Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

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This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.

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On appeal from a decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 813 S.E.2d 463 (2018), the court held that although the defendant failed to preserve his argument that the trial court erred by imposing lifetime SBM without determining whether the monitoring was a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, the Court of Appeals did not abuse its discretion by invoking Appellate Rule 2 to review the unpreserved constitutional issue. The Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant properly preserved the issue of whether his SBM was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and that alternatively, if the defendant had failed to preserve the issue, it would invoke Rule 2 to relax Rule 10’s issue preservation requirement and review the claim on the merits. The Court of Appeals then vacated the SBM order without prejudice to the State’s ability to file a subsequent SBM application. The Supreme Court held that because the defendant failed to object to the SBM order on Fourth Amendment constitutional grounds with the requisite specificity, he waived the ability to raise that issue on appeal. However, the Court of Appeals did not abuse its discretion by invoking Appellate Rule 2 to review the unpreserved argument. In this respect the court found it significant that the State conceded that the trial court committed error relating to a substantial right.

The court per curiam affirmed a decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 817 S.E.2d 833 (2018), in which the court declined the defendant’s request to grant his petition for writ of certiorari to review the trial court’s order requiring him to enroll in lifetime SBM. The defendant argued that the trial court erred by ordering him to submit to SBM without first making a reasonableness determination as required by Grady. The defendant conceded that he failed to make his constitutional argument at trial and that his appeal from the SBM order was untimely.

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 806 S.E.2d 682 (2017), the court modified and affirmed the decision below, holding that the defendant waived her Eighth Amendment sentencing argument by failing to raise it before the sentencing court and that although her non-constitutional sentencing issues were preserved for review despite her failure to object at trial, they are without merit. The defendant was convicted of 3 counts of drug trafficking; she was sentenced to a minimum of 70 months in prison on each count, with the sentences for two counts to be served concurrently and the third sentence to be served consecutively to the first two. The defendant appealed asserting, in relevant part, that the sentencing judge improperly overruled another judge’s safekeeping order; that the trial court abused his discretion in imposing consecutive sentences on an elderly first offender for a single drug transaction; and that the sentences are grossly disproportionate in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Court of Appeals found no error, concluding that the defendant failed to preserve her arguments as required by Appellate Rule 10(a)(1). The Supreme Court allowed discretionary review.

          The Supreme Court noted that, as a general matter, Rule 10 requires parties to take action to preserve an issue for appeal. It further noted its decision in State v. Canady, 330 N.C. 398, 410 S.E.2d 875 (1991), inspired a series of decisions by the Court of Appeals holding that Rule 10(a)(1) does not apply to sentencing errors. The court determined that “[t]o derive such a categorical rule from Canady, however, one must ignore the opinion’s rationale.” It explained that in Canady, it determined that the purpose of the rule is to require a party to call an issue to the trial court’s attention before the party can assign error to the matter on appeal. Canady determined that the rule discourages gamesmanship; a party cannot simply allow something to happen at trial as a matter of trial strategy and then assign error to the matter if the strategy does not pan out. Rather than create a categorical rule, the court explained that in Canady it found that the danger of gamesmanship was not present and held that no contemporaneous objection was required to preserve the issue for appellate review in that case. Here, defense counsel asked that all three sentences be consolidated, noting the defendant’s advanced age, poor health, and clean criminal record. The judge however consolidated only 2 of the 3 sentences. Here, the sentencing court knew that the defendant sought the minimum possible sentence, and the defendant was not required to voice to contemporaneous objection to preserve this issue for appellate review. The court further found that the defendant’s sentencing issues were preserved by statute. Specifically, G.S. 15A-1446(d) provides that certain issues are appealable without preservation, including an argument that the sentence imposed was unauthorized at the time, exceeded the maximum authorized by law, was illegally imposed, or is otherwise invalid as a matter of law.

          Having found that the Court of Appeals erred by declining to address the defendant’s sentencing arguments, the court went on to find them to be meritless. With respect to the safekeeping order, neither that order nor the judge’s oral remarks when it was imposed indicate that the judge intended to retain jurisdiction over the matter or to delay sentencing; in fact his oral remarks and written order indicate awareness that the defendant might be sentenced by some other judge. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court abused its discretion in imposing her sentence and her suggestion that the trial court must have been influenced by the defendant’s decision to take her case to trial. The court found that this conclusory accusation lacked any support in the record.

         Having found that the defendant’s non-constitutional sentencing issues were preserved without contemporaneous objection consistent with Canaday and G.S. 15A-1446(d), the court found that the defendant’s constitutional argument was not so preserved. Rule 14(b)(2) of the Rules of Appellate Procedure requires that a constitutional issue must be timely raised in the trial court in order to be preserved for appellate review. Because the defendant failed to argue to the sentencing court that the sentence imposed violated the Eighth Amendment, she may not raise that argument on appeal.

On appeal from a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 795 S.E.2d 374 (2016), the court reversed, holding that the defendant’s Fourth Amendment claims regarding the traffic stop are not reviewable on direct appeal, even for plain error, because the defendant waived them by not moving to suppress the evidence discovered during the stop before or at trial. The defendant did not move to suppress the evidence before or at trial, but instead argued for the first time on appeal that the seizure of the evidence—here cocaine--resulted from various Fourth Amendment violations. Deciding this issue of first impression, the court held that plain error review is not available when a defendant has not moved to suppress at the trial level. It noted that when a defendant does not move to suppress in the trial court, the evidentiary record pertaining to the suppression issue is not fully developed, and may not be developed at all. Without a fully developed record, and appellate court lacks the information necessary to assess the merits of a defendant’s plain error arguments. Here, for example, the Court of Appeals reviewed the officer’s body camera footage and determined that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to extend the stop. However, the officer never testified at a suppression hearing, and thus never gave testimony regarding whether he had reasonable suspicion, including testimony about facts that were not captured on the camera footage. The court reversed and remanded to the Court of Appeals for consideration of the defendant’s claim that counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to move to suppress the evidence in question.

State v. Lee, 370 N.C. 671 (Apr. 6, 2018)

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 789 S.E.2d 679 (2016), the court reversed because of errors in the jury instructions on self-defense. At trial, the parties agreed to the delivery of N.C.P.I.–Crim. 206.10, the pattern instruction on first-degree murder and self-defense. That instruction provides, in relevant part: “Furthermore, the defendant has no duty to retreat in a place where the defendant has a lawful right to be.” Additionally, N.C.P.I.–Crim. 308.10, which is incorporated by reference in footnote 7 of N.C.P.I.–Crim. 206.10 and entitled “Self-Defense, Retreat,” states that “[i]f the defendant was not the aggressor and the defendant was . . . [at a place the defendant had a lawful right to be], the defendant could stand the defendant’s ground and repel force with force.” Although the trial court agreed to instruct the jury on self-defense according to N.C.P.I.–Crim. 206.10, it ultimately omitted the “no duty to retreat” language of N.C.P.I.–Crim. 206.10 from its actual instructions without prior notice to the parties and did not give any part of the “stand-your-ground” instruction. Defense counsel did not object to the instruction as given. The jury convicted defendant of second-degree murder and the defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, reasoning that the law limits a defendant’s right to stand his ground to any place he or she has the lawful right to be, which did not include the public street where the incident occurred. The Supreme Court allowed defendant’s petition for discretionary review and reversed.

(1) The court held that when a trial court agrees to give a requested pattern instruction, an erroneous deviation from that instruction is preserved for appellate review without further request or objection. Here, because the trial court agreed to instruct the jury in accordance with N.C.P.I.–Crim. 206.10, its omission of the required stand-your-ground provision substantively deviated from the agreed-upon pattern jury instruction, thus preserving this issue for appellate review.

(2) By omitting the relevant stand-your-ground provision, the trial court’s jury instructions were an inaccurate and misleading statement of the law. The court concluded, in part, that “[c]ontrary to the opinion below, the phrase “any place he or she has the lawful right to be” is not limited to one’s home, motor vehicle, or workplace, but includes any place the citizenry has a general right to be under the circumstances.” Here, the defendant offered ample evidence that he acted in self-defense while standing in a public street, where he had a right to be when he shot the victim. Because the defendant showed a reasonable possibility that, had the trial court given the required stand-your-ground instruction, a different result would have been reached at trial, the court reversed the Court of Appeals, finding that the defendant was entitled to a new trial.

In this possession of a firearm by a felon case, the court reversed in part the decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 801 S.E.2d 169 (2017), for the reasons stated in the dissent. A divided panel of the court of appeals had held that the trial court erred by admitting 404(b) evidence. The current charges were filed after officers found an AK-47 rifle in the back seat of a vehicle and a Highpoint .380 pistol underneath the vehicle, next to the rear tire on the passenger side. At trial, the State offered, and the trial court admitted, evidence of a prior incident in which officers found a Glock 22 pistol in a different vehicle occupied by the defendant. The evidence was admitted to show the defendant’s knowledge and opportunity to commit the crime charged. The defendant offered evidence tending to show that he had no knowledge of the rifle or pistol recovered from the vehicle. The court of appeals held that the trial court erred by admitting the evidence as circumstantial proof of the defendant’s knowledge. It reasoned, in part, that “[a]bsent an immediate character inference, the fact that defendant, one year prior, was found to be in possession of a different firearm, in a different car, at a different location, during a different type of investigation, does not tend to establish that he was aware of the rifle and pistol in this case.” The court of appeals found that the relevance of this evidence was based on an improper character inference. It further held that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting the evidence as circumstantial proof of the defendant’s opportunity to commit the crime charged. The court of appeals noted, in part, that the State offered no explanation at trial or on appeal of the connection between the prior incident, opportunity, and possession. The court of appeals went on to hold that the trial court’s error in admitting the evidence for no proper purpose was prejudicial and warranted a new trial. The dissenting judge believed that because the defendant did not properly preserve his objection, the issue should be reviewed under the plain error standard, and that no plain error occurred. 

The Court of Appeals failed to recognize its discretion under Rule 2 of Rules of Appellate Procedure to refrain from undertaking a review of the defendant’s fatal variance claim, apparently acting under the erroneous belief that it was required to reach the merits of the claim. The defendant was found guilty of felony larceny. On appeal, he asserted in part that the trial court erred by failing to dismiss the larceny charge due to a fatal variance with respect to ownership of the property. Because counsel failed to raise the issue at trial, the defendant sought review under Rule 2. Noting that a previous panel of the court had invoked that Rule to review a fatal variance issue, the Court of Appeals, without further discussion or analysis, addressed the merits of the defendant’s argument, finding a fatal variance and vacating the larceny convictions. The State petitioned the Supreme Court for discretionary review on the issue of whether the Court of Appeals erred by invoking Rule 2 under the circumstances of the case. The Supreme Court noted that Rule 2 relates to the residual power of the appellate courts to consider “in exceptional circumstances” significant issues. Whether a case warrants application of Rule 2 must be determined based on a case-by-case basis and “precedent cannot create an automatic right to review via Rule 2.” Here, the Court of Appeals erroneously believed that a fatal variance issue automatically entitled the defendant to appellate review under Rule 2. In so doing, it failed to recognize its discretion to refrain from undertaking such a review. The court reversed and remanded to the Court of Appeals “so that it may independently and expressly determine whether, on the facts and under the circumstances of this specific case, to exercise its discretion to employ Rule 2” to reach the merits of the defendant’s claim.

State v. Collins, 369 N.C. 60 (Sept. 23, 2016)

In a drug case in which the court of appeals had held that a strip search of the defendant did not violate the fourth amendment, State v. Collins, ___ N.C. App. ___, 782 S.E.2d 350 (2016), the Supreme Court affirmed solely on the ground that because the defendant failed to raise in the trial court the timing of the officer’s observation of powder on the floor, he failed to preserve that issue on appeal. The defendant had argued in the court of appeals that because the officer did not see the powder until after the search, the trial court was barred from considering the officer’s observation in ruling on the defendant’s suppression motion. The court of appeals determined that because the defendant failed to raise the timing of the officer’s observation at the hearing on his motion to suppress, the issue was not properly before the appellate court.

State v. Howard, 367 N.C. 320 (Mar. 7, 2014)

The court affirmed per curiam the decision below in State v. Howard, 228 N.C. App. 103 (June 18, 2013) (over a dissent, the court dismissed the defendant’s appeal where the defendant objected to the challenged evidence at trial under Rule 403 but on appeal argued that it was improper under Rule 404(b); the court stated: “A defendant cannot ‘swap horses between courts in order to get a better mount’“; the dissenting judge believed that the defendant preserved his argument and that the evidence was improperly admitted).

The defendant was convicted at trial of driving while impaired and habitual DWI in Guilford County. (1) In its discretion, the Court of Appeals granted the defendant’s petitions for writ of certiorari to review the criminal judgment and civil judgment for attorney fees. Following his conviction for habitual impaired driving, the defendant filed two pro se notices of appeal. Those notices did not contain a certificate of service indicating service on the State and failed to name the court to which the appeals were taken. Appellate counsel was later appointed, who recognized the pro se notices of appeal were potentially defective and filed two petitions for writ of certiorari seeking appellate review. The pro se notices of appeal were an indication that the defendant intended to preserve his right to appellate review, and the Court of Appeals previously held in an unpublished case that the types of defects in the notices of appeal at issue did not require dismissal for lack of jurisdiction. Where (as happened here) the State does not object, the Court of Appeals may exercise jurisdiction by granting the petitions for writ of certiorari. Thus, the Court of Appeals had jurisdiction to consider the defendant’s arguments.

(2) During trial, the defendant moved to dismiss for insufficiency of the evidence at the close of the State’s case in chief. The defendant thereafter presented evidence and failed to renew the sufficiency motion at the close of all evidence. Because sufficiency review was therefore not preserved, the defendant requested that the Court of Appeals invoke Rule 2 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure to suspend the preservation rules and review the issue. The court declined to do so and thus affirmed the habitual DWI conviction.

(3) The trial court awarded the defendant’s trial counsel attorney fees as a civil judgment without giving the defendant an opportunity to personally be heard, in violation of G.S. § 7A-455. More than 35 recent cases have reversed the attorney fee award in similar circumstances. Following that line of cases, the majority of the panel vacated the attorney fee order and remanded for a hearing on the matter where the defendant could be personally heard or for “other evidence in the record demonstrating that the defendant received notice, was aware of the opportunity to be heard on the issue, and chose not to be heard.” Slip op. at 11.

Judge Tyson dissented. He would have refused to grant the petitions for writ of certiorari and dismissed all the defendant’s arguments as frivolous.

In a case involving charges of possession of a firearm by a felon and possession of a weapon on educational property, the defendant failed to preserve for appellate review his argument that the trial court erred by denying his pretrial suppression motions related to the lawfulness of a traffic stop and a subsequent weapons frisk.  At trial, the defendant objected to an officer’s testimony regarding the officer’s discovery of a handgun in the defendant’s pocket, but the defendant did not move to strike the testimony.  Citing precedent with regard to situations where the inadmissibility of testimony is not indicated by a question but becomes apparent by some feature of a witness’s answer, the court stated that the “[d]efendant was obligated to move to strike [the officer’s] answer after objecting for the record and before the jury to preserve his objection.”  Because he did not move to strike at trial or specifically argue plain error on appeal, the defendant failed to preserve his arguments concerning the admission of evidence about the handgun.

The court went on to reject the defendant’s argument that his trial counsel was ineffective during the pretrial hearing on the suppression motion related to the weapons frisk.  During that hearing, defense counsel expressed the view that the officer had the reasonable and articulable suspicion necessary to conduct a frisk upon seeing a bulge in the defendant’s pocket while arguing that the officer unlawfully had decided to conduct the frisk prior to seeing the bulge.  Noting that the defendant could not show prejudice and that the trial court did not rely on defense counsel’s statement when ruling on the motion, the court overruled the defendant’s IAC argument.

The defendant was convicted of trafficking in opium or heroin. He argued on appeal that the trial court committed plain error by allowing the State to introduce into evidence the drugs found in his vehicle. The Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant waived appellate review of this claim because he did not move before the trial court to suppress evidence of the hydrocodone tablets and there was no suppression hearing. In such circumstances, the appellate court lacks the fully developed record necessary to conduct plain error review.

The Court of Appeals further held that the trial court improperly imposed attorney’s fees and an attorney-appointment fee against Defendant without providing him with notice and an opportunity to be heard. Thus, the court vacated the civil judgments imposing attorney’s fees and the attorney-appointment fee, and remanded for further proceedings.

(1) At his trial for habitual DWI, the defendant took the stand, denied driving, and admitted his prior DWI convictions in explaining why he did not drive on the night in question and why, based on his past interactions with law enforcement, he did not speak to the arresting officers. On cross-examination, the State asked the defendant about the offense, date, and place of each of those convictions. The defendant asked the trial judge to instruct the jury pursuant to North Carolina Pattern Jury Instruction 105.40, which instructs that the jury should not consider a defendant’s prior convictions as evidence of the defendant’s guilt in the current case. The trial judge refused to give the instruction. Relying on State v. Jackson, 161 N.C. App. 118 (2003), the Court of Appeals found no error. Per that opinion, a defendant is not entitled to a special instruction instructing the jury to consider a defendant’s testimony about prior convictions for purposes of the defendant’s credibility only, where the defendant initially offers the testimony on direct examination. The Court held that the State’s cross-examination of the defendant in this case was limited and did not constitute sufficient impeachment to require the instruction. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that it should reconsider Jackson, finding that it was bound by the prior decision. (2) Before his first trial on the habitual DWI charge, the defendant moved for and the trial judge conducted an in camera review of the arresting officers’ personnel records. The trial judge denied release, finding no favorable and material evidence, and the Court of Appeals upheld the denial in an unpublished opinion. On appeal in this case, the defendant asked the Court of Appeals to review the records, which the trial judge had placed under seal at the first trial. The Court of Appeals held that the defendant failed to preserve the issue for appeal, having failed to make any motion asking the trial judge to review the records before his second trial. The Court stated that a mistrial has the legal effect of no trial. Therefore, the defendant could not rely on a motion made at his first trial to preserve issues for appeal at his later trial.

In this Duplin County case, the defendant was convicted by a jury of financial card fraud, obtaining property by false pretenses, identity theft, and habitual felon. She appealed, arguing that her motion to dismiss for insufficiency of the evidence should have been granted as to the identity theft and that she received ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed.

(1) The evidence showed that the defendant used the credit cards of two other people to make purchases for herself, representing herself as the owner of the cards. The defendant eventually admitted to police that she used the credit cards and provided a full written confession. At the close of evidence, the defendant asked the trial court to dismiss two (of six) counts of identity theft regarding Victim #1 based on a lack of proof that the defendant acted without that victim’s permission. On appeal, the defendant challenged all six identity theft convictions, contending that there was no evidence she meant to represent herself as the two victims. This was a different argument than the one made to the trial court and was not preserved under State v. Walker, 252 N.C. App. 409 (2017) (holding that, without a “global” motion to dismiss, sufficiency arguments not raised in the trial court are waived on appeal).

Defendant failed to preserve any argument as to the four charges of identity theft pertaining to [Victim #2]. Likewise, the defendant failed to preserve the specific argument—that there was insufficient evidence that Defendant intended to represent that she was [Victim #1]. We thus decline to reach the merits of her argument.

The court declined to invoke its discretionary authority under Rule 2 of the Appellate Rules of Procedure to consider the unpreserved arguments.

(2) The defendant argued that she received ineffective assistance of counsel based on her trial lawyer’s failure to preserve the above issues, arguing that the motion to dismiss for insufficiency would have been granted if had her trial lawyer made the argument. While ineffective assistance claims should normally be litigated through a motion for appropriate relief, here, the “cold record” was sufficient to allow appellate review of the claim. The defendant’s argument that the State failed to present evidence that she represented herself as the victims was meritless under State v. Jones, 367 N.C. 299, 304 (2014) (rejecting interpretation of identity theft statute to require use of the victim’s name, which would cause “absurd” results). The defendant’s use of the victims’ credit card numbers was sufficient “identifying information” under the statute and it was not error for defense counsel to fail to make this argument. The defendant did not therefore receive ineffective assistance of counsel.

(3) The trial court instructed the jury on false or conflicting statements of the defendant under N.C. P. I.—Crim. 105.21. The defendant originally told police that an ex-boyfriend was responsible for the fraud before later admitting to the conduct. On appeal, she argued that this instruction to the jury prejudiced her trial by impugning her character. The court disagreed.

[This] instruction is proper not only where defendant’s own statements contradict each other but also where the defendant’s statements flatly contradict relevant evidence. The instruction is in appropriate if it fails to make clear to the jury that the falsehood does not create a presumption of guilt.

The statements of the defendant to law enforcement were contradictory and conflicting, “tending to reflect the mental processes of a person possessed of a guilty conscience seeking to divert suspicion and to exculpate [her]self.” The instruction was given in accordance with the considerable warnings in the commentary to that pattern instruction, was supported by the evidence, and was therefore proper under these facts.  

The defendant was charged with solicitation to commit first-degree murder after he asked someone he met through a mutual acquaintance (“Edwards”) to murder his wife for money. After repeated requests from the defendant over the next few days, Edwards contacted law enforcement and assisted their investigation by wearing recording equipment at a subsequent meeting with the defendant to discuss details of the murder. The defendant was indicted for solicitation to commit first-degree murder, and after being convicted at a jury trial he was sentenced for a Class C offense. On appeal, the defendant argued that he was sentenced incorrectly because the jury was only instructed on solicitation to commit “murder.” The jury was not asked to make any special findings regarding the level of malice it found regarding the crime solicited. Therefore, the defendant argued that he should have been convicted of soliciting only the lowest possible level of any form that offense (second-degree murder punished as Class B2 offense). Pursuant to G.S. 14-2.6(a), a solicitation to commit a B2 offense would be punished as a Class D felony, rather than as Class C felony for soliciting a Class A or B1 offense. The appellate court disagreed, noting that “Defendant creatively sidesteps the fact that he was not charged with murder, but with solicitation to commit murder. The jury was not required to find any of the elements of murder. As previously explained, one may be guilty of solicitation regardless of whether the solicited crime—murder, in this case—actually occurs. […] The crime was in the asking.” Rather than alleging a sentencing error, the defendant’s appeal was really an argument against the sufficiency of the jury instructions. However, since the defendant did not object and raise that issue at trial, nor did he allege plain error on appeal, the issue was not properly before the court. “In that Defendant’s entire appeal was predicated on an unpreserved issue and he failed to request plain error review, his conviction and subsequent sentence shall remain undisturbed.”

In this drug case, the defendant failed to preserve her argument that the trial court erred by failing to sua sponte conduct a hearing to confirm that the defendant’s in-custody statements to law enforcement were knowing and voluntary. The defendant did not move to suppress the statements before or at any time during trial. When the State first asked about the statements at trial, defense counsel stated “objection.” The trial court overruled the objection, and defense counsel said nothing more. When no exception to making a motion to suppress before trial applies, a defendant’s failure to make a pretrial motion to suppress waives any right to contest the admissibility of evidence at trial on constitutional grounds. Thus, the trial court properly overruled the defendant’s objection as procedurally barred.

In this indecent liberties case, the defendant waived any right of appellate review with respect to his arguments challenging admission of his inculpatory statements (he had asserted a Miranda violation and that the statements were involuntary). The defendant has the burden of establishing that a motion to suppress is made both timely and in proper form. Here, the defendant failed to meet that burden and thus waved appellate review of these issues. The court continued, however, holding that the record was insufficient to consider the defendant’s related ineffective assistance of counsel claim, and dismissed that claim without prejudice to the defendant’s right to file a motion for appropriate relief in superior court.

State v. Conley, ___ N.C. App. ___, 825 S.E.2d 10 (Feb. 19, 2019) aff'd on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Apr 3 2020)

Because the defendant failed to present his constitutional double jeopardy argument before the trial court, it was not properly preserved for appellate review. The defendant was found guilty of, among other things, five counts of possession of a gun on educational property. On appeal the defendant argued that the trial court erred by entering judgment on five counts of possession of a gun on educational property, asserting that double jeopardy bars entry of judgment on more than one count when there is simultaneous possession of guns. The court held that the issue was not preserved and declined the defendant’s request that it invoke Rule 2 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure to consider the issue.

The defendant failed to preserve for appellate review his argument that the trial court erred by admitting 404(b) evidence. The defense objected to the witness’s testimony outside the presence of the jury and before the witness was sworn. After a voir dire, the trial court overruled the defendant’s objection. The jury then was called back to the courtroom and the witness testified without objection. As such, the defendant failed to preserve the issue.

In this drug case the defendant was not entitled to appellate review of whether the trial court erroneously admitted hearsay evidence. The defendant failed to demonstrate that any “judicial action” by the trial court amounted to error where he not only failed to object to admission of the statement, but also expressly consented to its admission. Even if error occurred, G.S. 15A-1443(c) (a defendant is not prejudiced by an error resulting from his own conduct) precludes a finding of prejudice. Here, by asking about the statement during cross-examination of the State’s witness, defense counsel opened the door to the State’s subsequent questions concerning the statement and its introduction.

The defendant failed to properly preserve the argument that there was a fatal variance between a drug trafficking indictment and the evidence at trial, where the issue was raised for the first time on appeal. The defendant never alleged a fatal variance when he moved to dismiss the charge. Rather, his motion was based on insufficiency of the evidence.

The defendant’s failure to object at trial to the admission of evidence encompassed by a separate motion to suppress, along with his failure to argue plain error constituted a failure to preserve review of that motion on appeal.

Because the defendant failed to raise at trial the constitutional argument that prosecutorial misconduct deprived him of a fair trial, it was not preserved for appellate review.

(1) By failing to raise the argument at trial, the defendant failed to preserve for appellate review the argument that the trial court erred by failing to require the State to file a written pretrial motion to suppress or motion in limine to exclude the testimony of a defense witness.

(2) By failing to raise a confrontation clause issue at trial, the defendant failed to preserve the issue for appeal.

The court dismissed the defendant’s assertion that the trial court erred in its jury instructions for the offense of assault by pointing a gun, finding that the defendant failed to properly preserve this issue for appellate review by lodging objection at trial and failed to specifically and distinctly allege plain error on appeal.

