applies and perhaps expands one of the exceptions to client control over the case. Continue reading →
A defendant charged in district court with the misdemeanor crime of driving while impaired cannot ascertain from the charging document whether he is subject to sentencing at Level A1 (the most serious level) or Level 5 (the least serious). That’s because the aggravating factors that lead to elevated sentencing aren’t considered elements of the offense and thus are not required to be alleged in the charging instrument. Yet because those factors can increase the maximum punishment a defendant may receive, they must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and, with the exception of prior convictions, be determined by a jury in superior court. And, for most charges of impaired driving prosecuted in superior court, the State must provide notice of its intent to seek aggravating factors. A case decided by the court of appeals last June, however, identifies an exception to this requirement for certain aggravating factors in driving while impaired prosecutions initiated in superior court.
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In 2008 the General Assembly created the new crimes of rape and sexual offense with a child by an adult offender (G.S. 14-27.2A and -27.4A, respectively). S.L. 2008-117. They have special sentencing rules, described here, including the possibility of a higher maximum sentence if the judge finds “egregious aggravation” in the case. Discussing the law immediately after it passed in 2008, John Rubin wrote (here, on page 3) that placing the responsibility for determining egregious aggravation on the judge—not the jury—was “likely unconstitutional” under Blakely v. Washington. As my kids like to say, “Nailed it.” State v. Singletary, decided by the court of appeals last week (and mentioned briefly in last week’s News Roundup), ratified John’s view. Continue reading →