The defendant failed to preserve for appellate review his claim that the trial court erred by requiring him to enroll in satellite-based monitoring (SBM). The defendant asserted that the State failed to meet its burden of proving that imposing SBM is reasonable under the fourth amendment. Because the defendant raised no fourth amendment objection at the SBM hearing and the issue was not implicitly addressed or ruled upon by the trial court, it was not preserved for appellate review. In its discretion, the court declined to grant review under Rule 2, reasoning that the law was well-established at the time of the hearing and the State was not on notice of the need to address Grady issues due to the defendant’s failure to raise the constitutional issue.

In this felony assault case, the defendant failed to preserve for appeal the argument that double jeopardy precluded his second trial. During the defendant’s first trial, the trial court expressed concern about moving forward with the trial. A juror would become unavailable because of his wife’s upcoming heart procedure and the trial court expressed “no confidence” and “absolutely no faith” in the alternate juror, indicating the belief that the alternate “has not been able to hear much of what has transpired.” The trial court asked the parties if they wished to be heard on the matter. Defense counsel indicated that he supported the mistrial. The trial court then declared a mistrial based on manifest necessity and neither party objected. The defendant was convicted at a second trial. On direct appeal from that conviction the defendant asserted that he was subjected to double jeopardy because the trial court erred by declaring a mistrial in the absence of manifest necessity. The court concluded that the defendant failed to preserve this issue by consenting to the mistrial and by failing to raise the double jeopardy issue at his second trial.

State v. Bursell, ___ N.C. App. ___, 813 S.E.2d 463 (Mar. 20, 2018) aff’d in part, rev’d in part, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (May 10 2019)

On an appeal from an order requiring the defendant to enroll in lifetime SBM, the court held--as conceded by the State--that the trial court erred by imposing lifetime SBM without conducting the required Grady hearing to determine whether monitoring would amount to a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. The court vacated the SBM order without prejudice to the State’s ability to file a subsequent SBM application.

In this kidnapping and sexual assault case, the court held that by failing to object and raise a constitutional double jeopardy argument in the trial court, it was waived on appeal. The defendant tried to assert on appeal that the trial court violated double jeopardy by sentencing him for both kidnapping and sexual offense. The court declined to invoke Rule 2 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure to address the merits of the defendant’s unpreserved constitutional argument.

 

State v. Phachoumphone, ___ N.C. App. ___, 810 S.E.2d 748 (Feb. 6, 2018) review granted, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Sep 20 2018)

A defendant who fails to move to dismiss in the trial court on grounds of fatal variance waives the issue for purposes of appeal.

Because the defendant never asserted a constitutional double jeopardy violation before the trial court, he failed to preserve the issue for appellate review. However, to prevent manifest injustice, the court invoked Rule 2 and addressed the merits of the defendant’s claim.

State v. Phachoumphone, ___ N.C. App. ___, 810 S.E.2d 748 (Feb. 6, 2018) review granted, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Sep 20 2018)

A defendant who fails to move to dismiss in the trial court on grounds of fatal variance waives the issue for purposes of appeal.

Because the defendant did not present any constitutional argument before the trial court, he waived appellate review of whether his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the trial court allowed the State to retrieve location information from his cell phone without a search warrant. The court concluded: “Defendant’s only argument before the trial court was that law enforcement did not have sufficient evidence to support issuance of the pen register order. The trial court ruled on this issue only, and this is the only argument we may consider on appeal.”

Because the defendant failed to raise the issue before the trial court, the court declined to address the defendant’s argument that his consent to search the car was not voluntary.

(1) By failing to object at trial to the trial court’s handling of a juror’s inquiry about whether jurors may question witnesses, the defendant failed to preserve the issue for appellate review.

(2) The court declined to invoke its discretionary authority under Appellate Rule 2 to suspend the issue-preservation requirements of Appellate Rule 10 and review the issue on the merits, concluding that the defendant had failed to demonstrate that the case was a rare one meriting suspension of the rules.

The defendant failed to preserve for appellate review his contention that the trial court erred by denying defense counsel’s motion to dismiss a charge of second-degree murder. Although the defendant made a motion to dismiss the charge of first-degree murder, he neither moved to dismiss the second-degree murder charge nor argued insufficiency of the evidence to establish that offense. 

The defendant waived his right to direct appeal review of any fourth amendment challenge to the trial court’s order requiring him to enroll in a satellite-based monitoring for life, by failing to raise the constitutional challenge at trial. The court declined to invoke Rule 2 to issue a writ of certiorari to review the defendant’s unpreserved argument.

Because the defendant did not assert at the trial level that the officer made false statements in his affidavit supporting a search warrant, that issue was not preserved for appellate review. 

The court declined to consider the defendant’s argument that his motion to suppress a warrantless blood draw should have been granted because his Fourth Amendment rights were violated where the only ground the defendant asserted with respect to that motion at trial was a violation of G.S. 20-16.2. 

In this multi-count assault and attempted murder case, because the defendant failed to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence as to the intent elements of the challenged convictions in the trial court, the issue was not preserved for appellate review. The court concluded: “Because defense counsel argued before the trial court the sufficiency of the evidence only as to specific elements of the charges and did not refer to a general challenge regarding the sufficiency of the evidence to support each element of each charge, we hold Defendant failed to preserve the issues of the sufficiency of the evidence as to the other elements of the charged offenses on appeal.”

In this child sexual assault case, because the defendant did not make an offer of proof to show what the victim’s responses to questions about her past sexual behavior would have been, he failed to preserve for appellate review whether he should have been allowed to question the victim regarding her general sexual history (a Rape Shield issue).

In this drug trafficking case, the defendant did not preserve for appellate review his argument that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress in-court and out-of-court identifications. The trial court denied the defendant’s pretrial motion to suppress, based on alleged violations of the Eyewitness Identification Reform Act (EIRA), concluding that the current version of the EIRA did not apply to the defendant’s case because the statute came into force after the identification at issue. When the relevant evidence was offered at trial, the defendant did not object. It is well-settled that a trial court’s evidentiary ruling on a pretrial motion to suppress is not sufficient to preserve the issue of admissibility for appeal unless the defendant renews the objection during trial. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he could raise the issue on appeal because the trial court failed to apply a statutory mandate in the EIRA and that violations of statutory mandates are preserved without the need for an objection at trial. It concluded that the trial court did not violate any statutory mandate because the mandates of the statute only arise if the court determines that the EIRA applies to the case in question.

State v. China, ___ N.C. App. ___, 797 S.E.2d 324 (Feb. 21, 2017) rev’d in part on other grounds, 370 N.C. 627 (Apr 6 2018)

The defendant failed to preserve for appellate review a challenge to the admission of evidence at trial concerning the defendant’s previous incarceration. Although the defendant objected to the admission of the evidence during a hearing outside of the jury’s presence, he did not subsequently object when the evidence was actually introduced at trial. Thus the defendant failed to preserve for appellate review the trial court’s decision to admit this evidence.

In this child sexual assault case, the defendant failed to preserve the argument that the trial court committed prejudicial error by allowing the State’s expert witness to testify that she diagnosed the child with PTSD, thus improperly vouching for the witness. At trial, the defendant did not object to the expert’s testimony on the basis that it impermissibly vouched for the child’s credibility or the veracity of the sexual abuse allegations; rather, his objection was grounded on the fact that a licensed clinical social worker is not sufficiently qualified to give an opinion or diagnosis regarding PTSD.

By failing to properly object at trial, the defendant did not properly preserve for appeal the issue of whether the trial court abused its discretion by admitting lay opinion testimony identifying the defendant in surveillance footage and in a photograph.

Where the State’s witness testified regarding statements made to the victim by the victim’s brother and the defendant failed to move to strike the testimony, the defendant failed to preserve the issue for appellate review.

By failing to object to the omission of diminished capacity and voluntary intoxication from the trial court’s final mandate to the jury instructions on murder, the defendant failed to preserve this issue for appellate review. The trial court had instructed on those defenses per the pattern instructions. The defendant never requested that the final mandate for murder include voluntary intoxication and diminished capacity. The court went on to reject the defendant’s argument that this constituted plain error.

The court determined that it need not address the substance of the defendants’ challenge to the trial court’s order denying their suppression motions where the argument asserted was not advanced at the suppression hearing in the trial court.

In a case where the defendant pled guilty to DWI pursuant to a plea agreement and in which the court declined to exercise its discretion to grant the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari, the court noted that the defendant had no right to appeal from an order denying her motion to dismiss, entered prior to her guilty plea. It explained: “This issue is not listed as one of the grounds for appeal of right set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1444. Defendant has no statutory right to plead guilty, while preserving a right to appeal the denial of her motion to dismiss.”

Under G.S. 15A-1444, the defendant did not have a right to appeal whether his guilty plea was knowing and voluntary. The defendant argued that his plea was invalid based on the trial court’s assurance that he could appeal the denial of his motion to dismiss. However, considering the defendant's petition for writ of certiorari, the court exercised its discretion to invoke Rule 2 to suspend the Rules and address the merits of the defendant’s appeal.

Over a dissent and with one judge concurring in result only, the court determined that the trial court erred by failing to give the defendant an opportunity to be heard on the issue attorney’s fees prior to entering a civil judgment against him.  Among several procedural issues in this case was whether the defendant had a right to appeal the judgment given that he had pleaded guilty and G.S. 15A-1444 limits appeals from guilty pleas.  Citing State v. Pell, 211 N.C. App. 376 (2011), the court held that the appeal of the civil judgment did “not arise from the underlying convictions” and, therefore, G.S. 15A-1444(a2) did not deprive the court of jurisdiction.  Because of issues caused by the defendant’s filing of the record on appeal prior to the time at which the civil judgment was filed, the court engaged in a lengthy discussion of the Rules of Appellate Procedure, as well as principles of law regarding petitions for writs of certiorari, on its way to determining that it had jurisdiction to address the merits of the appeal, either upon direct appeal or by certiorari.

Judge Berger concurred in result only, stating that “anyone interested in efficiencies and saving taxpayer dollars should hope the Supreme Court of North Carolina takes advantage of this opportunity to return us to the plain language of [G.S.] 15A-1444(a2).”

Judge Tyson dissented, expressing the view that because of the defendant’s various “jurisdictional failures and criminal, civil, and appellate rules violations” he had failed to invoke the jurisdiction of the court, as well as the view that the defendant’s petition for certiorari should have been denied for lacking merit.  Judge Tyson agreed with Judge Berger’s hope that the state supreme court would “return us to the plain language of [G.S.] 15A-1444(a2).”

(1) In this case where the defendant pleaded guilty to felony speeding to elude arrest pursuant to a plea arrangement, he had no statutory right to appeal. 

(2) However, the court considered the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari which argued that he did not receive notice and an opportunity to be heard on the amount of attorney’s fees and costs. The court noted that a criminal defendant may file a petition for a writ of certiorari to appeal a civil judgment for attorney’s fees and costs. Here, after the defendant pleaded guilty to felony speeding to elude arrest he was sentenced and the trial court ordered him to pay court costs in the amount of $1,572.50. Before entering monetary judgments against indigent defendants for fees imposed for court appointed counsel, the trial court should ask defendants personally whether they wish to be heard on the issue. Absent a colloquy directly with the defendant, the requirements of notice and opportunity to be heard will be satisfied only if there is other evidence in the record demonstrating that the defendant received notice, was aware of the opportunity to be heard, and chose not to be heard. Here, nothing in the record indicated that the defendant understood he had a right to be heard on the issue, and the trial court did not inform him of that right. The court thus vacated the civil judgment for attorney’s fees and remanded to the trial court.

In a case where the defendant argued, and the State conceded, that certain indictments were fatally defective, the court held that the defendant had no right under G.S. 15A-1444 to appeal his conviction, entered upon a plea of guilty. Nor had he asserted any grounds under Appellate Rule 21 for the court to issue a writ of certiorari. However, the court exercised its discretionary authority under Appellate Rule 2 to suspend the requirements of the appellate rules and issue a writ of certiorari, finding that manifest injustice would occur if the convictions were allowed to stand on charges for which the trial court lacked jurisdiction to impose sentence.

A drug trafficking defendant who pled guilty and was sentenced pursuant to a plea agreement had no right to appeal the sentence, which was greater than that allowed by the applicable statute at the time. G.S. 15A-1444 allows for appeal after a guilty plea for terms that are unauthorized under provisions of Chapter 15A; the drug trafficking defendant here was sentenced under Chapter 90. However, the court went on to find that the defendant’s plea was invalid.

Where the defendant entered a guilty plea and did not assert an issue identified in G.S. 15A-1444(a2), he did not have a statutory right to appeal.

State v. Shaw, 236 N.C. App. 453 (Sept. 16, 2014)

The defendant had no statutory right to appeal from a guilty plea to DWI where none of the exceptions to G.S. 15A-1444(e) applied.

Although the defendant failed to object on double jeopardy grounds to being sentenced for both armed robbery and possession of stolen goods taken during the robbery, the court addressed the merits of the defendant’s argument, noting that it may consider whether a sentence is unauthorized even in the absence of an objection at trial.

Although the State had a right to appeal the trial court’s order dismissing charges because of a discovery violation, it had no right to appeal the trial court’s order precluding testimony from two witnesses as a sanction for a discovery violation. 

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 808 S.E.2d 154 (2017), the court held that the State does not have a right to appeal orders granting expunctions under G.S. 15A-145.5. Deciding an issue of first impression, the court noted that the statute governing the State’s right to appeal, G.S. 15A-1445, does not contain language allowing the State to appeal an expunction order. The statute governing the defendant’s expunction, G.S. 15A-145.5, allows for the State to object to a petition for an expunction before the hearing takes place, but does not afford the State the right to appeal an expunction order. The court noted that its decision does not foreclose the opportunity to correct trial court errors because the State can seek review of an expunction order by writ of certiorari.

(1) The defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by sentencing him for both assault on a female and assault by strangulation was preserved for appellate review. The argument was based on mandatory language in G.S. 14-33(c) that prohibited double punishment. When the trial court acts contrary to a statutory mandate, the defendant’s right to appeal is preserved despite failure to object at trial.

(2) Although the defendant failed to raise the issue at sentencing, his argument that the trial court’s findings were insufficient to support its lifetime registration and SBM orders was preserved for appellate review. This issue in question implicated a statutory mandate. 

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 794 S.E.2d 551 (2016) (per curiam), the court reversed, holding that the absence of a procedural rule limits neither the Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction nor its discretionary authority to issue writs of certiorari. After the defendant was charged with DWI, she filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the State violated certain statutory procedures and State v. Knoll. The trial court denied the motion and the defendant pled guilty, retaining the right to appeal the denial of the motion. The defendant gave notice of appeal and petitioned the Court of Appeals for review by writ of certiorari. The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal and denied the petition, holding that the defendant did not have a statutory right to appeal from the trial court’s denial of her motion to dismiss prior to her guilty plea and that the petition did not assert grounds included in or permitted by Rule 21. The Supreme Court then remanded to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of State v. Stubbs, 368 N.C. 40 (2015), and State v. Thomsen, 369 N.C. 22 (2016). Upon reconsideration, the Court of Appeals again denied the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari and dismissed her appeal. The Court of Appeals determined in part that although the statute provides jurisdiction, it was without a procedural process under either Rule 1 or 21 to issue a discretionary writ other than by invoking Rule 2, and the Court of Appeals declined to invoke that rule. The court determined that the Court of Appeals correctly found that it had jurisdiction to issue the writ. However, it mistakenly concluded that the absence of a specific procedural process in the Rules of Appellate Procedure left the court without any authority to invoke that jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals had held that because the defendant’s petition did not assert any of the procedural grounds set forth in Rule 21, it was without a procedural process to issue the writ other than by invoking Rule 2. The court determined that regardless of whether Rule 21 contemplates review of the defendant’s motion to dismiss, if a valid statute gives the Court of Appeals jurisdiction to issue a writ of certiorari, Rule 21 cannot take that jurisdiction away. The court concluded:

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals had both the jurisdiction and the discretionary authority to issue defendant’s writ of certiorari. Absent specific statutory language limiting the Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction, the court maintains its jurisdiction and discretionary authority to issue the prerogative writs, including certiorari. Rule 21 does not prevent the Court of Appeals from issuing writs of certiorari or have any bearing upon the decision as to whether a writ of certiorari should be issued.
State v. Thomsen, 369 N.C. 22 (Aug. 19, 2016)

The Court of Appeals had subject-matter jurisdiction to review, pursuant to the State’s petition for writ of certiorari, a trial court’s grant of its own motion for appropriate relief (MAR). The defendant pleaded guilty to rape of a child by an adult offender and to sexual offense with a child by an adult offender, both felonies with mandatory minimum sentences of 300 months. Pursuant to a plea arrangement, the trial court consolidated the convictions for judgment and imposed a single active sentence of 300 to 420 months. The trial court then immediately granted its own MAR and vacated the judgment and sentence. It concluded that, as applied to the defendant, the mandatory sentence violated the Eighth Amendment; the court resentenced the defendant to 144 to 233 months. The State petitioned the Court of Appeals for a writ of certiorari to review the trial court’s MAR order. The defendant responded, arguing that under State v. Starkey, 177 N.C. App. 264, the court of appeals lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to review a trial court’s sua sponte grant of a MAR. The Court of Appeals allowed the State’s petition and issued the writ. The Court of Appeals found no Eighth Amendment violation, vacated the defendant’s sentence and the trial court’s order granting appropriate relief, and remanded the case for a new sentencing hearing. See State v. Thomsen, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___, 776 S.E.2d 41, 48 (2015). Before the supreme court, the parties disagreed on whether the trial court’s sua sponte motion was pursuant to G.S. 15A-1415(b) (defendant’s MAR) or G.S. 15A-1420(d) (trial court’s sua sponte MAR). The court found it unnecessary to resolve this dispute, holding first that if the MAR was made under G.S. 15A-1415, State v. Stubbs, 368 N.C. 40, 42-43, authorized review by way of certiorari. Alternatively, if the MAR was made pursuant to G.S. 1420(d), G.S. 7A-32(c) gives the Court of Appeals jurisdiction to review a lower court judgment by writ of certiorari, unless a more specific statute restricts jurisdiction. Here, no such specific statute exists. It went on to hold that to the extent Starkey was inconsistent with this holding it was overruled.

The defendant was convicted at trial of driving while impaired and habitual DWI in Guilford County. (1) In its discretion, the Court of Appeals granted the defendant’s petitions for writ of certiorari to review the criminal judgment and civil judgment for attorney fees. Following his conviction for habitual impaired driving, the defendant filed two pro se notices of appeal. Those notices did not contain a certificate of service indicating service on the State and failed to name the court to which the appeals were taken. Appellate counsel was later appointed, who recognized the pro se notices of appeal were potentially defective and filed two petitions for writ of certiorari seeking appellate review. The pro se notices of appeal were an indication that the defendant intended to preserve his right to appellate review, and the Court of Appeals previously held in an unpublished case that the types of defects in the notices of appeal at issue did not require dismissal for lack of jurisdiction. Where (as happened here) the State does not object, the Court of Appeals may exercise jurisdiction by granting the petitions for writ of certiorari. Thus, the Court of Appeals had jurisdiction to consider the defendant’s arguments.

(2) During trial, the defendant moved to dismiss for insufficiency of the evidence at the close of the State’s case in chief. The defendant thereafter presented evidence and failed to renew the sufficiency motion at the close of all evidence. Because sufficiency review was therefore not preserved, the defendant requested that the Court of Appeals invoke Rule 2 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure to suspend the preservation rules and review the issue. The court declined to do so and thus affirmed the habitual DWI conviction.

(3) The trial court awarded the defendant’s trial counsel attorney fees as a civil judgment without giving the defendant an opportunity to personally be heard, in violation of G.S. § 7A-455. More than 35 recent cases have reversed the attorney fee award in similar circumstances. Following that line of cases, the majority of the panel vacated the attorney fee order and remanded for a hearing on the matter where the defendant could be personally heard or for “other evidence in the record demonstrating that the defendant received notice, was aware of the opportunity to be heard on the issue, and chose not to be heard.” Slip op. at 11.

Judge Tyson dissented. He would have refused to grant the petitions for writ of certiorari and dismissed all the defendant’s arguments as frivolous.

(1) In this case where the defendant pleaded guilty to felony speeding to elude arrest pursuant to a plea arrangement, he had no statutory right to appeal. 

(2) However, the court considered the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari which argued that he did not receive notice and an opportunity to be heard on the amount of attorney’s fees and costs. The court noted that a criminal defendant may file a petition for a writ of certiorari to appeal a civil judgment for attorney’s fees and costs. Here, after the defendant pleaded guilty to felony speeding to elude arrest he was sentenced and the trial court ordered him to pay court costs in the amount of $1,572.50. Before entering monetary judgments against indigent defendants for fees imposed for court appointed counsel, the trial court should ask defendants personally whether they wish to be heard on the issue. Absent a colloquy directly with the defendant, the requirements of notice and opportunity to be heard will be satisfied only if there is other evidence in the record demonstrating that the defendant received notice, was aware of the opportunity to be heard, and chose not to be heard. Here, nothing in the record indicated that the defendant understood he had a right to be heard on the issue, and the trial court did not inform him of that right. The court thus vacated the civil judgment for attorney’s fees and remanded to the trial court.

Notwithstanding the fact that the court was unable to determine whether the trial court had jurisdiction when it entered judgment in this DWI case, the court held—over a dissent--that it would exercise its discretion to treat the defendant’s appeal as a petition for certiorari in order to reach the merits of her argument.

Although the defendant failed to timely file a written appeal of the trial court’s sex offender registration and SBM order, the court, in its discretion, allowed the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari to obtain review of these orders.

In a case where the defendant argued, and the State conceded, that certain indictments were fatally defective, the court held that the defendant had no right under G.S. 15A-1444 to appeal his conviction, entered upon a plea of guilty. Nor had he asserted any grounds under Appellate Rule 21 for the court to issue a writ of certiorari. However, the court exercised its discretionary authority under Appellate Rule 2 to suspend the requirements of the appellate rules and issue a writ of certiorari, finding that manifest injustice would occur if the convictions were allowed to stand on charges for which the trial court lacked jurisdiction to impose sentence.

Under G.S. 15A-1444(e) the defendant had a right to seek the issuance of a writ of certiorari to obtain appellate review of a sentencing proceeding conducted upon his entry of a guilty plea and the court had jurisdiction to issue the writ. The court held that Appellate Rule 21 did not require a holding to the contrary, noting that a defendant’s statutory right to seek issuance of a writ is not abridged by Rule 21.

Because the provisions of Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure prevail over G.S. 15A-1444(e), that rule provides the only circumstances where the court can issue a writ of certiorari: when the defendant lost the right to appeal by failing to take timely action; when the appeal is interlocutory; or when the trial court denied the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief. Here, none of those circumstances applied. One judge on the panel concurred only in the result.

State v. Hester, 367 N.C. 119 (Oct. 4, 2013)

The court per curiam affirmed the decision below, State v. Hester, 224 N.C. App. 353 (Dec. 18, 2012), which had held, over a dissent, that the defendant’s first asserted issue must be dismissed because although he argued plain error, he failed provide an analysis of the prejudicial impact of the challenged evidence.

The defendant was convicted of impaired driving in Macon County and appealed. The defendant was driving a moped and collided with a car. A trooper responded, investigating and preparing a crash report (and later charging the defendant). At trial, the trooper testified during cross-examination by the defense about his investigation into the accident, recounting his impression of when and how the crash occurred without objection. The defendant complained on appeal that this testimony amounted to improper lay opinion since the trooper did not see the accident occur and was not tendered as an expert. Because no objection was made at trial, the defendant claimed plain error. The State argued that the defendant invited any error, and the Court of Appeals agreed. “Statements elicited by a defendant on cross-examination are, even if error, invited error, by which a defendant cannot be prejudiced as a matter of law.” Because this testimony was elicited by the defendant, any appellate review of the issue (including plain error review) was waived. The trial court was therefore unanimously affirmed.

The defendant failed to preserve for appellate review his assertion of error regarding testimony by the State’s expert in firearms and tool mark examination. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court committed plain error in allowing the expert’s testimony, asserting that unqualified tool mark identification is too unreliable to comply with Daubert. The court declined to reach the issue, finding that the defendant invited the error by eliciting the expert’s unqualified opinion. At no point in the State’s questioning did the expert state any particular degree of certainty, posit that her finding was absolutely conclusive, claim that her opinion was free from error, or expressly discount the possibility that the casings could have been fired from different guns. That testimony came instead on cross-examination by defense counsel.

In this drug case the defendant was not entitled to appellate review of whether the trial court erroneously admitted hearsay evidence. The defendant failed to demonstrate that any “judicial action” by the trial court amounted to error where he not only failed to object to admission of the statement, but also expressly consented to its admission. Even if error occurred, G.S. 15A-1443(c) (a defendant is not prejudiced by an error resulting from his own conduct) precludes a finding of prejudice. Here, by asking about the statement during cross-examination of the State’s witness, defense counsel opened the door to the State’s subsequent questions concerning the statement and its introduction.

In this attempted murder and assault case, any error with respect to admission of testimony regarding gangs was invited. In his motion in limine, the defendant expressly requested that the trial court either exclude all evidence pertaining to gangs or in the alternative allow cross-examination on the subject. The trial court granted the alternative relief sought and the defendant himself cross-examined and elicited testimony with respect to gangs.

State v. Langley, ___ N.C. App. ____, 803 S.E.2d 166 (June 20, 2017) rev’d on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, 817 S.E.2d 191 (Aug 17 2018)

Although juror misconduct occurred, the defendant’s challenge failed because the error was invited. After it was reported to the judge that a juror did an internet search of a term used in jury instructions, the judge called the jurors into court and instructed them to disregard any other information and to follow the judge’s instructions. When the defendant moved for mistrial, the trial court offered to continue the inquiry, offering to interview each juror. The defendant did not respond to the trial judge’s offer. The court held: “Defendant is not in a position to repudiate the action and argue that it is grounds for a new trial since he did not accept the trial court’s offer to continue the inquiry when the judge offered to do so. Therefore, if any error took place, Defendant invited it.”

State v. Clonts, ___ N.C. App. ____, 802 S.E.2d 531 (June 20, 2017) aff'd on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, 813 S.E.2d 796 (Jun 8 2018)

The trial court did not err by failing to instruct the jury on imperfect self-defense and imperfect defense of others where the defendant did not request that the trial court give any instruction on imperfect self-defense or imperfect defense of others. In fact, when the State indicated that it believed that these defenses were not legally available to the defendant, defense counsel agreed with the State. The defendant cannot show prejudice from invited error.

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision below, 259 N.C. App. 127 (2018), the court reversed the Court of Appeals and held that appellate counsel was not ineffective for failing to cite a particular line of cases because the facts of this case were distinguishable from those in the line of cases the Court of Appeals would have had appellate counsel cite.  The Court of Appeals had held that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to make the argument under State v. Pakulski, 319 N.C. 562 (1987) that a trial court commits plain error when it instructs a jury on disjunctive theories of a crime, one of which is erroneous, and it cannot be discerned from the record the theory upon which the jury relied.  Noting that its opinion in Pakulski “lacks clarity” with respect to the standard of review applied there, the court explained that Pakulski applied the harmless error rather than plain error standard, as evidenced by subsequent precedent.  Because the defendant in this case did not object to the trial court’s jury instructions, the court explained that Pakulski “would have had little precedential value in the instant case, and appellate counsel’s failure to cite it was not objectively unreasonable.”  The court went on to explain that the arguments made by appellate counsel were appropriate for plain error review as counsel argued that the jury was presented with multiple theories of guilt, one of which was erroneous, and the error had a probable impact on the jury’s verdict.

Justice Ervin, joined by Justice Newby, concurred, agreeing with the court’s interpretation of Pakulski and its determination that appellate counsel was not ineffective, but writing separately to clarify the general matter that a defendant may be convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon under an acting in concert theory.  Noting that neither the North Carolina Supreme Court nor the Court of Appeals has ever directly held that a defendant can be convicted of that offense on the basis of an acting in concert theory, Justice Ervin described the “general availability of the acting in concert doctrine in possession-related cases” and stated that he was not persuaded that the theory is inapplicable to the offense of possession of a firearm by a felon.

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Davis, dissented, expressing the view that the majority opinion’s explanations of Pakulski and appellate counsel’s arguments were inaccurate.  In Justice Earls’ view, Pakulski applied the plain error standard of review and appellate counsel did not meet the obligation to argue to the Court of Appeals that the defendant could not be convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon based on someone else’s possession.

State v. Maddux, 371 N.C. 558 (Oct. 26, 2018)

On discretionary review of a unanimous, unpublished decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 803 S.E.2d 463 (2017), the court held that although the trial court erred in giving an aiding and abetting instruction, the Court of Appeals incorrectly concluded that the error amounted to plain error. The defendant was charged with manufacturing methamphetamine and trafficking in methamphetamine by manufacture and by possession. The trial court instructed the jury—without objection—that it could find the defendant guilty either through a theory of individual guilt or as an aider and abettor. The defendant was convicted and appealed. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in giving the aiding and abetting instruction because it was not supported by the evidence, and that this error constituted plain error. The State sought review. The Supreme Court agreed that the trial court erred in giving the aiding and abetting instruction but held that no plain error occurred. To demonstrate that a trial court committed plain error, the defendant must show that a fundamental error occurred. To show this, a defendant must establish prejudice—that after examining the entire record, the error had a probable impact on the jury’s finding of guilt. Because plain error is to be applied cautiously and only in the exceptional case, the error will often be one that seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings. Here, the Court of Appeals indicated that the lack of overwhelming and uncontroverted evidence required the conclusion that a jury probably would have reached a different result had the erroneous instruction not been given. The Supreme Court found that this was error, clarifying that its precedent does not hold that plain error is shown, and a new trial is required, unless the evidence against the defendant is overwhelming and uncontroverted. Considering the entire record, the court held that ample evidence of the defendant’s individual guilt made it unlikely that the improper instruction had a probable impact on the jury’s finding that the defendant was guilty. Specifically, the court noted all of the items found throughout the defendant’s residence that the State’s witnesses identified as being commonly used in the production of methamphetamine, including immediate precursor chemicals to the manufacture of methamphetamine, and all of the evidence found inside the one-pot meth lab and burn barrel on the defendant’s property, including the plastic bottles that tested positive for methamphetamine and pseudoephedrine. It concluded: “After examining the entire record, we conclude that the erroneous aiding and abetting instruction did not have a probable impact on the jury’s finding that defendant was guilty because of the evidence indicating that defendant, individually, used the components found throughout his house to manufacture methamphetamine in the one-pot meth lab on his own property.”

State v. Carter, 366 N.C. 496 (Apr. 12, 2013)

The court reversed the decision below in State v. Carter,216 N.C. App. 453 (Nov. 1, 2011) (in a child sexual offense case, the trial court committed plain error by failing to instruct on attempted sexual offense where the evidence of penetration was conflicting), concluding that the defendant failed to show plain error. The court held that when applying the plain error standard

[t]he necessary examination is whether there was a “probable impact” on the verdict, not a possible one. In other words, the inquiry is whether the defendant has shown that, “absent the error, the jury probably would have returned a different verdict.” Thus, the Court of Appeals’ consideration of what the jury “could rationally have found,” was improper.

Slip Op at 7 (citations omitted). Turning to the case at hand, the court found even if the trial court had erred, the defendant failed to show a probable impact on the verdict.

State v. Towe, 366 N.C. 56 (June 14, 2012)

The court modified and affirmed State v. Towe, 210 N.C. App. 430 (Mar. 15, 2011) (plain error to allow the State’s medical expert to testify that the child victim was sexually abused when no physical findings supported this conclusion). The court agreed that the expert’s testimony was improper but held that the court of appeals mischaracterized the plain error test. The court of appeals applied a “highly plausible that the jury could have reached a different result” standard. The correct standard, however, is whether a fundamental error occurred that “had a probable impact on the jury’s finding that the defendant was guilty.” Applying that standard, the court found it satisfied.

State v. Lawrence, 365 N.C. 506 (Apr. 13, 2012)

Reaffirming its decision in State v. Odom, 307 N.C. 655, 660 (1983), the court clarified “how the plain error standard of review applies on appeal to unpreserved instructional or evidentiary error.” It stated:

For error to constitute plain error, a defendant must demonstrate that a fundamental error occurred at trial. To show that an error was fundamental, a defendant must establish prejudice—that, after examination of the entire record, the error “had a probable impact on the jury’s finding that the defendant was guilty.” Moreover, because plain error is to be “applied cautiously and only in the exceptional case,” the error will often be one that “seriously affect[s] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.”

(citations omitted). Applying that rule to the case at hand, the court held that the court of appeals applied the incorrect formulation of the plain error standard in State v. Lawrence, 210N.C. App. 73 (Mar. 1, 2011) (holding that the trial judge committed plain error by failing to instruct the jury on all elements of conspiracy to commit armed robbery). Although the trial judge erred (the judge instructed the jury that armed robbery involved a taking from the person or presence of another while using or in the possession of a firearm but failed to instruct on the element of use of the weapon to threaten or endanger the life of the victim), the error did not rise to the level of plain error.

Plain error review is not available for a claim that the trial court erred by requiring the defendant to wear prison garb during trial. Plain error is normally limited to instructional and evidentiary error.

State v. Oates, 366 N.C. 264 (Oct. 5, 2012)

The court reversed State v. Oates, 215 N.C. App. 491 (Sept. 6, 2011), and held that the State’s notice of appeal of a trial court ruling on a suppression motion was timely. The State’s notice of appeal was filed seven days after the trial judge in open court orally granted the defendant’s pretrial motion to suppress but three months before the trial judge issued his corresponding written order of suppression. The court held that the window for filing a written notice of appeal in a criminal case opens on the date of rendition of the judgment or order and closes fourteen days after entry of the judgment or order. The court clarified that rendering a judgment or an order means to pronounce, state, declare, or announce the judgment or order and is “the judicial act of the court in pronouncing the sentence of the law upon the facts in controversy.” Entering a judgment or an order is “a ministerial act which consists in spreading it upon the record.” It continued:

For the purposes of entering notice of appeal in a criminal case . . . a judgment or an order is rendered when the judge decides the issue before him or her and advises the necessary individuals of the decision; a judgment or an order is entered under that Rule when the clerk of court records or files the judge’s decision regarding the judgment or order.

The defendant was convicted of misdemeanor stalking in district court in Forsyth County and sentenced to time served. The defendant filed a pro se written notice of de novo appeal to superior court on the ninth day after the district court’s judgment. The State moved to dismiss the appeal under G.S. 15A-1431(d). The superior court dismissed the appeal and a petition for writ of certiorari, and the defendant sought certiorari review in the Court of Appeals.

G.S. 15A-1431 proscribes jurisdictional rules governing criminal appeals from district to superior court. A defendant typically has 10 days from the time of judgment to give notice of de novo appeal by filing a written notice of appeal or by giving notice in open court. Under subsection (d), however, once a defendant complies with a district court judgment, notice of appeal must be given by the defendant in person before the presiding judge or certain other officials. According the State, the defendant had complied with the judgment, since he already served the sentence imposed by the district court. His notice of appeal was therefore defective and deprived the superior court of jurisdiction to hear the appeal. The defendant maintained that his pretrial confinement (leading to the time served judgment) could not serve as voluntary compliance with the judgment within the meaning of the statute. The Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant.

Under the plain language of the statute, “the word ‘compliance’ carries with it a connotation of voluntariness.” Slip op. at 5. Official commentary to the statute also supported this view. In the court’s words:

[The defendant’s] purported ‘compliance’ with his criminal sentence was not his choice. He was involuntarily detained in pre-trial confinement while awaiting trial and was later credited with time served . . . [The defendant] therefore properly gave notice of appeal by doing so in writing within ten days of entry of judgment. Id. at 6.

The superior court’s dismissal of the appeal was therefore unanimously reversed, and the matter remanded for trial in superior court.

(No. COA13-661). The court denied the defendant’s motion to strike the State’s brief, which was filed in an untimely manner without any justification or excuse and after several extensions of the time within which it was authorized to do so had been obtained. However, the court “strongly admonished” counsel for the State “to refrain from engaging in such inexcusable conduct in the future” and that counsel “should understand that any repetition of the conduct disclosed by the present record will result in the imposition of significant sanctions upon both the State and himself personally.”

In this case involving convictions for kidnapping, communicating threats, assaults, breaking or entering, rape, and sexual assault, the court held that because a recording equipment malfunction prevented the court reporter from producing a full transcript of the trial, including crucial portions of the victim’s testimony such as cross-examination, the defendant is entitled to a new trial. The defendant’s trial began on 16 August 2016. On 19 August 2016 the jury returned its verdicts. On appeal the defendant argued that he was denied a meaningful appeal because a portion of the trial transcript from 18 August 2016 is missing. The court found that the defendant had made sufficient efforts (described in the opinion) to reconstruct the missing portion of the transcript and that the alternative was inadequate. On the latter point, appellate counsel was able only to verify that cross-examination of the victim took place at this time, but not the substance of that testimony. The court further found that the lack of an adequate alternative to a verbatim transcript denied the defendant of meaningful appellate review such that a new trial is required.

In this felon in possession of a firearm case, the defendant failed to submit an adequate record on appeal to support his challenge to the unanimity of the jury verdict. A juror entered the courtroom during the jury charge conference on a flight instruction. The defendant argued that because the juror possibly became privy to information outside of the presence of the other jurors, his right to a unanimous jury verdict was violated. The court declined to consider this issue because the defendant failed to provide a sufficient record to allow meaningful appellate review. The transcript is devoid of any information beyond the juror’s entrance into the courtroom during the charge conference. It is silent as to whether the juror proceeded past the courtroom door. The trial court’s statement, as indicated in the record, suggests that the juror immediately exited the courtroom, as did the fact that the charge conference continued. The defendant did not submit a supplemental narrative to provide context for the alleged error. Review of this matter would require speculation as to the length of time the juror was in the courtroom and information he or she might have overheard. There is a long-standing presumption in favor of regularity, with the burden on the appellant to show error. Here, the defendant did not produce any evidence overcoming that presumption.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that she was entitled to a new trial due to the lack of a trial transcript. After being given numerous extensions, the court reporter failed to produce a trial transcript. The defendant claimed this failure violated her right to effective appellate review, effective assistance of counsel, due process of law, and equal protection. The court disagreed, concluding that the unavailability of a verbatim transcript does not automatically constitute error. Rather, the defendant must show that the missing record resulted in prejudice. The court noted that the absence of a complete transcript does not prejudice a defendant when alternates are available that fulfill the function of a transcript and provide the defendant with a meaningful appeal. Here, the parties were able to reconstruct the testimonial evidence than other trial proceedings. The narrative stipulated to by the parties contains sufficient evidence to understand all the issues presented on appeal.

The defendant was placed on probation in district court pursuant to a formal deferred prosecution agreement under G.S. 15A-1341(a1). A district court judge found him in violation and revoked his deferred prosecution probation. The defendant appealed to superior court for a de novo violation hearing, but a superior court judge dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. The court of appeals affirmed the dismissal, concluding that there is no statutory right to appeal a revocation of probation in the deferred prosecution context, as that revocation does not “activate[] a sentence” within the meaning of G.S. 15A-1347(a). The court noted that the superior court could, in some cases, review district court revocations of deferred prosecution probation through its authority to issue writs of certiorari under Rule 19 of the General Rules of Practice for the Superior and District Courts.

In this DWI case, the superior court properly dismissed the State’s notice of appeal from a district court ruling granting the defendant’s motion to suppress where the State’s notice of appeal failed to specify any basis for the appeal. Although such a notice may be sufficient for an appeal to the Court of Appeals, the State is required to specify the basis for its appeal to superior court.

The defendant pled guilty to two counts of manufacturing methamphetamine after the trial court denied his motion to suppress items seized during a search. The case came back before the court of appeals on remand from the supreme court for reconsideration in light of State v. Ledbetter, ___ N.C. ___, 814 S.E.2 39 (2018), and State v. Stubbs, 368 N.C. 40 (2015). (1) The court of appeals dismissed the defendant’s direct appeal because the defendant failed to provide notice to the State of his intent to do so before plea negotiations were finalized as required under State v. Tew, 326 N.C. 732 (1990). (2) The court of appeals denied the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari, rejecting his contention that it should be granted under State v. Davis, 237 N.C. App. 22 (2014). Davis, the court of appeals concluded, failed to address prior binding court of appeals authority. As a result, the court deemed itself obliged to follow the supreme court’s guidance in State v. Jones, 358 N.C. 473 (2004), that when faced with inconsistent opinions from separate panels, a subsequent panel of the court of appeals must follow the earlier opinion. Following that rule, the court concluded that earlier decisions (including State v. Pimental, 153 N.C. App. 69 (2002) (holding that the court of appeals cannot grant a writ of certiorari when a defendant pleads guilty without first notifying the State of his or her intent to appeal a suppression, because that is not a “failure to take timely action” within the meaning of Appellate Rule 21) compelled it to deny the writ. The court viewed Ledbetter and Stubbs as clarifying the court of appeals’ jurisdiction to hear petitions for writ of certiorari, but not as relieving the court of its obligation to follow binding substantive precedent. A concurring judge would have denied the defendant’s petition for certiorari, but as a matter of discretion, and not pursuant to prior court of appeals cases that the judge did not view as binding after Ledbetter and Stubbs.

State v. Stokes, 367 N.C. 474 (Apr. 11, 2014)

The court reversed and remanded the decision below, State v. Stokes, 227 N.C. App. 649 (Jun. 4, 2013) (vacating the defendant’s conviction for second-degree kidnapping on grounds that the evidence was insufficient to establish removal when during a robbery the defendant ordered the clerk to the back of the store but the clerk refused). The court held that the court of appeals erred by failing to consider whether the State presented sufficient evidence to support a conviction of attempted second-degree kidnapping. The court went on to find that the evidence supported conviction of the lesser offense. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that it could not consider whether the evidence was sufficient to establish the lesser offense because the State had not argued for that result on appeal, stating: “While we agree it would be better practice for the State to present such an alternative argument, we have not, however, historically imposed this requirement.” It continued:

When acting as an appellee, the State should bring alternative arguments to the appellate court’s attention, and we strongly encourage the State to do so. Nonetheless, we are bound to follow our long-standing, consistent precedent of acting ex mero motu to recognize a verdict of guilty of a crime based upon insufficient evidence as a verdict of guilty of a lesser included offense. Hence, the Court of Appeals incorrectly refused to consider whether defendant’s actions constituted attempted second-degree kidnapping.

In this child sexual abuse case, the court clarified that when analyzing Rule 404(b) and 403 rulings, it “conduct[s] distinct inquiries with different standards of review.” It stated:

When the trial court has made findings of fact and conclusions of law to support its 404(b) ruling . . . we look to whether the evidence supports the findings and whether the findings support the conclusions. We review de novo the legal conclusion that the evidence is, or is not, within the coverage of Rule 404(b). We then review the trial court’s Rule 403 determination for abuse of discretion.

In this case involving a waiver of counsel at a probation revocation hearing and the defendant’s appeal of the trial court’s revocation of her probation, the court declined to dismiss the appeal due to the defendant’s failure to comply with Rule 4 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure and held that the defendant’s waiver of counsel was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.  The defendant timely filed a handwritten notice of appeal that failed to comply with Rule 4 in that it did not indicate that it had been served on the State.  Noting that the State was informed of the appeal and was able to timely respond, and that the violation had not frustrated the adversarial process, the court held that the nonjurisdicitional Rule 4 defect was neither substantial nor gross and proceeded to the merits.  As to the merits, the court found that the trial court’s inquiry of the defendant regarding her waiver of counsel, a waiver which the defendant also executed in writing, was similar to that in State v. Whitfield, 170 N.C. App 618 (2005) and satisfied the requirements of G.S. 15A-1242.

The plaintiff brought a facial constitutional challenge to a state law concerning automated red-light traffic cameras in the City of Greenville. She alleged the law violated the North Carolina Constitution prohibiting local laws relating to health and sued the City of Greenville, Pitt County Board of Education, and State of North Carolina through official capacity claims against Phil Berger, President Pro Tempore of the North Carolina Senate, and Tim Moore, Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives. The case was transferred to a three-judge panel of superior court judges appointed by the Chief Justice because the complaint is a facial constitutional challenge to a state law. The panel heard cross-motions for summary judgment and entered summary judgment in favor of the City of Greenville and Pitt County Board of Education. The plaintiff appealed. The Court of Appeals found that the record on appeal contained no indication that the three-judge panel ruled on an earlier motion to dismiss the claim against the State of North Carolina. The Court dismissed the appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction because the challenged order entered judgment as to some, but not all, parties, and the appeal is interlocutory. The Court concluded: “Before this Court hears the matter and addresses the constitutionality of that law on the merits, the appeal should include a judgment entered as to the State, so that the State, if it chooses, can appear and advocate for its position on that constitutional question.”

The defendant was convicted of felony breaking or entering in 17 CRS 54550 and felony larceny after breaking or entering in 17 CRS 54551. The trial judge sentenced him to two consecutive 8 to 19 months prison terms, suspended the sentences, and placed him on probation. Violation reports were subsequently filed in both cases, and the defendant’s probation was revoked by the trial judge in both cases. The defendant filed a pro se written notice of appeal. The majority found that the notice failed to comply with North Carolina Rule of Appellate Procedure 4 in that the notice “did not (1) designate the judgment from which he was appealing, (2) designate the court to which he was appealing, and (3) properly certify service.” The majority found that these defects deprived the Court of jurisdiction over a direct appeal, dismissed the appeal, and declined to exercise its discretion to hear the defendant’s arguments by way of petition for writ of certiorari. A dissenting judge, noting the technical nature of the defects in the defendant’s notice of appeal, would have heard the defendant’s certiorari petition in one of the cases, 17 CRS 54551. In that case, the trial judge revoked the defendant’s probation based on absconding, but the violation report did not allege absconding. Only in the other case, 17 CRS 54550, did the violation report allege absconding. The dissent observed that the allegations in that case were insufficient to put the defendant on notice of that violation in the other case. The dissenting judge stated that it was an abuse of discretion to overlook this due process violation and deny the defendant’s certiorari petition.

State v. Diaz-Tomas, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Apr. 21, 2020)

In 2015, the defendant was charged with impaired driving and driving without an operator’s license. He failed to appear on the charges in 2016, which prompted the district court to issue an order for arrest and the State to dismiss the case with leave. In 2018 the defendant was arrested on the OFA, ordered to appear, and then arrested again for once more failing to appear. In January 2019 he filed a motion in district court seeking to reinstate the charges that had been dismissed with leave, which the district court denied. In July 2019, the defendant filed a petition for writ of certiorari in superior court, seeking review of the district court’s denial of his motion to reinstate the charges. The superior court denied the petition, leading the defendant to file a petition for writ of certiorari in the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals concluded that the superior court did not err by denying the petition. Certiorari is a discretionary writ, and the defendant did not show that the superior court’s decision was unsupported by reason or otherwise entirely arbitrary.

(2) The defendant also filed two other petitions in the Court of Appeals: a writ of mandamus seeking to compel the district court to grant his motion to reinstate the charges, and a motion asking the court to take judicial notice of the Wake County Local Judicial Rules. As to the writ of mandamus, the Court of Appeals concluded over a dissent that it was improper for two reasons—first, that it was being used as a substitute for an appeal or certiorari, and second that it should have been filed in superior court, not the appellate division. As to the motion to take judicial notice, the court did not need to resolve it to decide the case. Finally, the Court of Appeals declined to consider the defendant’s argument that the district court erred by denying his motion to reinstate charges, unanimously concluding that the issue was not properly before the court.

A judge dissenting in part included additional facts about the procedural history of the case. After the defendant’s initial failures to appear, he did appear when his case was calendared as an “add-on” case in December 2018, but the State declined to reinstate the charges. The dissenting judge agreed with the majority that mandamus was not the proper remedy, but she would have concluded that the superior abused its discretion by denying the petition for writ of certiorari. In the absence of an order from superior court revealing the basis for its rationale in denying the petition, and in light of the defendant’s allegations, which she described as “cogent” and “well-supported,” she would have remanded the case for a hearing and decision on the merits.

During cross-examination of the complaining witness in a case involving a charge of assault on a female, the defendant began a line of questions to which the State objected. The trial judge excused the jury and conducted a voir dire, during which the defendant’s counsel demonstrated the proposed cross- examination of the witness, including questions about her mental health and treatment. The trial judge ruled that those questions were not relevant and that to the extent they were relevant they were more prejudicial than probative. When cross-examination resumed in front of the jury, the defendant did not attempt to elicit testimony about the witness’s mental health. (1) The Court of Appeals rejected the State’s argument that the defendant failed to preserve for appellate review the issue of the judge’s refusal to allow the testimony. The defendant was not required to elicit the testimony before the jury where, as here, the defendant elicited the testimony in voir dire and secured a ruling from the trial judge. The Court distinguished State v. Coffey, 326 N.C. 268 (1990), where the trial judge conducted a voir dire, ruled that most of the proposed testimony was inadmissible, but indicated that counsel could ask other questions, which the judge would rule on when the questions were asked. When the jurors returned, however, the defendant did not ask any questions, including questions not yet ruled on by the judge. (2) The Court recognized that North Carolina allows cross-examination of a key witness regarding the witness’s past mental problems or defects to challenge the witness’s credibility, citing State v. Williams, 330 N.C. 711 (1992). The Court found in this case that the excluded testimony concerned prior instances of the witness’s mental health and treatment and that one instance involved treatment the witness had sought for childhood trauma; however, the Court stated that the defendant did not ask or attempt to introduce evidence about a mental health diagnosis or mental state. The Court held that the defendant failed to show that the trial judge abused his discretion in finding that the excluded testimony was not relevant or to the extent it was relevant that it was more prejudicial than probative. (3) The defendant argued that the trial judge committed plain error by charging the jury that the alleged assault involved “grabbing, pushing, dragging, kicking, slapping, and/or punching” when the criminal summons alleged “striking her neck and ear.” The Court rejected the defendant’s variance argument because the defendant failed to object to the instruction at trial, did not request that the trial judge including the “striking” language from the summons, and contributed to the variance by proposing that the judge add the words slapping and punching to the instruction.

In 1999, the defendant was found guilty of assault on a female, and the trial judge entered a prayer for judgment continued (PJC) with a condition that the defendant pay costs of court. In 2017, the defendant was denied a concealed carry permit in West Virginia on the ground that his 1999 case resulted in a conviction for domestic violence and that he misstated in his permit application that he had never been convicted of an act of violence or act of domestic violence. In 2018, the defendant filed a motion in North Carolina to enter judgment in the 1999 case, which he then would be able to appeal to superior court for a trial de novo. The district court denied the motion, and the defendant appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court found that the defendant did not have a right to appeal and refused to treat the defendant’s brief as a petition for a writ of certiorari. The Court therefore dismissed the defendant’s appeal. In addition to its holding, the Court made several other observations. (1) The District Attorney’s office that handled the defendant’s 1999 assault on a female case advised West Virginia that the case involved domestic violence even though the remaining records in ACIS indicated that the case did not involve domestic violence. (2) The Court recognized that it could be argued that the defendant’s representation on his permit application was not a misrepresentation about whether he had a conviction because the question is ambiguous and he could have believed in good faith that a PJC was not a conviction. (3) The Court observed that although a PJC with a condition that the defendant pay costs is not a condition that converts a PJC into a final judgment, a trial judge may not impose that condition without the defendant’s consent. When a defendant consents to a PJC, the defendant waives any right to appeal. (4) In support of its refusal to treat the defendant’s brief as a petition for a writ of certiorari, the Court stated that it would be unfair to the State to allow the defendant to renege on a twenty-year-old deal for a PJC with costs, ask the trial court to enter judgment, and appeal the judgment to superior court, which would most certainly result in dismissal of the charges because the State no longer has the evidence to proceed. (5) The court observed that G.S. 15A-1416(b)(1) gives the State the right to move for appropriate relief to enter a final judgment on a PJC, presumably when a defendant has not satisfied the conditions of a PJC, but the defendant does not have the same statutory right. (6) The court noted that the defendant can petition the superior court for a writ of certiorari under Rule 19 of the North Carolina Rules of Superior and District Court.

The defendant was convicted by a jury of two counts of statutory sexual offense with a child by an adult and one count of first-degree kidnapping based on his repeated sexual assaults of his seven-year-old niece. The trial court sentenced the defendant to prison and ordered him to enroll in satellite-based monitoring (SBM) for life. (1) Based on the defendant’s failure to file a written notice of appeal as required by Rule 3 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure, the court of appeals concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to hear his SBM appeal. The defendant also failed to argue in the trial court that SBM was an unconstitutional search under the Fourth Amendment. The court of appeals declined grant his petition for writ of certiorari and, in the absence of evidence of a manifest injustice, to invoke Appellate Rule 2 to address his unpreserved constitutional argument. (2) A pediatrician that the State tendered as an expert testified without objection that children don’t tend to make up stories about sexual abuse, and that the victim “gave excellent detail” and that her story was “very consistent.” The court of appeals found no error, noting that while it would be improper for an expert witness to opine based on an interview with a victim as to whether the child had been sexually abused, statements regarding the child’s consistency in recounting the alleged abuse are nevertheless admissible. (3) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that witnesses’ repeated use of the words “disclose” and “disclosure” to describe what the victim told them in private amounted to impermissible vouching. Citing State v. Betts, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Sept. 3, 2019), and declining to follow unpublished State v. Jamison, ___ N.C. App. ___, 821 S.E.2d 665 (2018) (unpublished), the court agreed that nothing about the term “disclose” conveys believability or credibility. (4) Some statements admitted by a marriage and family therapist who treated the victim were improper vouching. Her general statement about “this incident that happened” was not improper, but her statement that the victim would need therapy “because of the sexual abuse that she experienced” and “I believe [the victim]” were improper as an opinion of the victim’s veracity. However, in the absence of an objection at trial and in light of the substantial evidence against the defendant (medical evidence and testimony from corroborating witnesses), the court concluded that the admission of the improper evidence did not rise to the level of plain error warranting a new trial. (5) Finally, defense counsel’s failure to object to the improper vouching evidence was not ineffective assistance of counsel where there was no reasonable probability that the errors prejudiced the defendant.

The defendant’s failure to submit his motions to suppress to the trial court with supporting affidavits as required by G.S. 15A-977(a), constituted a waiver on appeal of the right to contest the admission of the evidence in question.

Because SBM hearings are civil proceedings, the defendant’s oral notice of appeal from an order requiring him to enroll in lifetime SBM was insufficient to give the court jurisdiction to hear his appeal. The court declined to grant the defendant’s request for writ of certiorari to review the issue, or to suspend the Rules of Appellate Procedure to reach the merits.

State v. Campbell, ___ N.C. App. ___, 810 S.E.2d 803 (Feb. 6, 2018) review granted, ___ N.C. ___, 813 S.E.2d 849 (Jun 7 2018)

Invoking its discretion under Rule 2 to reach the merit of the defendant’s argument, the court held, over a dissent, that the trial court erred by failing to dismiss a larceny charge due to a fatal variance between the indictment and the evidence regarding ownership of the property. The indictment alleged that the property belonged to “Andy [Stevens] and Manna Baptist Church.” Andy Stevens was the church’s Pastor. In a prior opinion in the case, the court had held that a fatal variance existed because the evidence showed that the stolen property belonged only to the church. The Supreme Court however granted discretionary review as to whether the Court of Appeals erred in invoking Rule 2 to address that issue. That court remanded to the Court of Appeals for an express determination as to whether the court would exercise its discretion to invoke Rule 2 and consider the merits of the fatal variance claim. Following these instructions, the court determined that in this “unusual and extraordinary case” it would exercise its discretion to employ Rule 2 and consider the merits of the defendant’s fatal variance claim. Turning to the merits, the court adopted its analysis in its earlier decision in the case and held—again—that a fatal variance occurred. Specifically, although the indictment alleged that the property was owned by both Andy Stevens and the church, the evidence established that the property was owned only by the church. The court reiterated the principle that if the State fails to present evidence of a property interest of some sort in both owners alleged in the indictment, a fatal variance occurs. Here, the evidence did not show that Pastor Stevens held title or had any type of ownership interest in the stolen property.

On appeal from the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s suppression motion, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State failed to meet the certification requirements of G.S. 15A-979(c) by addressing its certificate to “the court” rather than the trial court judge. The defendant argued that because G.S. 15A-979(c) requires that the certificate be presented to the judge who granted the motion, any deviation from this statutory language renders the State’s certificate void. The court concluded that the word “judge” is synonymous with “the court.”

Because the State failed to file a certificate as required by G.S. 15A-1432(e), the appellate court lacked jurisdiction over the appeal. In district court the defendant moved to dismiss his DWI charge on speedy trial grounds. When the district court issued an order indicating its preliminary approval of the defendant’s motion, the State appealed to superior court. The superior court remanded to the district court for additional factual findings. Once the superior court received further findings of fact, it affirmed the district court’s preliminary order and remanded the case to district court with orders to affirm the dismissal. After the district court issued its final judgment, the State again appealed and the superior court affirmed the district court’s judgment. The court determined that G.S. 15A-1432(e), not G.S. 15A-1445(a)(1), applied to the State’s appeal to the appellate division. Because the State failed to comply with G.S. 15A-1432(e)’s certificate requirement, the court had no jurisdiction over the appeal.

Relying on language in G.S. 15A-979, the court held that a defendant may appeal an order denying a motion to suppress made pursuant to G.S. 15A-980 (right to suppress use of certain prior convictions obtained in violation of right to counsel) where the defendant reserved the right to appeal in his guilty plea.

Because a civil no contact order entered under G.S. 15A-1340.50 (permanent no contact order prohibiting future contact by convicted sex offender with crime victim) imposes a civil remedy, notice of appeal from such an order must comply with N.C. R. Appellate Procedure 3(a).

In an appeal from an order requiring the defendant to enroll in lifetime SBM in which defense counsel filed an Anders brief, the court noted that SBM proceedings are civil in nature and that Anders protections do not extend to civil cases. The court however exercised discretion to review the record and found no error.

(COA11-526). Gaps in the verbatim trial transcript were sufficiently addressed by other materials so that appellate review was possible. However, the complete lack of a verbatim transcript of the habitual felon phase of his trial precluded appellate review and warranted a new determination on this issue.

In this habitual larceny case where the defendant was sentenced as a habitual felon, the defendant was not prejudiced by the trial court’s failure to formally arraign him on the indictment alleging the prior convictions.  G.S. 15A-928 mandates that in cases where a previous conviction elevates a later offense to a higher grade a trial judge must arraign a defendant on the special indictment that alleges the prior convictions.  Because it is a statutory mandate, a trial judge’s failure to so arraign a defendant automatically is preserved for appellate review regardless of whether the defendant objects at trial.  Reviewing the record, including the fact of the stipulation to the convictions, the court concluded that the defendant was not prejudiced by the trial court’s error.

In this habitual impaired driving and driving while license revoked case, the trial court did not commit reversible error when it failed to formally arraigned the defendant pursuant to G.S. 15A-928(c).

Over a dissent and with one judge concurring in result only, the court determined that the trial court erred by failing to give the defendant an opportunity to be heard on the issue attorney’s fees prior to entering a civil judgment against him.  Among several procedural issues in this case was whether the defendant had a right to appeal the judgment given that he had pleaded guilty and G.S. 15A-1444 limits appeals from guilty pleas.  Citing State v. Pell, 211 N.C. App. 376 (2011), the court held that the appeal of the civil judgment did “not arise from the underlying convictions” and, therefore, G.S. 15A-1444(a2) did not deprive the court of jurisdiction.  Because of issues caused by the defendant’s filing of the record on appeal prior to the time at which the civil judgment was filed, the court engaged in a lengthy discussion of the Rules of Appellate Procedure, as well as principles of law regarding petitions for writs of certiorari, on its way to determining that it had jurisdiction to address the merits of the appeal, either upon direct appeal or by certiorari.

Judge Berger concurred in result only, stating that “anyone interested in efficiencies and saving taxpayer dollars should hope the Supreme Court of North Carolina takes advantage of this opportunity to return us to the plain language of [G.S.] 15A-1444(a2).”

Judge Tyson dissented, expressing the view that because of the defendant’s various “jurisdictional failures and criminal, civil, and appellate rules violations” he had failed to invoke the jurisdiction of the court, as well as the view that the defendant’s petition for certiorari should have been denied for lacking merit.  Judge Tyson agreed with Judge Berger’s hope that the state supreme court would “return us to the plain language of [G.S.] 15A-1444(a2).”

(1) In this case where the defendant pleaded guilty to felony speeding to elude arrest pursuant to a plea arrangement, he had no statutory right to appeal. 

(2) However, the court considered the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari which argued that he did not receive notice and an opportunity to be heard on the amount of attorney’s fees and costs. The court noted that a criminal defendant may file a petition for a writ of certiorari to appeal a civil judgment for attorney’s fees and costs. Here, after the defendant pleaded guilty to felony speeding to elude arrest he was sentenced and the trial court ordered him to pay court costs in the amount of $1,572.50. Before entering monetary judgments against indigent defendants for fees imposed for court appointed counsel, the trial court should ask defendants personally whether they wish to be heard on the issue. Absent a colloquy directly with the defendant, the requirements of notice and opportunity to be heard will be satisfied only if there is other evidence in the record demonstrating that the defendant received notice, was aware of the opportunity to be heard, and chose not to be heard. Here, nothing in the record indicated that the defendant understood he had a right to be heard on the issue, and the trial court did not inform him of that right. The court thus vacated the civil judgment for attorney’s fees and remanded to the trial court.

The trial court did not err by assigning attorney’s fees to the judgment against the defendant for possession of a firearm by a felon, the payment of which was a condition of the defendant’s probation for that conviction. The defendant argued that the fees should have been assigned to the judgment for discharging a weapon into an occupied dwelling, for which the defendant received a jail sentence and the fees would have been docketed as a civil lien.

The trial court properly denied the Surety’s motion for relief from a bond forfeiture order where the motion was made prior to entry of final judgment and was not based on one of the seven grounds for relief enumerated in G.S. 15A-544.5(b).  The basis for the Surety’s motion for relief was that the clerk did not provide notice of the bond forfeiture within the 30-day period after the date the defendant failed to appear as required by G.S. 15A-544.4(e).  Failure to provide timely notice of a bond forfeiture is not among the seven “reasons for set aside” enumerated in G.S. 15A-544.5, the statute which is the exclusive avenue of relief from a bond forfeiture when the forfeiture has not yet become a final judgment.  The court noted that G.S. 15A-544.8 permits a trial court to set aside a final judgment of forfeiture on the grounds of untimely notice.

The trial court had no statutory authority to enter a bail bond forfeiture where the defendant was not “released” from custody within the meaning of Article 26 of G.S. Chapter 15A because he was subject to an ICE detainer, was picked up by federal agents, and was deported to Mexico.  In 2018, the defendant was charged with a felony and a $100,000 secured bond was set as a condition of his pretrial release.  The defendant and his surety posted the bond, but the defendant was not released.  Instead, he was held for about 24 hours until ICE agents took him into custody directly from deputies from the Granville County Sheriff’s Office and eventually deported him.  Because he had been deported, the defendant failed to appear at trial and, consequently, the trial court entered a bond forfeiture order.  The surety filed a petition for remission of forfeiture under the “extraordinary circumstances” provision of G.S. 15A-544.8(b)(2).  The trial court denied the petition and the court of appeals reversed.  Saying that the case was one of first impression, the court conducted plain-language statutory interpretation and summarized that analysis as follows:

The bond forfeiture statutes apply only to “a defendant who was released” under those statutes. Lemus was never released. Therefore, the trial court had no authority to conduct a forfeiture proceeding and should have granted the petition to set aside the forfeiture for that reason.

 The court went on to reject various procedural and policy arguments advanced by the school board as to why the forfeiture was properly ordered.

Because the trial court’s order setting aside a bond forfeiture failed to make material findings of fact, conclusions of law, or any ruling as to whether a bail agent’s motion to set aside the forfeiture should be considered and set aside under G.S. 15A-544.5(b)(7), rather than under subsection (b)(6), the court vacated the order and remanded for entry of a new order addressing this issue.  On 31 October 2018 the defendant failed to appear in Cumberland County Superior Court on two criminal charges.  It was undisputed that the defendant was in federal custody in Virginia on that date.  After a Bond Forfeiture Notice was issued, the bail agent filed a motion to set aside the forfeiture and checked Box 6 on AOC-CR-213, which corresponds to G.S. 15A-544.5(b)(6), indicating that the basis for the motion was that the defendant was incarcerated within the borders of North Carolina.  As developed at a hearing on the motion, it appeared that the bail agent meant to check Box 7 of AOC-CR-213, which corresponds to G.S. 15A-544.5(b)(7) (generally providing as a basis for a motion to set aside that the defendant was incarcerated anywhere within the borders of the United States).  It also appeared that the trial court may have intended to treat the motion as one under subsection (b)(7) and to grant relief under that subsection.  The order drafted by the school board’s attorney and signed by the trial court did not reflect this apparent intent.  As entered, the order failed to identify a permissible ground for setting aside the bond forfeiture under G.S. 15A-544.5(b) and the court vacated the order for that reason and remanded for additional findings and a determination on the subsection (b)(7) issue.

The defendant’s bond was forfeited after he failed to appear for court. After the defendant was served with an order for arrest for failing to appear, the surety on his bond (1st Atlantic Surety Company) filed a motion to set aside the forfeiture pursuant to G.S. 15A-544.5. The motion was signed by a corporate officer of the surety who was not an attorney. The local Board of Education, as a party in interest on the forfeiture, objected on the grounds that filing the motion was the unauthorized practice of law. The trial court agreed and denied the surety’s motion, and the appellate court affirmed its ruling. Although a surety is permitted to file such a motion under the statute, it is a legal document and petition for use in court and therefore filing it constitutes the practice of law. While an individual bond agent could have filed this motion pro se, G.S. 84-5 dictates that a corporation must appear in court through a licensed attorney and cannot proceed pro se.

The trial court also granted the board’s motion for sanctions against the surety, as allowed by the statute if the motion to set aside the bond forfeiture “was not signed.” The appellate court reversed this part of the order, holding that although the corporate officer’s signature on the motion was not authorized, that is not the equivalent of a motion bearing no signature at all.

In this bond forfeiture case, the trial court erred by granting the sureties relief from a bond forfeiture before the date of the forfeited bond’s final judgment.  The court first determined that the Board of Education’s appeal of the trial court’s grant of relief was timely as it was filed two days after the trial court’s entry of final judgment on the sureties’ motion to strike the forfeited bond, which, the court concluded, occurred upon the entry of the trial court’s written order granting relief rather than upon an earlier oral ruling.  Turning to the merits, the court held that because G.S. 15A-544.5 is the exclusive avenue of relief from a bond forfeiture where the forfeiture has not yet become a final judgment, the trial court erred by granting relief under G.S. 15A-301, a statute that grants judicial officials the authority to recall criminal process in certain circumstances.  By its terms, G.S. 15A-544.5 clearly and unambiguously instructs that it is the exclusive avenue of relief from a bond forfeiture that has not yet become a final judgment.  The trial court’s order specifically stated that none of the seven reasons for setting aside a forfeiture enumerated in G.S. 15A-544.5 existed in this case, and it was error to rely on G.S. 15A-301 as an alternative source of authority.

The trial court did not err by allowing the Surety’s motion to set aside a bond forfeiture. The motion to set aside asserted as a reason that the defendant had been served with an order for arrest for the failure to appear on the criminal charge as evidenced by a copy of an official court record. The court first concluded that in the bond forfeiture proceeding, the trial court did not err by taking judicial notice of the file as evidence that the defendant was served with the order of arrest. A trial court may take judicial notice of earlier proceedings in the same case, including matters in the file not offered into evidence. Here, the trial court took judicial notice of a fact beyond a reasonable controversy. It is undisputed that the defendant was served with the order for arrest before the 150-day deadline for filing a notice to set aside a forfeiture expired and the trial court attached the order for arrest as an exhibit to the court’s order.

     The court went on to reject the Board’s argument that the trial court committed reversible error by granting the Surety’s motion to amend the motion to set aside the bond forfeiture and attach a copy of the order for arrest after expiration of the 150-day deadline for filing the notice. The Surety’s original motion contained a copy of the initial warrant for arrest in the case, not the order for arrest issued after the failure to appear. A bond forfeiture proceeding, while ancillary to the underlying criminal proceeding, is a civil matter to which the Rules of Civil Procedure apply. Under those rules, leave to amend a pleading shall be freely given except when the objecting party can show material prejudice. In this case no undue prejudice was shown; in so holding the court noted that the Surety offered to pay the Board’s attorney’s fees incurred in connection with the hearing.

The trial court erred by partially granting the surety’s motion for relief from bond forfeiture. The defendant absconded during trial while subject to pretrial release conditions of electronic monitoring and a $50,000 secured bond. After a final judgment of forfeiture was entered, the surety filed a petition for remission, arguing that there were extraordinary circumstances that would justify relief. The trial court found that extraordinary circumstances existed and ordered the County Board of Education to remit $7,500 to the surety. The Board appealed, arguing that the surety’s motion did not comply with G.S. 15A-544.8 and that the trial court erred in granting the motion. The court agreed. Under G.S. 15A-544.8, a court may grant relief from a final judgment of forfeiture only when extraordinary circumstances exist that the court, in its discretion, determine should entitle the person to relief or when notice was not properly given to the person seeking relief. The statute requires that a motion for relief state reasons and set forth evidence supporting each reason. Here, the surety’s motion merely alleged that “there were extraordinary circumstances” warranting relief “said circumstances to be presented via affidavit and/or testimony at the hearing on this Motion.” The surety failed to comply with the statutory requirement to set forth evidence. Because of the deficiencies in the motion, the trial court had no grounds on which to grant the motion and it should have been summarily denied

Over a dissent, the court held that the trial court erred by allowing a motion to set aside a bond forfeiture filed by the bail agent on behalf of the surety. Because the record establishes that at the time the surety posted the bond, it had actual notice that the defendant previously had failed to appear in the same matter the trial court was prohibited by statute from setting aside the bond forfeiture. When the defendant failed to appear in district court an order for arrest was issued, indicating that this was the defendant’s second or subsequent failure to appear on the charges. The defendant was served with the order for arrest and released on a secured bond posted by the bail agent in the amount of $16,000. The release order also explicitly indicated that this was the defendant’s second or subsequent failure to appear in the case. When the defendant again failed to appear, the trial court ordered the bond forfeited. A motion to set aside asserted that the defendant had been surrendered by a surety on the bail bond. At the hearing on the motion, the bail agent presented a letter from the sheriff’s office stating that the defendant had been surrendered. The trial court allowed the motion to set aside. The Board of Education appealed, arguing that the trial court was statutorily barred from setting aside the bond forfeiture and that no competent evidence supported the trial court’s decision to set aside. The Court of Appeals agreed, noting in part that while the statute allows a forfeiture to be set aside where the defendant has been surrendered by a surety, it explicitly prohibits setting aside a bond forfeiture “for any reason in any case in which the surety or the bail agent had actual notice before executing a bail bond that the defendant had already failed to appear on two or more prior occasions in the case for which the bond was executed.” G.S. 15A-544.5(f). Here, both the order for arrest and the release order expressly indicated the defendant’s second or subsequent failure to appear on the charges. Thus, the bail agent had actual notice and the trial court lacked authority to set aside the forfeiture for any reason.

The trial court lacked statutory authority to reduce the bond forfeiture amount. After the defendant failed to appear, the clerk of court issued a bond forfeiture notice in the amount of $2,000. A bail agent filed a motion to set aside the bond forfeiture. However, the motion de did not indicate the reason for setting aside the forfeiture. A document attached to the motion indicated that the defendant was incarcerated. The Board of Education objected to the motion to set aside. Following a hearing, the trial court denied the surety’s motion to set aside, finding that it had not established one of the statutory reasons for setting aside the forfeiture. Despite denying the motion, the trial court verbally reduced the amount of the bond forfeiture from $2,000 to $300. The Board of Education appealed, arguing that the trial court lacked authority to reduce the amount of the bond forfeiture after denying the motion to set aside. On appeal, the surety did not argue that the motion to set aside should have been allowed; rather, it asserted that the trial court had discretion to reduce the bond forfeiture amount. The court concluded that the trial court did not have authority under G.S. 15A-544.5 to reduce the amount owed by the surety. The court reasoned that under G.S. 15A-544.5, the trial court may only grant relief from the forfeiture for the reasons listed in the statute, and the only relief it may grant is the setting aside of the forfeiture. Here, having denied the motion to set aside, the trial court had no authority to grant partial relief by reducing the amount owed on the bond.

The trial court erred by granting a motion to set aside a bond forfeiture. When the defendant failed to appear in district court, the trial court issued a bond forfeiture notice. The bail agent filed a motion to set aside the forfeiture. However, on the preprinted form used for such motions the bail agent did not check any of the seven exclusive reasons under the statute, G.S. 15A-544.5, for setting aside a bond forfeiture. In addition to the motion, the bail agent submitted a letter stating that it had “been putting forth efforts to locate [the defendant]” but had been unsuccessful in doing so despite spending “$150 checking leads as to where and how” to locate the defendant. The Board of Education objected to the motion. The trial court allowed the surety’s motion to set aside. On appeal, the court held that the trial court erred in allowing the motion to set aside because the surety failed to demonstrate a legally sufficient reason to set aside under the statute. No box was checked on the relevant form and the reasons asserted in the letter attached to the motion did not fall within any of the seven exclusive statutory reasons for setting aside a forfeiture.

Over a dissent, the court held that where a motion to set aside the forfeiture of an appearance bond did not contain the required documentation to support a ground in G.S. 15A-544.5, the trial court lacked statutory authority to set aside the forfeiture. When the defendant failed to appear on a $30,000 bond, the trial judge ordered that the bond be forfeited. A bail agent for the surety moved to set aside the forfeiture, asserting that the defendant had been surrendered. Specifically, the motion stated that the “defendant has been surrendered by a surety on the bail bond as provided by G.S. 15A-540, as evidenced by the attached ‘Surrender of Defendant By Surety’ (AOC-CR-214)” (ground (b)(3) under G.S. 15A-544.5). However, no AOC form was attached to the motion. Instead, an ACIS printout was attached. The printout pertained to a traffic offense but included no reference to the case in which the bond was forfeited; nor did the printout indicate that the defendant had been surrendered. The information in the ACIS printout does not meet the requirement of a sheriff’s receipt contemplated by the statute.

(1) Even though the surety’s name was not listed on the first page of form AOC-CR-201 (Appearance Bond for Pretrial Release) the surety was in fact the surety on a $570,000.00 bond, where among other things, the attached power of attorney named the surety and the surety collected the premium on the bond and did not seek to return it until 3 years later when the trial court ordered a forfeiture. (2) The trial court did not err by concluding that the surety’s exclusive remedy for relief from a final judgment of forfeiture is an appeal pursuant to G.S. 15A-544.8. (3) The trial court did not err in granting the Board monetary sanctions against the surety and the bondsmen pursuant to G.S. 15A-544.5(d)(8). The court rejected the surety’s argument that the Board’s sanctions motion was untimely. (4) The trial court properly considered the relevant statutory factors before imposing monetary sanctions against the surety under G.S. 15A-544.5(d)(8) where there was no evidence that the surety’s failure to attach the required documentation was unintentional. (5) The trial court did not abuse its discretion by imposing a monetary sanction of $285,000 on the surety.

The trial court did not err by denying the surety’s motion to set aside a bond forfeiture when the trial court’s ruling was properly based on G.S. 15A-544.5(f) (no forfeiture may be set aside when the surety had actual notice before executing a bond that the defendant had already failed to appear on two or more prior occasions in the case for which the bond was executed). 

(1) The trial court did not err by denying the surety’s motion to set aside a bond forfeiture when the defendant was not surrendered until 9:40 pm on the day the 150-day time limit in G.S. 15A-544.5 expired and the surety’s motion to set aside was not filed until the next day. The court rejected the surety’s argument that the 150-day period should not expire when the courthouse closes, but should be extended until 11:59 pm. (2) The trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to fully remit the forfeited amount pursuant to G.S. 15A-544.8(b)(2). The surety had argued that because the trial court found extraordinary circumstances warranting partial remission, remission should be in full unless the trial court makes specific findings supporting partial remission, but cited no authority for this proposition.

The county school board’s notice of appeal from a judge’s order affirming the Clerk’s ruling setting aside bond forfeitures divested the Clerk and trial court of jurisdiction to enter a second forfeiture while the appeal was pending.

(1) A bail agent may file a motion to set aside a forfeiture. (2) Filing such a motion by a bail agent does not constitute unauthorized practice of law. (3) A bail agent may appear pro se at a hearing on a motion to set aside forfeiture if the agent has a financial liability to the surety as a result of the bond. However, a bail agent may not appear at the motion hearing in court to represent the corporate surety.

A probation violation was a separate case from the original criminal charges for purposes of G.S. 15A-544.6(f) (providing that no more than two forfeitures may be set aside in any case).

The trial court properly denied the surety’s motion to set aside a bond forfeiture under G.S. 15A-544.5(b)(7) (defendant incarcerated at the time of the failure to appear). The statute refers to a one continuous period of incarceration beginning at the time of the failure to appear and ending no earlier than 10 days after the date that the district attorney is notified of the incarceration. In this case, the period of incarceration was not continuous.

State v. Allen, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec. 17, 2019) temp. stay granted, ___ N.C. ___, 836 S.E.2d 654 (Dec 23 2019)

After selling one pill of buprenorphine to a confidential informant working with the sheriff’s office on October 22, 2015, the defendant was charged with (i) sale, (ii) delivery, and (iii) possession with intent to sell and deliver a Schedule IV substance, as well as (iv) keeping or maintaining a vehicle for the purpose of selling buprenorphine, and (v) being an habitual felon. While awaiting trial, the defendant was involuntarily committed on three occasions, and twice found not capable of proceeding. The defendant was found to have intellectual disabilities that were exacerbated by severe abuse and neglect during his childhood, along with an opiate abuse and bipolar disorder, and he was unable to live independently or maintain a job. Although a prior examination had concluded that the defendant was not likely to regain his capacity to proceed, his third evaluation determined that he had regained capacity. After conducting a hearing on August 23, 2017, the trial court concluded that the defendant was competent to stand trial. Six months later, which was eight months after his last competency evaluation, defendant’s trial commenced. Defendant was convicted of the three sale, delivery, and possession offenses, and he pleaded guilty to having attained habitual felon status.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by not holding another competency hearing before starting his trial, and the appellate court agreed. A trial judge’s determination of competency is reviewed for abuse of discretion, and it is conclusive on appeal if it is supported by competent evidence. However, a defendant’s competency can change over time, and in this case there was a bona fide doubt as to defendant’s competency at the time of trial. It was therefore error for the trial court not to conduct another hearing closer to the date of trial. In addition to the defendant’s history of mental illness and prior commitments noted above, the appellate court also based its decision on defense counsel’s reluctance to agree that the defendant was competent, the defendant’s pattern of noncompliance with treatment recommendations, and his unclear answers during the plea colloquy on his habitual felon status. Taken together, these factors raised “a legitimate question as to whether the psychiatric evaluation accurately reflected Defendant’s capacity eight months later.” The case was remanded for the trial court to conduct a retrospective competency hearing, if possible. If a retrospective hearing is no longer possible, the conviction is reversed and a new trial may be held when defendant is found competent.

The case was also remanded for correction of two clerical errors. First, the trial court’s written order incorrectly stated that it was arresting judgment on the charge of selling a controlled substance, when in fact judgment was arrested on the charge of delivery of a controlled substance. Second, the judgment incorrectly listed buprenorphine as a Schedule IV controlled substance, but it was actually a Schedule III drug at the time of the offense.

After the third day of her embezzlement trial, the defendant took 60 Xanax pills in apparent intentional overdose and suicide attempt. The defendant was taken for an involuntary commitment evaluation and the trial was postponed until the following week. When the trial resumed, the defendant was still in the hospital for evaluation and treatment. Over the defendant’s objection, the trial judge ruled that pursuant to State v. Minyard, 231 N.C. App. 605 (2014), the defendant was voluntarily absent by her own actions and the trial would continue. The defense made a pro forma motion to dismiss at the close of the state’s evidence, but not on the grounds of either her absence or her competency. The defendant was convicted of three counts of embezzlement and sentenced a few days later when she returned to court. The judgments were later amended, again in the defendant’s absence, to correct a clerical error regarding the offense dates. 

On appeal, the defense argued that the trial court erred by failing to order a competency hearing sua sponte after the defendant’s apparent suicide attempt. The Court of Appeals disagreed and held that it was not error to continue the trial in the defendant’s absence or decline to order a competency hearing. Under Minyard, the defendant was voluntarily absent and thus waived her right to be present for trial; the fact that it may have been an attempted suicide does not change that analysis. The court is only required to examine competency sua sponte if there is substantial evidence before it that defendant may be incompetent. Based on a review of the record as a whole, the appellate court was not persuaded that the defendant’s suicide attempt was a result of mental illness rather than a voluntary act intended to avoid facing prison. The Court of Appeals further held that it was not error to amend the judgments in defendant’s absence. The changes only corrected clerical errors and did not change the sentences actually imposed, so the defendant did not have to be present.

In 2007, the defendant shot and killed one victim, a family friend, and seriously injured a second victim, his mother. After he was arrested and charged with murder and attempted murder, the defendant was evaluated and found to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and substance abuse disorder, rendering him unable to assist in his own defense and incompetent to stand trial. The state dismissed the charges with leave to reinstate. The defendant was re-evaluated by two doctors in 2015 and 2016, and both doctors concluded that the defendant had substantially improved in response to medication and treatment and was now competent to proceed. Based on the new evaluations and a joint motion from the defense and the state, the court declared the defendant competent. The state reinstated the criminal charges and the defendant proceeded to trial, where he was convicted of murder and attempted murder. On appeal, the defense argued that the trial court erred by not ordering another competency assessment sua sponte, in light of the defendant’s history and mental condition. Based on the record as a whole, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err. Although the defendant still appeared to hold a number of delusional beliefs, “irrational beliefs and nonsensible positions” do not, by themselves, raise a bona fide doubt about competency. The trial court heard testimony from two doctors opining that the defendant was competent, and the defendant demonstrated that he was able to confer with his counsel, assist in his defense, engage in colloquies with the court on legal issues, make a knowing and voluntary waiver of his right to remain silent, and testify “lucidly and at length on his own behalf.” Therefore, the defense failed to demonstrate that there was substantial evidence he was incompetent during the trial, and the trial court did not err by declining to order another competency hearing sua sponte.

State v. Hollars, ___ N.C. App. ___, 833 S.E.2d 5 (Aug. 6, 2019) temp. stay granted, ___ N.C. ___, 831 S.E.2d 92 (Aug 21 2019)

In this indecent liberties and sex offense case, the court held, over a dissent, that the trial court erred by failing to hold a competency hearing sua sponte immediately prior to or during the defendant’s trial.  Where there is substantial evidence before the trial court that raises a bona fide doubt as to a defendant’s competency, the trial court has a constitutional duty to conduct a competency hearing.  Under the court’s precedent, evidence of a defendant’s irrational behavior, his demeanor at trial, and any prior medical opinion on competence to stand trial are all relevant to a bona fide doubt inquiry.  The defendant’s numerable prior forensic evaluations indicated that he suffered from a range of diagnosed mental health disorders, and other medical evidence suggested that the defendant’s mental stability could drastically deteriorate over a brief period of time.  There was a five-month gap between the defendant’s competency hearing and his trial.  At trial, the defendant’s counsel raised the issue of the defendant’s competency with the trial court after becoming concerned due to his behavior, but the trial court did not thereafter engage in an extended colloquy with the defendant to explore this concern.  Under the totality of the circumstances, this evidence gave rise to a bona fide doubt regarding the defendant’s competency.  A dissenting judge would have held that there was no bona fide doubt as to the defendant’s competency, noting, among other things, that there was no evidence in the record of irrational behavior or change in demeanor by the defendant during trial and faulting the majority for resting its reasoning “almost entirely on [the defendant’s] prior competency evaluations.”

In this drug trafficking case, the trial court erred by failing to appoint an expert to investigate the defendant’s competency to stand trial. Prior to the start of trial, defense counsel expressed concern about the defendant having fallen asleep in the courtroom. The trial court conducted a discussion with the defendant and defense counsel and ruled that the defendant was competent to proceed to trial. The colloquy revealed, among other things, that the defendant was having difficulty hearing and understanding the judge and that the defendant took over 25 medications daily in connection with a heart condition and being diagnosed as a bipolar schizophrenic. Defense counsel related never having seen the defendant so lethargic. Although the defendant seemed to understand the charges against him and possible sentences he might receive, he had little memory of meeting with counsel prior to trial. After the trial began, defense counsel informed the court that the defendant was sleeping during the trial. The court concluded that the evidence indicated a significant possibility at the time of trial that the defendant was incompetent, requiring the trial court to appoint an expert to ascertain whether the defendant was competent to proceed to trial. The court noted that its holding was based on “long-standing legal principles” and that it “should not be interpreted as articulating a new rule or standard.” It was careful to state that the trial court is not required to order a competency evaluation in every case where a criminal defendant is drowsy or suffers from mental or physical illness.

Where the defendant voluntarily ingested a large quantity of sedative, hypnotic or anxiolytic medications and alcohol during jury deliberations of his non-capital trial, the trial court did not err by failing to conduct a sua sponte competency hearing. The court relied on the fact that the defendant voluntarily ingested the intoxicants in a short period of time apparently with the intent of affecting his competency.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his due process rights were violated when the trial court failed to sua sponte conduct a second competency hearing. The court held that the record demonstrated the defendant’s competency, that there was no evidence that his competency was temporal in nature, and that the trial court did not err by failing to sua sponte conduct another competency hearing. It further found that the trial court’s findings were supported by competent evidence.

(1) The trial court did not err by failing to inquire, sua sponte, about the defendant’s competency after he was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric unit during trial. After the defendant failed to appear in court mid-trial and defense counsel was unable to explain his absence, the defendant was tried in absentia. Later during trial, defense counsel obtained information indicating that the defendant might have been committed, but was unable to confirm that. Evidence produced in connection with the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) established that he in fact had been committed at that time. However, during trial, there was no evidence that the defendant had a history of mental illness and the defendant’s conduct in court indicated that he was able to communicate clearly and with a reasonable degree of rational understanding. While the trial court had information indicating that the defendant might have been committed, defense counsel was unable to confirm that information. Furthermore, at the MAR hearing defense counsel maintained he had no reason to believe anything was wrong with the defendant and thought the defendant’s hospitalization was part of a plan to avoid prosecution. (2) The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s MAR which asserted that the defendant was incompetent to stand trial. Adequate evidence supported the trial court’s determination that the defendant was malingering.

The trial court erred by failing to sua sponte order a hearing to evaluate the defendant’s competency to stand trial. Although no one raised an issue of competency, a trial court has a constitutional duty to sua sponte hold a competency hearing if there is substantial evidence indicating that the defendant may be incompetent. Here, that standard was satisfied. The defendant proffered evidence of his extensive mental health treatment history and testimony from a treating psychiatrist showing that he has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, anti-social personality disorder, and cocaine dependency in remission. Additionally, his conduct before and during trial suggests a lack of capacity, including, among other things, refusing to get dressed for trial and nonsensically interrupting. The court rejected the remedy of a retrospective competency hearing and ordered a new trial.

The trial court erred by failing to sua sponte inquire into the defendant’s competency. In light of the defendant’s history of mental illness, including paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, her remarks that her appointed counsel was working for the State and that the trial court wanted her to plead guilty, coupled with her irrational behavior in the courtroom, constituted substantial evidence and created a bona fidedoubt as to competency. The court rejected the State’s argument that the trial court did in fact inquire into competency when, after defense counsel mentioned that she had recently undergone surgery and was taking pain medication, the trial court asked the defendant and counsel whether the medication was impairing her ability to understand the proceedings or her decision to reject the plea bargain offered by the State. Both replied in the negative. The trial court also asked the defendant about her ability to read and write and whether she understood the charges against her. However, this inquiry pertained only to effects of the pain medication. More importantly, it was not timely given that the defendant’s refusal to return to the courtroom and resulting outbursts occurred two days later. The court remanded for a determination of whether a meaningful retrospective competency hearing could be held.

The trial court abused its discretion by denying defense counsel’s motion requesting that the defendant be evaluated by a mental health professional to determine competency. At the call of the case for trial, defense counsel made a motion, supported by an affidavit by defense counsel and prior mental health evaluation reports, questioning the defendant’s capacity to proceed and seeking an assessment of his competency by a mental health professional. After conducting a hearing on the motion and considering the documentary evidence and arguments presented, the trial court denied the motion. Reviewing those materials, the court concluded that “[t]he entirety of the evidence presented . . . indicated a ‘significant possibility’ that defendant may have been incompetent . . . , necessitating the trial court to appoint an expert or experts to inquire into defendant’s mental health”. The court noted that when the a trial court conducts a proper competency hearing but abuses its discretion in proceeding to trial in light of the evidence indicating the defendant’s incompetency to proceed, the proper remedy is to vacate the judgment and remand the case for a new trial if and when the defendant is properly determined competent to proceed with trial. However, in this case a defense witness, Dr. Corvin, testified on direct examination that “there has been a time during my evaluation where I was somewhat concerned about [defendant’s current competency to stand trial], although not currently.” The court noted that defense counsel did not question Dr. Corvin on the issue of competency. It concluded: “Given Dr. Corvin’s presence at trial and his testimony that he was not currently concerned with defendant’s competency to stand trial, we fail to see how the trial court’s error prejudiced defendant.”

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his due process rights were violated when the trial judge failed to provide him with a hearing before ordering an examination of his capacity to proceed. G.S. 15A-1002 does not require the trial judge to conduct a hearing before such an examination. A defendant may request a hearing after the examination but failure to do so—as happened here—constitutes a waiver.

The defendant was competent to stand trial and to represent himself. As to competency to stand trial, the defendant had several competency evaluations and hearings; the court rejected the defendant’s argument that a report of the one doctor who opined that he was incompetent was determinative of the issue, noting that numerous other doctors opined that he was malingering. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that even after several competency hearings, the trial court erred by failing to hold another competency hearing when the defendant disrupted the courtroom, noting in part that four doctors had opined that the defendant’s generally disruptive behavior was volitional. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that even if he was competent to stand trial, the trial court erred by allowing him to proceed pro se. The court found Indiana v. Edwards inapplicable because here--and unlike in Edwards--the trial court granted the defendant’s request to proceed pro se. Also, the defendant did not challenge the validity of the waiver of counsel colloquy.

When assessing whether a defendant is charged with a violent crime pursuant to G.S. 15A-1003(a) and in connection with an involuntary commitment determination, courts may consider the elements of the charged offense and the underlying facts giving rise to the charge. However, the fact-based analysis applies only with respect to determining whether the crime involved assault with a deadly weapon. The court held:

[F]or purposes of [G.S.] 15A-1003(a), a “violent crime” can be either one which has as an element “the use, attempted use, threatened use, or substantial risk of use of physical force against the person or property of another[,]” or a crime which does not have violence as an element, but assault with a deadly weapon was involved in its commission.

Slip Op. at 10 (citation omitted). Here, the defendant was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon and resisting an officer. Because violence is not an element of either offense, neither qualifies as a violent crime under the elements-based test. However, applying the fact-based analysis, the commission of the offenses involved an assault with a deadly weapon. The fact that the defendant stated that he wasn’t going with the officers, that he ran into a bedroom and stood within reach of a loaded revolver, and that he resisted while being handcuffed and removed showed an unequivocal appearance of an attempt, with force and violence, to do some immediate physical injury to the officers.

In this child sexual assault case, the defendant failed to show prejudice caused by the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion for a continuance. That motion asserted that the district attorney did not file an adequate trial calendar 10 or more days before trial in violation of G.S. 7A-49.4(e). In July 2016, the trial court entered an order setting the case for trial on 14 November 2016. The case however was continued several times until the eventual 24 July 2017 trial date. The case also was placed on what the State calls a “trial session calendar” more than 10 days before the trial. However that calendar included more than a dozen criminal cases set for trial on 24 July 2017, listed in alphabetical order by the defendants’ last names. The defendant argued that this calendar does not comply with the statute because it does not list cases “in the order in which the district attorney anticipates they will be called for trial” and, given the number of complicated criminal cases on the list, necessarily includes cases that the DA does not reasonably expect to be called for trial that day. The defendant argued that the “true trial calendar” was a document filed 11 July 2017 and emailed to defense counsel on 12 July 2017. That document, entitled “Trial Order the Prosecutor Anticipates Cases to be Called,” listed the defendant’s case as the first case for trial on 24 July 2017. The defendant argues that this trial calendar did not give him 10 days notice before trial. The court agreed that the 11 July 2017 document is the only trial calendar that complies with the statute and that it was not published 10 or more days before the trial date. However, it concluded that the defendant did not show that he was prejudiced by the failure to receive the required notice. In so holding, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that he is not required to show prejudice. Here, the defendant argued that with more time he may have been able to call witnesses who would have established how the victim’s story changed over time and that she was coached. This however was speculation, as the defendant failed to produce any evidence that the witnesses would have so testified. Likewise, he did not assert that the trial court denied him the opportunity to make an offer of proof or build a record of what testimony these witnesses would have provided. Thus, no prejudice was shown.

In this armed robbery case involving a jewelry store heist, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that collateral estoppel precluded the admission of a receipt, identified at trial by witness Kristy Riojas of Got Gold pawn shop. The receipt, issued on the date of the offense, contained an itemized list of the items the defendant pawned, a copy of the defendant’s driver’s license, and the defendant’s signature. It was introduced to establish that the defendant was in possession of the stolen property shortly after it was taken, under the doctrine of recent possession. The defendant argued that the ticket was not admissible because the defendant previously had been acquitted on the charge of obtaining property by false pretenses, based on pawning jewelry at Got Gold. The defendant argued that based on his prior acquittal, the State was collaterally estopped from introducing the pawn shop receipt at his later trial for armed robbery to establish recent possession. The defendant did not dispute that he could be prosecuted for the robbery, notwithstanding his prior acquittal. Instead, he focused on the admissibility of evidence that was admitted in the prior trial. The court rejected the defendant’s argument, concluding that he could not establish that his acquittal of obtaining property by false pretenses represented a determination by the jury that he was not in possession of stolen property shortly after it was taken. The court noted, in part, that the doctrine of recent possession, which allows the jury to infer guilt based upon possession of stolen goods shortly after a theft, includes no requirement that the defendant made a false representation about the goods, attempt to obtain something of value, or deceive another party about ownership of the items.

The trial court properly applied the doctrine of collateral estoppel when it denied the defendant’s second motion to suppress. The defendant was in possession of a bag containing two separate Schedule I substances, Methylone and 4-Methylethcathinone. He was charged with possession with intent to manufacture, sell or deliver Methylone (Charge 1) and with possession with intent to manufacture, sell or deliver Methylethcathinone (Charge 2). Before trial he filed a motion to suppress, which was denied. He was convicted on both counts. On appeal, the court affirmed his conviction on the first charge but vacated the second because of a defective indictment. The State then re-indicted on the second charge. The then defendant filed a motion to suppress that was functionally identical to the motion to suppress filed before his first trial. The trial court denied the second motion based on the doctrine of collateral estoppel. The defendant was tried and found guilty. The trial court properly applied the doctrine of collateral estoppel when it denied the defendant’s second motion where the parties and the issues raised by the motions were the same; the issues were raised and fully litigated during the hearing on the first motion; the issue was material and relevant to the disposition of the prior action; and the trial court’s determination was necessary and essential to the final judgment.

State v Todd, ___ N.C. App. ___, 790 S.E.2d 349 (Aug. 16, 2016) rev’d on other grounds, 369 N.C. 707 (Jun 9 2017)

The law of the case doctrine did not prevent the trial court from considering the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief where the issue in question had not been raised or determined in the prior proceeding.

State v. Knight, 245 N.C. App. 532 (Feb. 16, 2016) modified and affirmed on other grounds, 369 N.C. 640 (Jun 9 2017)

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that on a second trial after a mistrial the second trial judge was bound by the first trial judge’s suppression ruling under the doctrine of law of the case. The court concluded that doctrine only applies to an appellate ruling. However, the court noted that another version of the doctrine provides that when a party fails to appeal from the tribunal’s decision that is not interlocutory, the decision below becomes law of the case and cannot be challenged in subsequent proceedings in the same case. However, the court held that this version of the doctrine did not apply here because the suppression ruling was entered during the first trial and thus the State had no right to appeal it. Moreover, when a defendant is retried after a mistrial, prior evidentiary rulings are not binding. (2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the second judge’s ruling was improper because one superior court judge cannot overrule another, noting that once a mistrial was declared, the first trial court’s ruling no longer had any legal effect. (3) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that collateral estoppel barred the State from relitigating the suppression issue, noting that doctrine applies only to an issue of ultimate fact determined by a final judgment.

The trial court did not err when during a retrial in a DWI case it instructed the jury that it could consider the defendant’s refusal to take a breath test as evidence of her guilt even though during the first trial a different trial judge had ruled that the instruction was not supported by the evidence. Citing State v. Harris, 198 N.C. App. 371 (2009), the court held that neither collateral estoppel nor the rule prohibiting one superior court judge from overruling another applies to legal rulings in a retrial following a mistrial. It concluded that on retrial de novo, the second judge was not bound by rulings made during the first trial. Moreover, it concluded, collateral estoppel applies only to an issue of ultimate fact determined by a final judgment. Here, the first judge’s ruling involved a question of law, not fact, and there was no final judgment because of the mistrial.

The trial court did not err by allowing offensive collateral estoppel to establish the underlying felony for the defendant's felony murder conviction. The defendant was charged with felony-murder and an underlying felony of burglary. At the first trial the jury found the defendant guilty of burglary but hung on felony murder. The trial court entered a PJC on the burglary and declared a mistrial as to felony murder. At the retrial, the trial judge instructed the jury with respect to felony murder that "because it has previously been determined beyond a reasonable doubt in a prior criminal proceeding that [the defendant] committed first degree burglary . . . . you should consider that this element [of felony murder (that defendant committed the felony of first degree burglary)] has been proven to you beyond a reasonable doubt." Citing State v. Dial, 122 N.C. App. 298 (1996), the trial court’s instruction was proper.

In this armed robbery case, the trial court did not err in its colloquy with the defendant about the right to testify. The trial court conducted a colloquy with the defendant in which it warned the defendant that he would be subject to cross-examination if he testified at trial, including cross-examination about his prior convictions. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court’s instructions impermissibly chilled his right to testify and incorrectly advised him regarding the scope of cross-examination pertaining to his prior convictions. Reviewing the trial court’s colloquy with the defendant, the court disagreed, finding the advisement was consistent with the use of prior convictions to impeach under Rule 609 and that the trial court accurately informed the defendant about the limiting instruction that would be provided with respect to his prior convictions. 

By failing to object at trial, the defendant waived assertion of any error regarding shackling on appeal. The defendant argued that the trial court violated G.S. 15A-1031 by allowing him to appear before the jury in leg shackles and erred by failing to issue a limiting instruction. The court found the issue waived, noting that “other structural errors similar to shackling are not preserved without objection at trial.” However it continued:

Nevertheless, trial judges should be aware that a decision by a sheriff to shackle a problematic criminal defendant in a jail setting or in transferring a defendant from the jail to a courtroom, is not, without a trial court order supported by adequate findings of fact, sufficient to keep a defendant shackled during trial. Failure to enter such an order can, under the proper circumstances, result in a failure of due process

In a first-degree murder case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion or violate defendant’s constitutional rights by ordering the defendant to be physically restrained during trial after the defendant attempted to escape mid-trial, causing a lockdown of the courthouse.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by requiring the defendant to wear restraints at trial. The defendant, who was charged with murder and other crimes, objected to having to wear a knee brace at trial. The brace was not visible to the jury and made no noise. At a hearing on the issue, a deputy testified that it was “standard operating procedure” to put a murder defendant “in some sort of restraint” whenever he or she was out of the sheriff’s custody. Additionally, the trial court considered the defendant’s past convictions and his five failures to appear, which it found showed “some failure to comply with the [c]ourt orders[.]” The trial court also considered a pending assault charge that arose while the defendant was in custody.

The trial court did not err by requiring the defendant to be restrained during trial.

State v. Lee, 218 N.C. App. 42 (Jan. 17, 2012)

Although the trial court abused its discretion by requiring the defendant to remain shackled during his trial, the error was harmless in light of the trial court’s curative instruction and the overwhelming evidence of guilt. The court “strongly caution[ed] trial courts to adhere to the proper procedures regarding shackling of a defendant” [Author’s note: For the section of the superior court judge’s benchbook outlining the law on this issue here.].

(1) The trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to remove the defendant’s handcuff restraints during trial. The defendant was an incarcerated prisoner charged with possession of drugs at a penal institution. The trial court properly considered the defendant’s past record and reasoned that incarceration for second-degree murder and kidnapping raised safety concerns. (2) Although the trial court erred by failing to give the limiting instruction required by G.S. 15A-1031 regarding the defendant’s restraints, the error was not prejudicial.

In this habitual larceny case where the defendant was sentenced as a habitual felon, the defendant did not establish that his trial counsel did not have authority to stipulate to the prior convictions used to elevate his charge to habitual larceny.  Noting that in other contexts it had expressly rejected attempts to analogize counsel’s stipulation of a prior conviction to counsel’s entry of a guilty plea or admission of a defendant’s guilt to a jury, the latter being decisions which must be made exclusively by the defendant, the court likewise rejected the defendant’s analogy in this case.  Citing a prior decision, the court explained that a defendant’s attorney may stipulate to an element of a charged crime and that an attorney is presumed to have the authority to act on behalf of his or her client during trial, including while stipulating to elements.  The record in this case did not show that the defendant’s attorney acted without his authority with regard to the stipulation.

In a case where the trial court made a pretrial determination of not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), the defendant’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel was violated when the trial court allowed defense counsel to pursue a pretrial insanity defense against her wishes. Against the defendant’s express wishes, counsel moved for a pretrial determination of NGRI pursuant to G.S. 15A-959. The State consented and the trial court agreed, purportedly dismissing the charges based on its determination that the defendant was NGRI. The court noted that the issue whether a competent defendant has a right to refuse to pursue a defense of NGRI is a question of first impression in North Carolina. It determined:

By ignoring Defendant’s clearly stated desire to proceed to trial rather than moving for a pretrial verdict of NGRI pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 15A-959(c), the trial court allowed — absent Defendant’s consent and over her express objection — the “waiver” of her fundamental rights, including the right to decide “what plea to enter, whether to waive a jury trial and whether to testify in [her] own defense[,]” as well as “the right to a fair trial as provided by the Sixth Amendment[,] . . . the right to hold the government to proof beyond a reasonable doubt[,] . . . [and] the right of confrontation[.]” These rights may not be denied a competent defendant, even when the defendant’s choice to exercise them may not be in the defendant’s best interests. In the present case, Defendant had the same right to direct her counsel in fundamental matters, such as what plea to enter, as she had to forego counsel altogether and represent herself, even when Defendant’s choices were made against her counsel’s best judgment. (citations omitted)

It went on to hold:

[B]ecause the decision of whether to plead not guilty by reason of insanity is part of the decision of “what plea to enter,” the right to make that decision “is a substantial right belonging to the defendant.” Therefore, by allowing Defendant’s counsel to seek and accept a pretrial disposition of NGRI, the trial court “deprived [Defendant] of [her] constitutional right to conduct [her] own defense.” We are not called upon to determine how that right should be protected when asserted by a defendant’s counsel at trial but, at a minimum, a defendant’s affirmative declaration that the defendant does not wish to move for a pretrial determination of NGRI must be respected. (quotation and footnote omitted).

The court went on to reject the State’s argument that the defendant could not show prejudice because she was subject to periodic hearings pertaining to her commitment. 

In this assault case, the court held that although the trial court erred by instructing prospective jurors outside of the presence of defense counsel, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. During jury selection the trial court called a recess. While waiting for jury selection to resume and while defense counsel was outside of the courtroom, the trial court gave an instruction to the prospective juror pool. The instruction informed the jurors that they would decide the case based on evidence presented in the courtroom and the law as provided by the trial court. The trial court further informed the jurors that they were not to search for legal definitions on the Internet or do any research on their own. The trial court admonished the jurors that they were not investigators and reiterated that they should not resort to any investigation on their own, legal or otherwise. The defendant was found guilty and appealed, arguing that the trial court committed structural error in violation of the sixth amendment by giving instructions to potential jurors while defense counsel was absent from the courtroom. The State conceded error but argued the error was not structural. The court agreed. It noted that voir dire did not continue during defense counsel’s absence. Instead, the trial court instructed the potential jurors to abstain from site visits or independent research. Neither the court nor the State questioned prospective jurors.

The court went on to conclude that the State had proved that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, noting in part that the trial court gave the jury similar instructions at different times during trial while counsel was present without objection.

Two judges filed concurring opinions. One concurring judge noted that the trial court violated the defendant’s sixth amendment rights by speaking to the jury pool outside the presence of defense counsel and stated: “The court should not have done so, and no trial court should do this again.”

State v. Floyd, 369 N.C. 329 (Dec. 21, 2016)

The court reversed the Court of Appeals’ determination that the defendant was entitled to a new trial based on the trial court’s alleged failure to recognize and address an impasse between the defendant and his attorney during trial. The court concluded that the record did not allow it to determine whether the defendant had a serious disagreement with his attorney regarding trial strategy or whether he simply sought to hinder the proceedings. It remanded for entry of an order dismissing the defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim without prejudice to his right to assert it in a motion for appropriate relief.

In this felon in possession of a firearm case, the defendant was not deprived of effective assistance of counsel when the trial court rejected defense counsel’s attempt to stipulate to the fact that the defendant was a convicted felon where the defendant disagreed with the stipulation. Before trial, the State and defense counsel agreed to stipulate that the defendant had previously been convicted of a felony. After conferring with the defendant, defense counsel told the trial court that the defendant did not want to sign the stipulation. Defense counsel stated that he believed the stipulation was in the defendant’s best interest. The trial court rejected the proposed stipulation. The court noted that the defendant’s argument was premised on a notion rejected by the state high court: that where the defendant and his lawyer reach an impasse regarding a tactical decision, defense counsel’s decision trumps the defendant’s decision. This notion is inconsistent with North Carolina law regarding the absolute impasse rule. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the absolute impasse rule did not apply because he was not fully informed regarding his stipulation and that an absolute impasse had not been established.

The court rejected the defendant’s assertion that counsel was ineffective by failing to state for the record details of an absolute impasse between himself and counsel. Although the defendant initially wanted counsel to make certain admissions in opening statements to the jury, after discussing the issue with counsel he informed the court that he would follow counsel’s advice. The court noted there was neither disagreement regarding tactical decisions nor anything in the record suggesting any conflict between the defendant and defense counsel. Although counsel made statements to the trial court indicating that he was having difficulty believing things that the defendant told him, the court noted: “Defendant points to no authority which would require a finding of an impasse where defense counsel did not believe what a criminal-defendant client told him.”

Where the defendant and counsel reached an impasse regarding whether to cross-examine the State’s DNA analyst witness on an issue of sample contamination in this child sexual assault case, the trial court did not did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights by ruling that it would be improper for counsel to pursue a frivolous line of questioning. Prior to the witness’s testimony, the trial court heard ex parte from the defendant and his lawyer about their disagreement regarding a proposed line of cross-examination of the analyst. The trial court ruled in favor of defense counsel and the trial resumed. The absolute impasse rule does not require an attorney to comply with the client’s request to assert frivolous or unsupported claims. Here, although the defendant wanted to challenge the analyst with respect to contamination, there was no factual basis for such a challenge. The court went on to conclude that even if the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights had been violated, in light of the overwhelming evidence of guilt the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. [Author’s note: for a discussion of the absolute impasse rule, see my Benchbook chapter here.]

An absolute impasse did not occur when trial counsel refused to abide by the defendant’s wishes to pursue claims of prosecutorial and other misconduct that counsel believed to be frivolous. Under the absolute impasse doctrine counsel need only abide by a defendant’s lawful instructions with respect to trial strategy. Here, the impasses was not over tactical decisions, but rather over whether the defendant could compel counsel to file frivolous motions and assert theories that lacked any basis in fact. The court concluded: “Because nothing in our case law requires counsel to present theories unsupported in fact or law, the trial court did not err in failing to instruct counsel to defer to Defendant’s wishes.”

When the defendant and trial counsel reached an absolute impasse regarding the use of a peremptory challenge to strike a juror, the trial court committed reversible error by not requiring counsel to abide by the defendant’s wishes. “It was error for the trial court to allow council’s decision to control when an absolute impasse was reached on this tactical decision, and the matter had been brought to the trial court’s attention.”

Following precedent, the court rejected the defendant’s assertion that counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to assert a fourth amendment claim at the hearing where he was ordered to submit to satellite-based monitoring for life. SBM proceedings are civil and ineffective assistance of counsel claims only can be asserted in criminal matters.

State v. Lane, 365 N.C. 7 (Mar. 11, 2011)

This capital case came back before the N.C. Supreme Court after that court remanded in State v. Lane,362 N.C. 667 (Dec. 12, 2008) (Lane I), for consideration under Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164 (2008), as to whether the trial judge should have exercised discretion to deny the defendant’s request to represent himself. Edwards held that states may require counsel to represent defendants who are competent to stand trial but who suffer from severe mental illness to the extent that they are not competent to represent themselves. At trial, the trial court had accepted the defendant’s waiver of counsel and allowed the defendant to proceed pro se. Following a hearing, held on remand after Lane I, the trial court concluded that the defendant was competent to stand trial and to discharge his counsel and proceed pro se. The N.C. Supreme Court held that because the defendant never was denied his constitutional right to self-representation (he was allowed to proceed pro se), the U.S. “Supreme Court’s holding in Edwards, that the State may deny that right if a defendant falls into the “gray area” of competence, does not guide our decision here.” Slip op. at 22. Rather, the N.C. Supreme Court clarified, because the trial court found the defendant competent to stand trial, the issue was whether the defendant made a knowing and voluntary waiver of his right to counsel. On that issue, and after a detailed review of the trial court’s findings, the court concluded that the trial court’s inquiry was sufficient to support its determination that the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to counsel. In the course of that ruling, the court reaffirmed that a defendant’s technical legal knowledge is not relevant to an assessment of a valid waiver of counsel.

            While Lane I could be read to suggest that the trial court always must undertake an Edwards inquiry before allowing a defendant to proceed pro se, Lane II suggests otherwise. In Lane II, the court clarified the options for the trial court, stating:

For a defendant whose competence is at issue, he must be found [competent] before standing trial. If that defendant, after being found competent, seeks to represent himself, the trial court has two choices: (1) it may grant the motion to proceed pro se, allowing the defendant to exercise his constitutional right to self-representation, if and only if the trial court is satisfied that he has knowingly and voluntarily waived his corresponding right to assistance of counsel . . . ; or (2) it may deny the motion, thereby denying the defendant’s constitutional right to self-representation because the defendant falls into the “gray area” and is therefore subject to the “competency limitation” described in Edwards. The trial court must make findings of fact to support its determination that the defendant is “unable to carry out the basic tasks needed to present his own defense without the help of counsel.” 365 N.C. at 22 (citations omitted).

The defendant was competent to stand trial and to represent himself. As to competency to stand trial, the defendant had several competency evaluations and hearings; the court rejected the defendant’s argument that a report of the one doctor who opined that he was incompetent was determinative of the issue, noting that numerous other doctors opined that he was malingering. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that even after several competency hearings, the trial court erred by failing to hold another competency hearing when the defendant disrupted the courtroom, noting in part that four doctors had opined that the defendant’s generally disruptive behavior was volitional. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that even if he was competent to stand trial, the trial court erred by allowing him to proceed pro se. The court found Indiana v. Edwards inapplicable because here--and unlike in Edwards--the trial court granted the defendant’s request to proceed pro se. Also, the defendant did not challenge the validity of the waiver of counsel colloquy.

Based on assessments from mental health professionals and the defendant’s own behavior, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by ruling that the defendant was competent to represent himself at trial.

No violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel occurred when the trial court found that the defendant forfeited his right to counsel because of serious misconduct and required him to proceed pro se. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that Indiana v. Edwards prohibits a finding of forfeiture by a “gray area” defendant who has engaged in serious misconduct. 

State v. Reid, 204 N.C. App. 122 (May. 18, 2010)

The trial court did not err in allowing the defendant to represent himself after complying with the requirements of G.S. 15A-1242. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his conduct during a pre-trial hearing and at trial indicated that he was mentally ill and not able to represent himself, concluding that the defendant’s conduct did not reflect mental illness, delusional thinking, or a lack of capacity to carry out self-representation under Indiana v. Edwards, 128 S. Ct. 2379 (2008).

Following precedent, the court rejected the defendant’s assertion that counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to assert a fourth amendment claim at the hearing where he was ordered to submit to satellite-based monitoring for life. SBM proceedings are civil and ineffective assistance of counsel claims only can be asserted in criminal matters.

The trial court did not err by failing to appoint counsel for the defendant after his case was remanded from the appellate division and before ordering the defendant to submit to a capacity to proceed evaluation. The court held: “the trial court’s order committing defendant to a competency evaluation was not a critical stage and defendant was not denied his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.”

State v. Clark, 211 N.C. App. 60 (Apr. 19, 2011)

Because a SBM hearing is not a criminal proceeding to which the right to counsel applies, the defendant cannot assert an ineffective assistance of counsel claim as to counsel’s performance at such a hearing.

The court noted in dicta that ineffective assistance of counsel claims are not available in civil appeals, such as that from an SBM eligibility hearing.

State v. Morgan, ___ N.C. App. ___, 814 S.E.2d 843 (Apr. 17, 2018) rev’d in part on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Aug 16 2019)

Because the defendant was not given notice and an opportunity to be heard as to the final amount of attorneys’ fees that would be entered against him, the court vacated the civil judgment entered pursuant to G.S. 7A-455 and remanded to the trial court. At sentencing, the trial court may enter a civil judgment against an indigent defendant for fees incurred by the defendant’s court-appointed attorney. However, before entering judgment the trial court must give the defendant notice and opportunity to be heard regarding the total amount of hours and fees claimed by court-appointed counsel. Although the trial court discussed attorneys fees with the defendant’s appointed attorney in the defendant’s presence, the trial court did not ask the defendant whether he wished to be heard on the issue. Additionally, while the exchange reveals that the appointed lawyer claimed seven hours of work, the record contains no evidence that the defendant was notified of and given an opportunity to be heard regarding the total amount of fees that would be entered.

The trial court erred by entering a civil judgment against the defendant for the attorneys’ fees incurred by his court-appointed counsel under G.S. 7A-455 without providing the defendant with notice and an opportunity to be heard. The court explained, in part:

With respect to counsel fees incurred under § 7A-455, the interests of defendants and their counsel may not always align. Because indigent defendants may feel that the fees charged by counsel were unreasonable in light of the time, effort, or responsibility involved in the case, and because those defendants might reasonably believe—as is the case at various stages of the criminal trial and sentencing—that they may speak only through their counsel, we hold that trial courts must provide criminal defendants, personally and not through their appointed counsel, with an opportunity to be heard before entering a money judgment under § 7A-455. Because [the defendant] was not informed of his right to be heard before the court entered the money judgment in this case, we vacate that judgment and remand for further proceedings.

The court instructed: “[B]efore entering money judgments against indigent defendants for fees imposed by their court-appointed counsel . . . trial courts should ask defendants—personally, not through counsel—whether they wish to be heard on the issue.” It added:

Absent a colloquy directly with the defendant on this issue, the requirements of notice and opportunity to be heard will be satisfied only if there is other evidence in the record demonstrating that the defendant received notice, was aware of the opportunity to be heard on the issue, and chose not to be heard.

The court agreed with the defendant that a civil judgment imposing fees against him must be vacated because neither the defense counsel’s total attorney fee amount nor the appointment fee were discussed in open court with the defendant. The court noted that on remand the State may apply for judgment in accordance with G.S. 7A-455, provided that the defendant is given notice and an opportunity to be heard regarding the total amount of hours and fees claimed for court-appointed counsel. Similarly, although the $60 appointment fee was vacated, that was without prejudice to the State again seeking an appointment fee on remand.

(1) In this sexual assault case the court reversed and remanded for a new trial, finding that even if the defendant had clearly and unequivocally asked to proceed pro se, the record did not establish that the defendant’s waiver of counsel complied with G.S. 15A-1242. The defendant was indicted on multiple sexual assault charges. He later was found to be indigent and Timothy Emry was appointed as counsel. Emry later moved to withdraw claiming that he and the defendant were at an impasse regarding representation. He asserted that the defendant was unwilling to discuss the case with him and the defendant was upset with Emry to asking him to sign a form acknowledging that he understood a plea offer and the consequences of taking or rejecting the plea. At a January hearing on the motion, the State asserted that if Emry was allowed to withdraw, the defendant would be on his fourth lawyer. Emry however clarified that this was inaccurate. The trial court told the defendant that he could have Emry continue as counsel, have the trial court find that the defendant had forfeited his right to counsel, or hire his own lawyer. The defendant opted to proceed pro se and the trial court appointed Emry as standby counsel. A waiver of counsel form was signed and completed. However, on the form the defendant only indicated that he waived his right to assigned counsel, not his right to all assistance of counsel. The case came to trial before a different judge. Although the trial court engaged in a colloquy with the defendant about counsel, the transcript of this event was indecipherable in parts. The defendant was convicted and appealed. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by requiring him to proceed to trial pro se when he did not clearly and unequivocally elect to do so. Although the defendant did say that he wished to represent himself, he only did so after being faced with no other option than to continue with Emry’s representation. The court noted: “This case is a good example of the confusion that can occur when the record lacks a clear indication that a defendant wishes to proceed without representation.” Here, even assuming that the defendant did clearly and unequivocally assert his wish to proceed pro se, he still would be entitled to a new trial because the waiver was not knowing and voluntary as required by G.S. 15A-1242. At the January hearing, after explaining the defendant’s options to him the court asked that the defendant “be sworn to [his] waiver.” At this point the clerk simply asked the defendant if he solemnly swore that he had a right to a lawyer and that he waived that right. This colloquy did not meet the requirements of the statute. The court stated: “The fact that defendant signed a written waiver acknowledging that he was waiving his right to assigned counsel does not relieve the trial court of its duty to go through the requisite inquiry with defendant to determine whether he understood the consequences of his waiver.” Additionally, the written waiver form indicates that the defendant elected only to waive the right to assigned counsel, not the right to all assistance of counsel. With respect to the colloquy that occurred at trial, defects in the transcript made it unclear what the defendant understood about the role of standby counsel. In any event, “simply informing defendant about standby counsel’s role is not an adequate substitute for complying with [the statute].” Additionally, there is no indication that the trial court inquired into whether the defendant understood the nature of the charges and permissible punishments as required by the statute. The court rejected the State’s suggestion that the fact that Emry had informed the defendant about the charges could substitute for the trial court’s obligation to ensure that the defendant understood the nature of the charges and the potential punishments before accepting a waiver of counsel.

(2) The defendant did not engage in conduct warranting forfeiture of the right to counsel. Although the state and the trial court hinted that the defendant was intentionally delaying the trial and that he would be on his fourth attorney after counsel was dismissed, the record indicates that this was an inaccurate characterization of the facts. As explained by Emry, although other attorneys had been listed as the defendant’s counsel at various points early in the proceedings, the defendant received substantial assistance only from Emry. Additionally, nothing in the transcript indicates any type of “flagrant” tactics that would constitute extreme misconduct warranting forfeiture. Specifically, there is no indication that the defendant sought other delays of his trial or that he engaged in any inappropriate behavior either in court or with counsel.

In this drug trafficking case, the trial court did not err by requiring the defendant to represent himself at trial. In September 2013, the defendant appeared before a Superior Court Judge and signed a waiver of counsel form. In December 2013 the defendant appeared before another judge and signed a second waiver of counsel form. On that same day, attorney Palmer filed a notice of limited appearance, limiting his representation of the defendant to pretrial case management. In September 2015 the defendant again appeared in Superior Court. Palmer informed the court that the State “got their labs back” and would be ready to set a trial date. The trial court informed the defendant that if he wanted a court appointed lawyer, he should ask now. Among other things, the trial court informed the defendant of the hazards of proceeding pro se. In response to the judge’s questioning, the defendant indicated that he would hire an attorney for trial. The ADA stated that the case would come on for trial in the middle of the following year. The judge told the defendant he had two months to hire a lawyer and scheduled him to return to court on November 5 with his lawyer to talk about trial date. He expressly warned the defendant not to return in November saying that he did not have a lawyer. On November 5, 2015 the defendant appeared in court without a lawyer. The judge again warned the defendant that it was his responsibility to hire a lawyer and of the hazards of proceeding pro se. On December 10, 2015 the defendant again appeared in court, indicating that he continued to have trouble hiring a lawyer. The court informed the defendant to report back on January 27, and warned the defendant that the trial was soon approaching. In January 2016, the defendant again appeared in court, this time with attorney Byrd. Byrd told the court he was not in a position to make an appearance for the defendant and asked for more time. The judge scheduled the matter to return in February. On February 15, 2016, the trial court reported to the defendant that Mr. Byrd was not ready to make an appearance in his case. He warned the defendant to make arrangements to hire Byrd or someone else because a trial date would be set on March 10. On March 28, 2016, the defendant appeared before a different judge. The State indicated it was ready to proceed to trial. After hearing from the defendant regarding his dealings with various lawyers over the past months, the trial court informed the defendant of his counsel rights and asked the defendant how he intended to proceed. During this colloquy the defendant indicated that he would represent himself. The trial court reset the matter for the next administrative session so that the senior resident judge could address the counsel issue. On April 7, 2016 the case came back in Superior Court. The State requested a July trial date and asked the court to address the counsel issue. The court summarized the prior discussions with the defendant and appointed standby counsel. Proceedings continued in this vein until the defendant’s case came on for trial August 30, 2016. The defendant appeared pro se with standby counsel. The defendant was found guilty and appealed, asserting a violation of his sixth amendment counsel rights. The court disagreed with the defendant’s assertion that the trial court did not adhere to the requirements of G.S. 15A-1242 in procuring his waiver. The court noted, in part:

The trial court gave Defendant years to find an attorney. At each stage the trial court advised and counseled Defendant about his right to an attorney including his right to appointed counsel. The trial court also repeatedly counseled Defendant on the complexity of handling his own jury trial and the fact the judge would not be able to help him. Finally, the trial court repeatedly addressed the seriousness of the charges and advised Defendant a conviction likely meant a life sentence. Despite this, Defendant proceeded to represent himself at trial.

Defendant’s assertion the trial court failed to take any measures to ascertain whether Defendant understood the various difficulties associated with representing himself is without merit. Our review of the record indicates the trial court advised Defendant he would have to adhere to rules of court and evidence. The trial court also informed Defendant the court would not assist Defendant, and Defendant was facing serious charges which could result in a life sentence upon conviction. The record also indicates Defendant repeatedly expressed his understanding of the trial court’s instruction on this issue. We conclude Defendant waived his right to court appointed counsel.

The court went on to hold that even if the defendant’s waiver of counsel was not knowing and voluntary, the defendant forfeited his right to counsel through extended delaying tactics. It explained:

First, Defendant waived his right to assigned counsel in 2013. The trial court repeatedly advised Defendant on the seriousness of the charges and informed Defendant a conviction could lead to a life sentence due to Defendant’s age. Time after time, Defendant stated he intended to hire his own attorney. Defendant made close to monthly appearances in court over a 10-month period, and consistently told the court he wished to hire his own attorney. During these appearances, the trial court asked Defendant at least twice if he needed appointed counsel. Defendant answered by claiming to have sufficient funds to hire an attorney. Additionally, the trial court continued Defendant’s case several times to give Defendant’s attorney time to prepare since Defendant claimed the attorneys he met with did not have adequate time to prepare for trial.

Because defendant engaged in repeated conduct designed to delay and obfuscate the proceedings, including refusing to answer whether he wanted the assistance of counsel, he forfeited his right to counsel. Citing State v. Leyshon, 211 N.C. App. 511 (2011), the court began by holding that defendant did not waive his right to counsel. When asked whether he wanted a lawyer, defendant replied that he did not and, alternatively, when the trial court explained that defendant would proceed without counsel, defendant objected and stated he was not waiving any rights. Defendant's statements about whether he waived his right to counsel were sufficiently equivocal such that they did not constitute a waiver of the right to counsel. However, defendant forfeited his right to counsel. In addition to refusing to answer whether he wanted assistance of counsel at three separate pretrial hearings, defendant repeatedly and vigorously objected to the trial court's authority to proceed. Although defendant on multiple occasions stated that he did not want assistance of counsel, he also repeatedly made statements that he was reserving his right to seek Islamic counsel, although over the course of four hearings and about 3½ months he never obtained counsel. As in Leyshon, this behavior amounted to willful obstruction and delay of trial proceedings and therefore defendant forfeited his right to counsel.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court failed to make the proper inquiry required by G.S. 15A-1242 before allowing him to proceed pro se, concluding that the defendant’s actions “absolved the trial court from this requirement” and resulted in a forfeiture of the right to counsel. As recounted in the court’s opinion, the defendant engaged in conduct that obstructed and delayed the proceedings.

State v. Mee, 233 N.C. App. 542 (Apr. 15, 2014)

The defendant forfeited his right to counsel where he waived the right to appointed counsel, retained and then fired counsel twice, was briefly represented by an assistant public defender, repeatedly refused to state his wishes with respect to representation, instead arguing that he was not subject to the court’s jurisdiction, would not participate in the trial, and ultimately chose to absent himself from the courtroom during the trial. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he should not be held to have forfeited his right to counsel because he did not threaten counsel or court personnel and was not abusive. The court’s opinion includes extensive colloquies between the trial court and the defendant.

(1) No violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel occurred when the trial court found that the defendant forfeited his right to counsel because of serious misconduct and required him to proceed pro se. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that Indiana v. Edwards prohibits a finding of forfeiture by a “gray area” defendant who has engaged in serious misconduct. (2) The trial court did not err by finding that the defendant forfeited his right to counsel because of serious misconduct. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the misconduct must occur in open court. The defendant was appointed three separate lawyers and each moved to withdraw because of his behavior. His misconduct went beyond being uncooperative and noncompliant and included physically and verbally threatening his attorneys. He consistently shouted at his attorneys, insulted and abused them, and spat on and threatened to kill one of them. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that State v. Wray, 206 N.C. App. 354 (2010), required reversal of the forfeiture ruling.

The trial court did not err by allowing the defendant to proceed pro se where the defendant forfeited his right to counsel. In July 2007, the defendant refused to sign a waiver of counsel form. At a Jan. 2008 hearing, the court twice advised the defendant of his right to counsel and repeatedly asked if he wanted a lawyer. The defendant refused to answer, arguing, “I want to find out if the Court has jurisdiction before I waive anything”. Even after the court explained the basis of its jurisdiction, the defendant refused to state if he wanted an attorney, persistently refusing to waive anything until jurisdiction was established. At a July 2008 hearing, the defendant would not respond to the court’s inquiry regarding counsel, asserting, “I’m not waiving my right to assistance of counsel,” but also refusing the assistance of the appointed attorney. At the next hearing, he continued to challenge the court’s jurisdiction and would not answer the court’s inquiry regarding whether he wanted an attorney or to represent himself. Instead, he maintained, “If I hire a lawyer, I’m declaring myself a ward of the Court . . . and the Court automatically acquires jurisdiction . . . and I’m not acquiescing at this point to the jurisdiction of the Court.” The defendant willfully obstructed and delayed the proceedings and thus forfeited his right to counsel.

State v. Boyd, 200 N.C. App. 97 (Sept. 15, 2009)

Holding that the defendant willfully obstructed and delayed court proceedings by refusing to cooperate with his appointed attorneys and insisting that his case would not be tried; he thus forfeited his right to counsel. The defendant’s lack of cooperation lead to the withdrawal of both of his court-appointed attorneys. His original appointed counsel was allowed to withdraw over disagreements with the defendant including counsel’s refusal to file a motion for recusal of the trial judge on grounds that various judges were in collusion to fix the trial. In his first motion to withdraw, the defendant’s next lawyer stated that the defendant did not want him as counsel and that he could not effectively communicate with the defendant. In his second motion to withdraw, counsel stated that the defendant had been “totally uncooperative” such that counsel “was unable to prepare any type of defense to the charges.” Further, the defendant repeatedly told counsel that his case was not going to be tried.

In this case where the defendant was tried without counsel for driving with a revoked license, RDO, and other charges, the Court of Appeals was correct in holding that the defendant did not forfeit his right to counsel and that the trial court therefore was required to ensure that the defendant’s waiver of counsel was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.  Noting that it had never previously held that a criminal defendant in North Carolina can forfeit the right to counsel, the court agreed with holdings of the Court of Appeals establishing that “in situations evincing egregious misconduct by a defendant, a defendant may forfeit the right to counsel.”  The court reviewed decisions of the Court of Appeals where a finding of forfeiture was proper, and summarized that case law as follows: 

If a defendant refuses to obtain counsel after multiple opportunities to do so, refuses to say whether he or she wishes to proceed with counsel, refuses to participate in the proceedings, or continually hires and fires counsel and significantly delays the proceedings, then a trial court may appropriately determine that the defendant is attempting to obstruct the proceedings and prevent them from coming to completion. In that circumstance, the defendant’s obstructionist actions completely undermine the purposes of the right to counsel. If the defendant’s actions also prevent the trial court from fulfilling the mandate of N.C.G.S. § 15A-1242, the defendant has forfeited his or her right to counsel and the trial court is not required to abide by the statute’s directive to engage in a colloquy regarding a knowing waiver.

Characterizing the conduct described above as “[s]erious obstruction” and disavowing previous statements by the Court of Appeals suggesting that “[a]ny willful actions on the part of the defendant that result in the absence of defense counsel [constitute] a forfeiture of the right to counsel,” the court went on to explain that “[s]erious obstruction of the proceedings is not the only way in which a defendant may forfeit the right to counsel.”  The court suggested that a defendant who “intentionally seriously assaults their attorney” may also forfeit the right to counsel.

With this explanation of the law of forfeiture of the right to counsel, the court agreed with the Court of Appeals majority that the defendant in this case did not “engage in such serious misconduct as to warrant forfeiture of the right to counsel.”  Conceding that some of the defendant’s conduct probably was highly frustrating, the court rejected the state’s arguments that he forfeited his right to counsel by (1) putting forward frivolous legal arguments throughout the proceeding; (2) failing to employ counsel before appearing for trial where no evidence indicated that he consistently refused to retain counsel in an attempt to delay the proceedings; (3) being generally uncooperative during the proceeding.  Because the defendant did not forfeit his right to counsel, the trial court was required, under G.S. 15A-1242 and the state and federal constitutions, to advise the defendant of the right to counsel, the consequences of proceeding without counsel, and “the nature of the charges and proceedings and the range of permissible punishments”  before permitting the defendant to waive counsel and proceed pro se.  The trial court’s failure to do so in this case entitled the defendant to a new trial.

Justice Newby, joined by Justice Morgan, expressed his view that “[b]y continually refusing to answer the trial court’s questions and posing his own questions to the court, defendant demonstrated his unwillingness to accept the judicial process, forfeiting his right to an attorney.”

The defendant was charged with multiple crimes related to a break-in at the home of the elected district attorney. The trial court allowed the defendant’s first appointed lawyer to withdraw based on an unspecified conflict in February 2018. In April 2018 his second appointed lawyer also moved to withdraw when the defendant was uncooperative. The trial court allowed the motion and appointed a third lawyer. The third lawyer moved to withdraw in November 2018. The court held a hearing on that motion, ultimately granting it and finding that the defendant had forfeited his right to counsel based on his conduct, “including incessant demands and badgering” of his three appointed lawyers. The trial judge appointed the third lawyer as standby counsel. The defendant represented himself at trial, presented no evidence, was convicted of all charges and sentenced. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by determining that he had forfeited his right to counsel. In light of State v. Simpkins, 373 N.C. 530 (2020)—a case decided by the Supreme Court while the defendant’s appeal was pending—the Court of Appeals agreed. The test first articulated in Simpkins is that a finding that a defendant has forfeited his right to counsel requires “egregious dilatory or abuse conduct on the part of the defendant which undermines the purpose of the right to counsel.” The Supreme Court further clarified that forfeiture is appropriate when the defendant’s behavior is so threatening or abusive toward counsel that it makes the representation itself physically dangerous, or when the defendant’s actions related to counsel are an attempt to obstruct the proceedings and prevent them from coming to completion. Here, the defendant’s attorneys moved to withdraw because the defendant was uncooperative, uncivil, and made unreasonable demands based at least in part on his concern that any court-appointed counsel would be biased against him due to his or her relationship with the victim in the case—the District Attorney. However, no evidence in the record suggested that the defendant threatened or physically abused his lawyers. And nothing in the record indicated that the defendant’s behavior actually delayed or obstructed the proceedings. The defendant’s actions therefore did not fit within the forfeiture criteria recently spelled out in Simpkins, and the Court of Appeals vacated the criminal judgments. Nevertheless, based on the reference in the trial court’s order to the defendant’s “abusive nature” and “abuse of counsel,” the court remanded the matter for a new forfeiture hearing at which the trial judge could put into the record any evidence from prior in-chambers discussions with counsel that might support a forfeiture under either prong of the new Simpkins test.

State v. Harvin, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec. 3, 2019) temp. stay granted, ___ N.C. ___, 835 S.E.2d 851 (Dec 20 2019)

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon. The Court of Appeals found that the trial judge erred in finding that the defendant forfeited his right to counsel and in requiring the defendant to represent himself at trial. In a lengthy colloquy at trial, the defendant requested the judge to activate or replace his standby counsel, who previously had been appointed as standby counsel when the defendant expressed a desire to represent himself. When the trial judge did not grant that request, the defendant stated that he did not want to represent himself and wanted to be represented by counsel. The Court found that the request was clear and unequivocal. The Court further found that when the trial judge previously appointed standby counsel, the judge did not make any note of dilatory tactics by the defendant or inform him that requesting that standby counsel be activated or replaced could result in forfeiture of his right to counsel; rather, the judge advised him that standby counsel could be activated as counsel. Although the defendant had five previous attorneys, only two withdrew for reasons related to the defendant and then not because of a refusal by the defendant to participate in his defense but instead due to differences related to preparation of the defendant’s defense. The Court concluded that the record failed to show that the defendant intentionally delayed or obstructed the process. A dissenting judge would have found that the trial judge’s forfeiture ruling was not erroneous.

The trial court erred by requiring the defendant to proceed pro se. After the defendant was indicted but before the trial date, the defendant signed a waiver of the right to assigned counsel and hired his own lawyer. When the case came on for trial, defense counsel moved to withdraw, stating that the defendant had been rude to him and no longer desired his representation. The defendant agreed and indicated that he intended to hire a different, specifically named lawyer. The trial court allowed defense counsel to withdraw and informed the defendant that he had a right to fire his lawyer but that the trial would proceed that week, after the trial court disposed of other matters. The defendant then unsuccessfully sought a continuance. When the defendant’s case came on for trial two days later, the defendant informed the court that the lawyer he had intended to hire wouldn’t take his case. When the defendant raised questions about being required to proceed pro se, the court indicated that he had previously waived his right to court-appointed counsel. The trial began, with the defendant representing himself. The court held that the trial court’s actions violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The defendant never asked to proceed pro se; although he waived his right to court-appointed counsel, he never indicated that he intended to proceed to trial without the assistance of any counsel. Next, the court held that the defendant had not engaged in the type of severe misconduct that would justify forfeiture of the right to counsel. Among other things, the court noted that the defendant did not fire multiple attorneys or repeatedly delay the trial. The court concluded:

[D]efendant’s request for a continuance in order to hire a different attorney, even if motivated by a wish to postpone his trial, was nowhere close to the “serious misconduct” that has previously been held to constitute forfeiture of counsel. In reaching this decision, we find it very significant that defendant was not warned or informed that if he chose to discharge his counsel but was unable to hire another attorney, he would then be forced to proceed pro se. Nor was defendant warned of the consequences of such a decision. We need not decide, and express no opinion on, the issue of whether certain conduct by a defendant might justify an immediate forfeiture of counsel without any preliminary warning to the defendant. On the facts of this case, however, we hold that defendant was entitled, at a minimum, to be informed by the trial court that defendant’s failure to hire new counsel might result in defendant’s being required to represent himself, and to be advised of the consequences of self-representation.

State v. Wray, 206 N.C. App. 354 (Aug. 17, 2010)

The trial court erred by ruling that the defendant forfeited his right to counsel. The defendant’s first lawyer was allowed to withdraw because of a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship. His second lawyer withdrew on grounds of conflict of interest. The defendant’s third lawyer was allowed to withdraw after the defendant complained that counsel had not promptly visited him and had “talked hateful” to his wife and after counsel reported that the defendant accused him of conspiring with the prosecutor and contradicted everything the lawyer said. The trial court appointed Mr. Ditz and warned the defendant that failure to cooperate with Ditz would result in a forfeiture of the right to counsel. After the defendant indicated that he did not want to be represented by Ditz, the trial court explained that the defendant either could accept representation by Ditz or proceed pro se. The defendant rejected these choices and asked for new counsel. When Ditz subsequently moved to withdraw, the trial court allowed the motion and found that the defendant had forfeited his right to counsel. On appeal, the court recognized “a presumption against the casual forfeiture” of constitutional rights and noted that forfeiture should be restricted cases of “severe misconduct.” The court held that the record did not support the trial court’s finding of forfeiture because: (1) it suggested that while the defendant was competent to be tried, under Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164 (2008), he may have lacked the capacity to represent himself; (2) Ditz had represented the defendant in prior cases without problem; (3) the record did not establish serious misconduct required to support a forfeiture (the court noted that there was no evidence that the defendant used profanity in court, threatened counsel or court personnel, was abusive, or was otherwise inappropriate); (4) evidence of the defendant’s misbehavior created doubt as to his competence; and (5) the defendant was given no opportunity to be heard or participate in the forfeiture hearing.

The trial court’s determination that the defendant had forfeited his right to counsel does not “carry over” to the new trial, ordered by the court for unrelated reasons. In the 3½ years leading up to trial the defendant, among other things, fired or threatened to fire three separate lawyers, called them liars, accused them of ethical violations, reported one to the Bar, cursed at one in open court, and refused to meet with his lawyers. After the defendant refused to cooperate with and attempted to fire his third attorney, the trial court found that the defendant had forfeited his right to court-appointed counsel and appointed standby counsel. On the first day of trial, the defendant informed the trial court that he finally understood the seriousness of the situation and asked the trial court to appoint standby counsel as his lawyer. Standby counsel said that he would not be ready to go forward with trial that day if appointed. The trial court denied the motion for counsel based on the prior forfeiture orders, and the trial court declined to reconsider this matter when it arose later. The defendant represented himself at his bench trial, with counsel on standby, and was convicted. After finding that the trial court erred by proceeding with a bench trial, the court considered the defendant’s forfeiture claims. Specifically, the defendant argued on appeal that his conduct did not warrant forfeiture and that the trial court’s forfeiture order should have been reconsidered in light of the defendant’s changed conduct. In light of the court’s determination that a new trial was warranted on unrelated grounds, it declined to address these issues. However, it concluded that a break in the period of forfeiture occurs when counsel is appointed to represent the defendant on appeal following an initial conviction. Here, because the defendant accepted appointment of counsel on appeal following his trial and allowed appointed counsel to represent him through the appellate process, “the trial court’s prior forfeiture determinations will not carry over to defendant’s new trial.” The court concluded: “Thus, defendant’s forfeiture ended with his first trial. If, going forward, defendant follows the same pattern of egregious behavior toward his new counsel, the trial court should conduct a fresh inquiry in order to determine whether that conduct supports a finding of forfeiture.”

State v. Boyd, 205 N.C. App. 450 (July 20, 2010)

Defendant’s forfeiture of his right to counsel did not carry over to his resentencing, held after a successful appeal. To determine the life of a forfeiture of counsel the court adopted the standard for life of a waiver of counsel (a waiver is good and sufficient until the proceedings are terminated or the defendant makes it known that he or she desires to withdraw the waiver). Applying this standard, the court found that “a break in the period of forfeiture occurred” when the defendant accepted the appointment of counsel (the Appellate Defender) for the appeal of his initial conviction. The court noted in dicta that the defendant’s statement at resentencing that he did not want to be represented and his refusal to sign a written waiver did not constitute a new forfeiture. Because the initial forfeiture did not carry through to the resentencing and because the trial judge did not procure a waiver of counsel under G.S. 15A-1242 at the resentencing, the defendant’s right to counsel was violated.

The defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to secure counsel of choice was violated when the government, acting pursuant to 18 U. S. C. §1345, froze pretrial the defendant’s legitimate, untainted assets and thus prevented her from hiring counsel to defend her in the criminal case. Critical to the Court’s analysis was that the property at issue belonged to the defendant and was not “loot, contraband, or otherwise ‘tainted.’”

State v. Williams, 363 N.C. 689 (Dec. 11, 2009)

The trial court did not err by failing to rule on the defendant’s pro se motions, made when the defendant was represented by counsel.

The court declined to consider the defendant’s pro se MAR on grounds that he was represented by appellate counsel. It noted that having elected for representation by appointed counsel, the defendant cannot also file motions on his own behalf or attempt to represent himself; a defendant has no right to appear both by himself and by counsel.

Because the defendant’s lawyer adopted the defendant’s pro se filing under G.S. 15A-711 by submitting evidence to the trial court in support of it, the trial court properly considered the pro se filing, made while the defendant was represented by counsel.

The trial court did not err by considering the defendant’s pro se speedy trial motion, filed when he was represented by counsel.

The court admonished defense counsel for exceeding the bounds of zealous advocacy. In attacking the professionalism and ethics of the prosecutors, counsel said that the prosecutor “failed to investigate the truth”; “distort[ed] the truth”; “misled and misrepresented facts”; “subverted the truth by presenting false evidence in the form of [defendant’s] confession”; “suppressed the truth by failing to disclose potentially truth-enhancing evidence”; and “dominated the fact-finding process all led directly to [defendant’s] conviction for a crime she did not commit.” Counsel asserted that “[a] prosecutor should be professionally disciplined for proceeding with prosecution if a fair-minded person could not reasonably conclude, on the facts known to the prosecutor, that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” These comments were unsupported by the record and “highly inappropriate.” The court “urge[d] counsel to refrain from making such comments in the future.”

Because the defendant would not allow the trial to proceed while representing himself, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant the right to continue representing himself and forcing him to accept the representation of a lawyer who had been serving as standby counsel.

State v. Williams, 363 N.C. 689 (Dec. 11, 2009)

In a capital case, the trial court did not err by removing second-chair counsel, who was re-appointed by Indigent Defense Services, after having been allowed to withdraw by the trial court. Nor did the trial court err by failing to ex mero motu conduct a hearing on an unspecified conflict of interest between the defendant and counsel that was never raised by the defendant.

The trial court did not err by denying defense counsel’s motions to withdraw and for the appointment of substitute counsel. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he and his trial counsel experienced “a complete breakdown in their communications” resulting in ineffective assistance of counsel. The court noted that in the absence of a constitutional violation, the decision about whether to replace appointed counsel is a discretionary one. Although the defendant expressed dissatisfaction with counsel’s performance on several occasions, he did not establish the requisite “good cause” for appointment of substitute counsel or that assigned counsel could not provide him with constitutionally adequate representation. The court concluded that any breakdown in communication “stemmed largely from Defendant’s own behavior” and that the defendant failed to show that the alleged communication problems resulted in a deprivation of his right to the effective assistance of counsel. 

A defendant does not have a right to be represented by someone who is not a lawyer.

The defendant was charged with drug offenses. A lawyer was appointed to represent him. Immediately before trial, the defendant stated that he wanted to hire a lawyer instead and could afford to do so. A superior court judge determined that appointed counsel was providing effective assistance and denied the defendant’s request to retain counsel. The court of appeals found this to be structural error, as the issue was not whether the defendant was receiving effective assistance or was at an absolute impasse with his attorney, but whether he should be allowed the attorney of his choice. The court stated that “when a trial court is faced with a Defendant’s request to substitute his court appointed counsel for the private counsel of his choosing, it may only deny that request if granting it would cause significant prejudice or a disruption in the orderly process of justice.” The court noted that a last-minute request to change lawyers may cause such prejudice or disruption, but the trial judge did not make any such finding in this case as a result of analyzing the issue under the incorrect standard.

In this sexual assault case, the trial court did not err by failing to appoint substitute defense counsel. Absent a Sixth Amendment violation, the decision of whether appointed counsel should be replaced is a discretionary one for the trial court. Here, the defendant informed the trial court that his family was attempting to hire an attorney for him and that he was unhappy with the amount of contact and visitation trial counsel had with him before trial and with counsel’s discussion of a plea agreement with him. The court determined that this record did not suggest an abuse of discretion in connection with the denial of the defendant’s motion to discharge appointed counsel.

Where appointed counsel was allowed to withdraw, on the sixth day of a bribery trial, pursuant to Comment 3, Rule 1.16(a) of the N.C. Rules of Professional Conduct, the trial court was not required to appoint substitute counsel. Comment 3 states in relevant part:

Difficulty may be encountered if withdrawal is based on the client’s demand that the lawyer engage in unprofessional conduct. The court may request an explanation for the withdrawal, while the lawyer may be bound to keep confidential the facts that would constitute such an explanation. The lawyer’s statement that professional considerations require termination of the representation ordinarily should be accepted as sufficient.

Under G.S. 7A-450(b), appointment of substitute counsel at the request of either an indigent defendant or original counsel is constitutionally required only when it appears that representation by original counsel could deprive the defendant of his or her right to effective assistance. The statute also provides that substitute counsel is required and must be appointed when the defendant shows good cause, such as a conflict of interest or a complete breakdown in communications. Here, counsel’s representation did not fail to afford the defendant his constitutional right to counsel nor did the defendant show good cause for the appointment of substitute counsel. Nothing in the record suggests a complete breakdown in communications or a conflict of interest. Indeed, the court noted, “there was no indication that [counsel]’s work was in any way deficient. Rather, [his] withdrawal was caused by [defendant] himself demanding that [counsel] engage in unprofessional conduct. 

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying an indigent defendant’s request for substitute counsel. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to inquire into a potential conflict of interest between the defendant and counsel, noting that the defendant never asserted a conflict, only that he was unhappy with counsel’s performance.

The trial court did not err by denying defense counsel’s motions to withdraw and for the appointment of substitute counsel. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he and his trial counsel experienced “a complete breakdown in their communications” resulting in ineffective assistance of counsel. The court noted that in the absence of a constitutional violation, the decision about whether to replace appointed counsel is a discretionary one. Although the defendant expressed dissatisfaction with counsel’s performance on several occasions, he did not establish the requisite “good cause” for appointment of substitute counsel or that assigned counsel could not provide him with constitutionally adequate representation. The court concluded that any breakdown in communication “stemmed largely from Defendant’s own behavior” and that the defendant failed to show that the alleged communication problems resulted in a deprivation of his right to the effective assistance of counsel.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion to replace his court-appointed lawyer. Substitute counsel is required and must be appointed when a defendant shows good cause, such as a conflict of interest or a complete breakdown in communications. However, general dissatisfaction or disagreement over trial tactics is not a sufficient basis to appoint new counsel. In this case, the defendant’s objections fell into the latter category. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court failed to inquire adequately when the defendant raised the substitute counsel issue.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s request for substitute counsel where there was no evidence that the defendant’s constitutional right to counsel was violated. The defendant waived the right to appointed counsel and retained an attorney. The day after the jury was impaneled for trial the defendant requested substitute counsel, asserting that counsel had not communicated enough with him, that the defendant was unaware the case would be tried that day, and that he had concerns about counsel’s strategy, particularly counsel’s advice that the defendant not testify. None of these concerns constituted a violation of the defendant’s constitutional right to counsel.

In this case involving a waiver of counsel at a probation revocation hearing and the defendant’s appeal of the trial court’s revocation of her probation, the court declined to dismiss the appeal due to the defendant’s failure to comply with Rule 4 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure and held that the defendant’s waiver of counsel was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.  The defendant timely filed a handwritten notice of appeal that failed to comply with Rule 4 in that it did not indicate that it had been served on the State.  Noting that the State was informed of the appeal and was able to timely respond, and that the violation had not frustrated the adversarial process, the court held that the nonjurisdicitional Rule 4 defect was neither substantial nor gross and proceeded to the merits.  As to the merits, the court found that the trial court’s inquiry of the defendant regarding her waiver of counsel, a waiver which the defendant also executed in writing, was similar to that in State v. Whitfield, 170 N.C. App 618 (2005) and satisfied the requirements of G.S. 15A-1242.

In this drug trafficking case, the trial court did not err by requiring the defendant to represent himself at trial. In September 2013, the defendant appeared before a Superior Court Judge and signed a waiver of counsel form. In December 2013 the defendant appeared before another judge and signed a second waiver of counsel form. On that same day, attorney Palmer filed a notice of limited appearance, limiting his representation of the defendant to pretrial case management. In September 2015 the defendant again appeared in Superior Court. Palmer informed the court that the State “got their labs back” and would be ready to set a trial date. The trial court informed the defendant that if he wanted a court appointed lawyer, he should ask now. Among other things, the trial court informed the defendant of the hazards of proceeding pro se. In response to the judge’s questioning, the defendant indicated that he would hire an attorney for trial. The ADA stated that the case would come on for trial in the middle of the following year. The judge told the defendant he had two months to hire a lawyer and scheduled him to return to court on November 5 with his lawyer to talk about trial date. He expressly warned the defendant not to return in November saying that he did not have a lawyer. On November 5, 2015 the defendant appeared in court without a lawyer. The judge again warned the defendant that it was his responsibility to hire a lawyer and of the hazards of proceeding pro se. On December 10, 2015 the defendant again appeared in court, indicating that he continued to have trouble hiring a lawyer. The court informed the defendant to report back on January 27, and warned the defendant that the trial was soon approaching. In January 2016, the defendant again appeared in court, this time with attorney Byrd. Byrd told the court he was not in a position to make an appearance for the defendant and asked for more time. The judge scheduled the matter to return in February. On February 15, 2016, the trial court reported to the defendant that Mr. Byrd was not ready to make an appearance in his case. He warned the defendant to make arrangements to hire Byrd or someone else because a trial date would be set on March 10. On March 28, 2016, the defendant appeared before a different judge. The State indicated it was ready to proceed to trial. After hearing from the defendant regarding his dealings with various lawyers over the past months, the trial court informed the defendant of his counsel rights and asked the defendant how he intended to proceed. During this colloquy the defendant indicated that he would represent himself. The trial court reset the matter for the next administrative session so that the senior resident judge could address the counsel issue. On April 7, 2016 the case came back in Superior Court. The State requested a July trial date and asked the court to address the counsel issue. The court summarized the prior discussions with the defendant and appointed standby counsel. Proceedings continued in this vein until the defendant’s case came on for trial August 30, 2016. The defendant appeared pro se with standby counsel. The defendant was found guilty and appealed, asserting a violation of his sixth amendment counsel rights. The court disagreed with the defendant’s assertion that the trial court did not adhere to the requirements of G.S. 15A-1242 in procuring his waiver. The court noted, in part:

The trial court gave Defendant years to find an attorney. At each stage the trial court advised and counseled Defendant about his right to an attorney including his right to appointed counsel. The trial court also repeatedly counseled Defendant on the complexity of handling his own jury trial and the fact the judge would not be able to help him. Finally, the trial court repeatedly addressed the seriousness of the charges and advised Defendant a conviction likely meant a life sentence. Despite this, Defendant proceeded to represent himself at trial.

Defendant’s assertion the trial court failed to take any measures to ascertain whether Defendant understood the various difficulties associated with representing himself is without merit. Our review of the record indicates the trial court advised Defendant he would have to adhere to rules of court and evidence. The trial court also informed Defendant the court would not assist Defendant, and Defendant was facing serious charges which could result in a life sentence upon conviction. The record also indicates Defendant repeatedly expressed his understanding of the trial court’s instruction on this issue. We conclude Defendant waived his right to court appointed counsel.

The court went on to hold that even if the defendant’s waiver of counsel was not knowing and voluntary, the defendant forfeited his right to counsel through extended delaying tactics. It explained:

First, Defendant waived his right to assigned counsel in 2013. The trial court repeatedly advised Defendant on the seriousness of the charges and informed Defendant a conviction could lead to a life sentence due to Defendant’s age. Time after time, Defendant stated he intended to hire his own attorney. Defendant made close to monthly appearances in court over a 10-month period, and consistently told the court he wished to hire his own attorney. During these appearances, the trial court asked Defendant at least twice if he needed appointed counsel. Defendant answered by claiming to have sufficient funds to hire an attorney. Additionally, the trial court continued Defendant’s case several times to give Defendant’s attorney time to prepare since Defendant claimed the attorneys he met with did not have adequate time to prepare for trial.

Because the trial court properly conducted the inquiry required by G.S. 15A-1242, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that his waiver of counsel, in connection with a probation violation hearing, was not knowing and voluntary. In addition to finding that the trial court’s colloquy with the defendant established that the waiver was knowing and voluntary, the court noted that its conclusion was consistent with G.S. 7A-457(a). That provision states that a waiver of counsel shall be effective only if the court finds that the indigent person acted with “full awareness of his rights and of the consequences of the waiver,” and that in making such a finding the court must consider among other things the person’s age, education, familiarity with the English language, mental condition and complexity of the crime charged. Here, the defendant was 23 years old, spoke English, had a GED degree, had attended college for one semester, and had no mental defects of record; additionally, there were no factual or legal complexities associated with the probation violation. The defendant described himself as a “Moorish National” and a “sovereign citizen.” The court rejected the defendant’s argument that certain responses to the judge’s statements during the waiver colloquy indicated that the waiver was not knowing and voluntary. The court noted that a defendant’s contention that he does not understand the proceedings is a common aspect of a sovereign citizen defense.

The trial court did not err by allowing the defendant to waive his right to counsel and proceed pro se. Notwithstanding the defendant’s refusal to acknowledge that he was subject to court’s jurisdiction, the trial court was able to conduct a colloquy that complied with G.S. 15A-1242. The court reminded trial judges, however, that “our Supreme Court has approved a series of 14 questions that can be used to satisfy the requirements of Section 15A-1242.” “[B]est practice,” it continued “is for trial courts to use the 14 questions . . . which are set out in the Superior Court Judges’ Benchbook provided by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government.”

Although the trial court misstated the maximum sentence during the waiver colloquy, it adequately complied with G.S. 15A-1242. The trial court twice informed the defendant that if he was convicted of all offenses and to be a habitual felon, he could be sentenced to 740 months imprisonment, or about 60 years. However, this information failed to account for the possibility that the defendant would be sentenced in the aggravated range and thus understated the maximum term by 172 months. The court held:

[W]e do not believe that a mistake in the number of months which a trial judge employs during a colloquy with a defendant contemplating the assertion of his right to proceed pro se constitutes a per se violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1242. Instead, such a calculation error would only contravene N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1242 if there was a reasonable likelihood that the defendant might have made a different decision with respect to the issue of self-representation had he or she been more accurately informed about “the range of permissible punishments.

The court found that although the trial court’s information “was technically erroneous” the error did not invalidate the defendant’s “otherwise knowing and voluntary waiver of counsel.” It explained:

Our conclusion to this effect hinges upon the fact that Defendant was thirty-five years old at the time of this trial, that a sentence of 740 months imprisonment would have resulted in Defendant’s incarceration until he reached age 97, and that a sentence of 912 months would have resulted in Defendant’s incarceration until he reached age 111. Although such a fourteen year difference would be sufficient, in many instances, to preclude a finding that Defendant waived his right to counsel knowingly and voluntarily as the result of a trial court’s failure to comply with N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1242, it does not have such an effect in this instance given that either term of imprisonment mentioned in the trial court’s discussions with Defendant was, given Defendant’s age, tantamount to a life sentence. Simply put, the practical effect of either sentence on Defendant would have been identical in any realistic sense. In light of this fact, we cannot conclude that there was a reasonable likelihood that Defendant’s decision concerning the extent, if any, to which he wished to waive his right to the assistance of counsel and represent himself would have been materially influenced by the possibility that he would be incarcerated until age 97 rather than age 111. As a result, we conclude that Defendant’s waiver of the right to counsel was, in fact, knowing and voluntary and that the trial court did not err by allowing him to represent himself.

 

The trial court did not err when taking the defendant’s waiver of counsel. The trial court complied with the statute and asked the standard waiver questions in the judges’ bench book. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the waiver was invalid because the trial judge did not inform him of his right to hire a private lawyer.

Based on the trial court’s extensive colloquy with the defendant, the trial court properly took a waiver of counsel in compliance with G.S. 15A-1242.

(1) The defendant’s waiver of counsel was sufficient even though a box on the waiver form was left blank and the form was executed before the court advised the defendant of the charges and the range of punishment. Citing State v. Heatwole, 344 N.C. 1, 18 (1996), and State v. Fulp, 355 N.C. 171, 177 (2002), the court first concluded that a waiver of counsel form is not required and any deficiency in the form will not render the waiver invalid, if the waiver was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Next, the court concluded that the waiver was not invalid because the trial court failed to go over the charges and potential punishments prior to the defendant signing the waiver form. The trial court discussed the charges and potential punishments with the defendant the following day, and defendant confirmed his desire to represent himself in open court. Although the waiver form requires the trial judge to certify that he or she informed the defendant of the charges and punishments, given that the form is not mandatory, no prejudice occurs when the trial court does, in fact, provide that information in accordance with the statute and the defendant subsequently asserts the right to proceed pro se. (2) The trial court conducted an adequate inquiry under G.S. 15A-1242. The court noted that there is no mandatory formula for complying with the statute. Here, the trial judge explicitly informed the defendant of his right to counsel and the process to secure a court-appointed attorney; the defendant acknowledged that he understood his rights after being repeatedly asked whether he understood them and whether he was sure that he wanted to waive counsel; the judge informed him of the charges and potential punishments; and the judge explained that he would be treated the same at trial regardless of whether he had an attorney. The trial court’s colloquies at the calendar call and before trial, coupled with the defendant’s repeated assertion that he wished to represent himself, demonstrate that the defendant clearly and unequivocally expressed his desire to proceed pro se and that such expression was made knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.

In a per curiam opinion, the court affirmed State v. Anderson, 215 N.C. App. 169 (Aug. 16, 2011) (holding that the trial court erred by allowing the defendant to waive counsel after accepting a waiver of counsel form but without complying with G.S. 15A-1242; among other things, the trial court failed to clarify the specific charges or inform the defendant of the potential punishments or that he could request court-appointed counsel).

In March 2018 the defendant was charged with multiple crimes after breaking into a gas station. In August 2018, the trial court first addressed the defendant’s right to counsel. The defendant said that he did not want a lawyer, but then, when asked by the judge, “You’re not just waiving court appointed counsel, you’re waiving all counsel; is that correct?,” the defendant replied that he was “simply waiving court appointed counsel.” The defendant signed a waiver of counsel form, checking only box one, waiving his right to assigned counsel. The trial judge appointed standby counsel. The defendant argued several preliminary motions without the assistance of counsel between August 2018 and when his case came on for trial in March 2019. At that point, a different judge presiding over the trial noticed that the defendant had waived court-appointed counsel but not all counsel. After a full colloquy with the judge, the defendant checked box 2 on a new form, waiving his right to all assistance of counsel. The defendant was convicted and sentenced.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to appoint counsel or secure a valid waiver of counsel until more than a year after the defendant’s initial arrest. Over a dissent, the Court of Appeals agreed with him and ordered a new trial. The majority first established that the issue was properly preserved for appellate review, noting that prejudicial violations of a statutory mandate (here G.S. 15A-1242) are preserved for appeal notwithstanding the defendant’s failure to object at trial, and the Supreme Court of North Carolina has recently reviewed unobjected-to Sixth Amendment denial of counsel claims. The court then concluded that the trial court erred by allowing the defendant to proceed unrepresented without first obtaining a proper waiver of all counsel after a proper inquiry under G.S. 15A-1242. The August 2018 colloquy was flawed to the extent that the trial court did not ask whether the defendant understood and appreciated the consequences of his decision to proceed without representation, and in any event resulted only in a waiver of assigned counsel. The State failed to establish that the defendant’s self-representation through the pretrial period from August 2018 until the proper waiver colloquy in March 2019 was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt—which the court noted would have been difficult even if the State had tried, given the many issues addressed during the uncounseled period (possible plea negotiations, discovery, and evidentiary issues).

A dissenting judge would have concluded that the defendant failed to preserve the issue for appellate review.

The defendant was charged with driving while license revoked, not an impaired revocation; assault on a female; possession of a firearm by a person previously convicted of a felony; attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon; and habitual felon status. The State proceeded to trial on the charges of speeding to elude arrest and attaining habitual felon status, dismissing the other charges. The defendant was found guilty of both, and the trial judge sentenced the defendant to 97 to 129 months’ imprisonment. 

The defendant argued that that the trial judge failed to comply with the statutory mandate of G.S. 15A-1242 before allowing the defendant to represent himself. The Court of Appeals agreed, finding that the trial judge failed to inform the defendant of the nature of the charges and proceedings and the range of permissible punishments. The trial court erroneously informed the defendant that: obtaining the status of habitual felon is a Class D felony when being a habitual felon is a status, not a crime; erroneously indicated that the defendant faced a maximum possible sentence of 47 months for possession of a firearm by a person previously convicted of a felony when he faced a maximum of 231 months if determined to be a habitual felon; failed to inform the defendant of the maximum prison term of 231 months for the attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon if he were determined to be a habitual felon; erroneously referred to the speeding to elude arrest as fleeing to elude arrest and failed to inform the defendant that the habitualized maximum was 204 months; and asked the defendant whether he understood that he could face 231 months when he could actually have faced 666 months and 170 days. The Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant’s waiver of counsel was not knowing, intelligent, or voluntary and vacated his convictions and remanded for a new trial.

(1) In this sexual assault case the court reversed and remanded for a new trial, finding that even if the defendant had clearly and unequivocally asked to proceed pro se, the record did not establish that the defendant’s waiver of counsel complied with G.S. 15A-1242. The defendant was indicted on multiple sexual assault charges. He later was found to be indigent and Timothy Emry was appointed as counsel. Emry later moved to withdraw claiming that he and the defendant were at an impasse regarding representation. He asserted that the defendant was unwilling to discuss the case with him and the defendant was upset with Emry to asking him to sign a form acknowledging that he understood a plea offer and the consequences of taking or rejecting the plea. At a January hearing on the motion, the State asserted that if Emry was allowed to withdraw, the defendant would be on his fourth lawyer. Emry however clarified that this was inaccurate. The trial court told the defendant that he could have Emry continue as counsel, have the trial court find that the defendant had forfeited his right to counsel, or hire his own lawyer. The defendant opted to proceed pro se and the trial court appointed Emry as standby counsel. A waiver of counsel form was signed and completed. However, on the form the defendant only indicated that he waived his right to assigned counsel, not his right to all assistance of counsel. The case came to trial before a different judge. Although the trial court engaged in a colloquy with the defendant about counsel, the transcript of this event was indecipherable in parts. The defendant was convicted and appealed. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by requiring him to proceed to trial pro se when he did not clearly and unequivocally elect to do so. Although the defendant did say that he wished to represent himself, he only did so after being faced with no other option than to continue with Emry’s representation. The court noted: “This case is a good example of the confusion that can occur when the record lacks a clear indication that a defendant wishes to proceed without representation.” Here, even assuming that the defendant did clearly and unequivocally assert his wish to proceed pro se, he still would be entitled to a new trial because the waiver was not knowing and voluntary as required by G.S. 15A-1242. At the January hearing, after explaining the defendant’s options to him the court asked that the defendant “be sworn to [his] waiver.” At this point the clerk simply asked the defendant if he solemnly swore that he had a right to a lawyer and that he waived that right. This colloquy did not meet the requirements of the statute. The court stated: “The fact that defendant signed a written waiver acknowledging that he was waiving his right to assigned counsel does not relieve the trial court of its duty to go through the requisite inquiry with defendant to determine whether he understood the consequences of his waiver.” Additionally, the written waiver form indicates that the defendant elected only to waive the right to assigned counsel, not the right to all assistance of counsel. With respect to the colloquy that occurred at trial, defects in the transcript made it unclear what the defendant understood about the role of standby counsel. In any event, “simply informing defendant about standby counsel’s role is not an adequate substitute for complying with [the statute].” Additionally, there is no indication that the trial court inquired into whether the defendant understood the nature of the charges and permissible punishments as required by the statute. The court rejected the State’s suggestion that the fact that Emry had informed the defendant about the charges could substitute for the trial court’s obligation to ensure that the defendant understood the nature of the charges and the potential punishments before accepting a waiver of counsel.

(2) The defendant did not engage in conduct warranting forfeiture of the right to counsel. Although the state and the trial court hinted that the defendant was intentionally delaying the trial and that he would be on his fourth attorney after counsel was dismissed, the record indicates that this was an inaccurate characterization of the facts. As explained by Emry, although other attorneys had been listed as the defendant’s counsel at various points early in the proceedings, the defendant received substantial assistance only from Emry. Additionally, nothing in the transcript indicates any type of “flagrant” tactics that would constitute extreme misconduct warranting forfeiture. Specifically, there is no indication that the defendant sought other delays of his trial or that he engaged in any inappropriate behavior either in court or with counsel.

The trial court erred by requiring the defendant to proceed to trial pro se. On February 7, 2013, the defendant was determined to be indigent and counsel was appointed. On May 30, 2014, the defendant waived his right to assigned counsel, indicating that he wished to hire a private lawyer, Mr. Parker. Between May 2014 and May 2015 the trial was continued several times to enable the defendant to obtain funds to pay Parker. On May 11, 2015, Parker informed the court that the defendant had not retained him and that if the court would not agree to continue the case, Parker would move to withdraw. Although the defendant was employed when he first indicated his desire to hire Parker, he subsequently lost his job and needed time to obtain funds to pay counsel. The trial court continued the case for two months, to give the defendant more time to obtain funds to pay Parker. On June 29, 2015, Parker filed a motion to withdraw for failure to pay. On July 6, 2015, after the trial court allowed Parker to withdraw, the defendant asked for new counsel. The trial court declined this request, the case proceeded pro se, and the defendant was convicted. The court found that the trial court’s ruling requiring the defendant to proceed pro se was based in part on the ADA’s false representation that at the May 11, 2015 hearing the defendant was asked if he wanted counsel appointed, was warned that the case would be tried in July regardless of whether he were able to hire Parker, and was explicitly warned that if he had not retained counsel by July he would be forced to proceed to trial pro se. The court concluded: “None of these representations are accurate.” Thus, the court held that the trial court’s denial of defendant’s request for appointed counsel and its ruling that the defendant had waived the right to appointed counsel were not supported by competent evidence.

Because the trial court did not take a proper of waiver of counsel, the defendant was entitled to a new trial. The State conceded error, noting that the defendant had not been advised of the range of permissible punishments as required by G.S. 15A-1242.

Because defendant engaged in repeated conduct designed to delay and obfuscate the proceedings, including refusing to answer whether he wanted the assistance of counsel, he forfeited his right to counsel. Citing State v. Leyshon, 211 N.C. App. 511 (2011), the court began by holding that defendant did not waive his right to counsel. When asked whether he wanted a lawyer, defendant replied that he did not and, alternatively, when the trial court explained that defendant would proceed without counsel, defendant objected and stated he was not waiving any rights. Defendant's statements about whether he waived his right to counsel were sufficiently equivocal such that they did not constitute a waiver of the right to counsel. However, defendant forfeited his right to counsel. In addition to refusing to answer whether he wanted assistance of counsel at three separate pretrial hearings, defendant repeatedly and vigorously objected to the trial court's authority to proceed. Although defendant on multiple occasions stated that he did not want assistance of counsel, he also repeatedly made statements that he was reserving his right to seek Islamic counsel, although over the course of four hearings and about 3½ months he never obtained counsel. As in Leyshon, this behavior amounted to willful obstruction and delay of trial proceedings and therefore defendant forfeited his right to counsel.

The trial court erred by allowing the defendant to proceed pro se at a probation revocation hearing without taking a waiver of counsel as required by G.S. 15A-1242. The defendant’s appointed counsel withdrew at the beginning of the revocation hearing due to a conflict of interest and the trial judge allowed the defendant to proceed pro se. However, the trial court failed to inquire as to whether the defendant understood the range of permissible punishments. The court rejected the State’s argument that the defendant understood the range of punishments because “the probation officer told the court that the State was seeking probation revocation.” The court noted that as to the underlying sentence, the defendant was told only that, “[t]here’s four, boxcar(ed), eight to ten.” The court found this insufficient, noting that it could not assume that the defendant understood this legal jargon as it related to his sentence. Finally, the court held that although the defendant signed the written waiver form, “the trial court was not abrogated of its responsibility to ensure the requirements of [G.S.] 15A-1242 were fulfilled.”

The defendant was denied his right to counsel at a suppression hearing. The suppression hearing was a critical stage. Although the trial court recorded waivers of counsel prior to the hearing, the waivers were not valid because the trial court failed to inform the defendant of the maximum possible sentence, as required by G.S. 15A-1242. The trial court advised the defendant that he could “go to prison for a long, long time[,]” and if convicted “the law requires you get a mandatory active prison sentence[.]” These statements do not meet the statutory requirements for a valid waiver. The court reiterated that a waiver will not be presumed from a silent record and that a completed waiver of counsel form is no substitute for compliance with the statute.

The trial court committed reversible error by requiring the defendant to proceed pro se in a probation revocation hearing when the defendant had waived only the right to assigned counsel not the right to all assistance of counsel.

The trial court committed reversible error by allowing the defendant to proceed pro se without conducting the inquiry required by G.S. 15A-1242. 

The trial court erred by allowing the defendant to waive counsel after accepting a waiver of counsel form but without complying with G.S. 15A-1242. Significantly, on the waiver form the defendant checked the box waiving his right to assigned counsel, not the box waiving his right to all assistance of counsel. Citing State v. Callahan, 83 N.C. App. 323, 324 (1986), the court noted that “[t]he record must affirmatively show that the inquiry was made and that the defendant, by his answers, was literate, competent, understood the consequences of his waiver, and voluntarily exercised his own free will.” It continued, quoting Callahan and stating: “In cases where ‘the record is silent as to what questions were asked of defendant and what his responses were’ this Court has held, ‘[we] cannot presume that [the] defendant knowingly and intelligently waived his right to counsel[.]’ When there is no ‘transcription of those proceedings,’ the defendant “is entitled to a new trial.”    

The trial court erred by permitting the defendant to waive counsel and proceed pro se at a probation revocation hearing without first satisfying the requirements of G.S. 15A-1242. The court concluded that even though the defendant executed two Waiver of Counsel forms (AOC-CR-227), one of which was certified by the trial court, “these waivers are not presumed to have been knowing, intelligent, and voluntary because the rest of the record indicates otherwise.” Nothing in the record indicated that the defendant understood and appreciated the consequences of the decision to proceed pro se, the nature of the charges, the proceedings, or the range of possible punishments. Noting that the trial court is not required to follow a specific “checklist” of questions when conducting the waiver inquiry, the court referenced a checklist that appears in the judges’ bench book. [Author’s note: the Bench Book cited in the opinion is out of print. However, the relevant section in the current version of the Superior Court Judges’ Bench Book is available here, and it includes the relevant checklist].

In Re Watson, 209 N.C. App. 507 (Feb. 15, 2011)

(1) Because the trial court failed to comply with the statutory mandates of G.S. 15A-1242, 122C-268(d), and IDS Rule 1.6, the respondent’s waiver of counsel in his involuntary commitment hearing was ineffective. The court adopted language from State v. Moore, 362 N.C. 319, 327-28 (2008), endorsing a fourteen-question checklist for taking a waiver of counsel. The court also noted with approval language from an Arizona case suggesting the proper inquiry in involuntary commitment cases. (2) The fact that the respondent had standby counsel did not cure the improper waiver of counsel. 

Trial court erred by allowing the defendant to dismiss counsel and proceed pro se mid-trial without making the inquiry required by G.S. 15A-1242.

The trial court’s action denying the defendant’s mid-trial request to discharge counsel and proceed pro se was not an abuse of discretion and did not infringe on the defendant’s right to self-representation. Prior to trial, the defendant waived his right to counsel and standby counsel was appointed. Thereafter, he informed the trial court that he wished standby counsel to select the jury. The trial court allowed the defendant’s request, informing the defendant that he would not be permitted to discharge counsel again. The defendant accepted the trial court’s conditions and stated that he wished to proceed with counsel. After the jury had been selected and the trial had begun, the defendant once again attempted to discharge counsel. The trial court denied the defendant’s request, noting that the defendant already had discharged four or five lawyers and had been uncooperative with appointed counsel.

The trial court did not err by appointing counsel for the defendant where there was no clear and unequivocal waiver. The defendant refused to answer whether he waived or asserted his right to counsel and made contradictory statements on the issue. He stated: “I’m not waiving my right to assistance of counsel,” “I want to retain my right”, and “I’m reserving my rights”. He also said: “I don’t need an attorney”, “I refuse his counsel”, and “I’ll have no counsel”.

(1) In this sexual assault case the court reversed and remanded for a new trial, finding that even if the defendant had clearly and unequivocally asked to proceed pro se, the record did not establish that the defendant’s waiver of counsel complied with G.S. 15A-1242. The defendant was indicted on multiple sexual assault charges. He later was found to be indigent and Timothy Emry was appointed as counsel. Emry later moved to withdraw claiming that he and the defendant were at an impasse regarding representation. He asserted that the defendant was unwilling to discuss the case with him and the defendant was upset with Emry to asking him to sign a form acknowledging that he understood a plea offer and the consequences of taking or rejecting the plea. At a January hearing on the motion, the State asserted that if Emry was allowed to withdraw, the defendant would be on his fourth lawyer. Emry however clarified that this was inaccurate. The trial court told the defendant that he could have Emry continue as counsel, have the trial court find that the defendant had forfeited his right to counsel, or hire his own lawyer. The defendant opted to proceed pro se and the trial court appointed Emry as standby counsel. A waiver of counsel form was signed and completed. However, on the form the defendant only indicated that he waived his right to assigned counsel, not his right to all assistance of counsel. The case came to trial before a different judge. Although the trial court engaged in a colloquy with the defendant about counsel, the transcript of this event was indecipherable in parts. The defendant was convicted and appealed. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by requiring him to proceed to trial pro se when he did not clearly and unequivocally elect to do so. Although the defendant did say that he wished to represent himself, he only did so after being faced with no other option than to continue with Emry’s representation. The court noted: “This case is a good example of the confusion that can occur when the record lacks a clear indication that a defendant wishes to proceed without representation.” Here, even assuming that the defendant did clearly and unequivocally assert his wish to proceed pro se, he still would be entitled to a new trial because the waiver was not knowing and voluntary as required by G.S. 15A-1242. At the January hearing, after explaining the defendant’s options to him the court asked that the defendant “be sworn to [his] waiver.” At this point the clerk simply asked the defendant if he solemnly swore that he had a right to a lawyer and that he waived that right. This colloquy did not meet the requirements of the statute. The court stated: “The fact that defendant signed a written waiver acknowledging that he was waiving his right to assigned counsel does not relieve the trial court of its duty to go through the requisite inquiry with defendant to determine whether he understood the consequences of his waiver.” Additionally, the written waiver form indicates that the defendant elected only to waive the right to assigned counsel, not the right to all assistance of counsel. With respect to the colloquy that occurred at trial, defects in the transcript made it unclear what the defendant understood about the role of standby counsel. In any event, “simply informing defendant about standby counsel’s role is not an adequate substitute for complying with [the statute].” Additionally, there is no indication that the trial court inquired into whether the defendant understood the nature of the charges and permissible punishments as required by the statute. The court rejected the State’s suggestion that the fact that Emry had informed the defendant about the charges could substitute for the trial court’s obligation to ensure that the defendant understood the nature of the charges and the potential punishments before accepting a waiver of counsel.

(2) The defendant did not engage in conduct warranting forfeiture of the right to counsel. Although the state and the trial court hinted that the defendant was intentionally delaying the trial and that he would be on his fourth attorney after counsel was dismissed, the record indicates that this was an inaccurate characterization of the facts. As explained by Emry, although other attorneys had been listed as the defendant’s counsel at various points early in the proceedings, the defendant received substantial assistance only from Emry. Additionally, nothing in the transcript indicates any type of “flagrant” tactics that would constitute extreme misconduct warranting forfeiture. Specifically, there is no indication that the defendant sought other delays of his trial or that he engaged in any inappropriate behavior either in court or with counsel.

The trial court erred by requiring the defendant to proceed to trial pro se. On February 7, 2013, the defendant was determined to be indigent and counsel was appointed. On May 30, 2014, the defendant waived his right to assigned counsel, indicating that he wished to hire a private lawyer, Mr. Parker. Between May 2014 and May 2015 the trial was continued several times to enable the defendant to obtain funds to pay Parker. On May 11, 2015, Parker informed the court that the defendant had not retained him and that if the court would not agree to continue the case, Parker would move to withdraw. Although the defendant was employed when he first indicated his desire to hire Parker, he subsequently lost his job and needed time to obtain funds to pay counsel. The trial court continued the case for two months, to give the defendant more time to obtain funds to pay Parker. On June 29, 2015, Parker filed a motion to withdraw for failure to pay. On July 6, 2015, after the trial court allowed Parker to withdraw, the defendant asked for new counsel. The trial court declined this request, the case proceeded pro se, and the defendant was convicted. The court found that the trial court’s ruling requiring the defendant to proceed pro se was based in part on the ADA’s false representation that at the May 11, 2015 hearing the defendant was asked if he wanted counsel appointed, was warned that the case would be tried in July regardless of whether he were able to hire Parker, and was explicitly warned that if he had not retained counsel by July he would be forced to proceed to trial pro se. The court concluded: “None of these representations are accurate.” Thus, the court held that the trial court’s denial of defendant’s request for appointed counsel and its ruling that the defendant had waived the right to appointed counsel were not supported by competent evidence.

The trial court erred by requiring the defendant to proceed pro se. After the defendant was indicted but before the trial date, the defendant signed a waiver of the right to assigned counsel and hired his own lawyer. When the case came on for trial, defense counsel moved to withdraw, stating that the defendant had been rude to him and no longer desired his representation. The defendant agreed and indicated that he intended to hire a different, specifically named lawyer. The trial court allowed defense counsel to withdraw and informed the defendant that he had a right to fire his lawyer but that the trial would proceed that week, after the trial court disposed of other matters. The defendant then unsuccessfully sought a continuance. When the defendant’s case came on for trial two days later, the defendant informed the court that the lawyer he had intended to hire wouldn’t take his case. When the defendant raised questions about being required to proceed pro se, the court indicated that he had previously waived his right to court-appointed counsel. The trial began, with the defendant representing himself. The court held that the trial court’s actions violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The defendant never asked to proceed pro se; although he waived his right to court-appointed counsel, he never indicated that he intended to proceed to trial without the assistance of any counsel. Next, the court held that the defendant had not engaged in the type of severe misconduct that would justify forfeiture of the right to counsel. Among other things, the court noted that the defendant did not fire multiple attorneys or repeatedly delay the trial. The court concluded:

[D]efendant’s request for a continuance in order to hire a different attorney, even if motivated by a wish to postpone his trial, was nowhere close to the “serious misconduct” that has previously been held to constitute forfeiture of counsel. In reaching this decision, we find it very significant that defendant was not warned or informed that if he chose to discharge his counsel but was unable to hire another attorney, he would then be forced to proceed pro se. Nor was defendant warned of the consequences of such a decision. We need not decide, and express no opinion on, the issue of whether certain conduct by a defendant might justify an immediate forfeiture of counsel without any preliminary warning to the defendant. On the facts of this case, however, we hold that defendant was entitled, at a minimum, to be informed by the trial court that defendant’s failure to hire new counsel might result in defendant’s being required to represent himself, and to be advised of the consequences of self-representation.

(1) In this sexual assault case the court reversed and remanded for a new trial, finding that even if the defendant had clearly and unequivocally asked to proceed pro se, the record did not establish that the defendant’s waiver of counsel complied with G.S. 15A-1242. The defendant was indicted on multiple sexual assault charges. He later was found to be indigent and Timothy Emry was appointed as counsel. Emry later moved to withdraw claiming that he and the defendant were at an impasse regarding representation. He asserted that the defendant was unwilling to discuss the case with him and the defendant was upset with Emry to asking him to sign a form acknowledging that he understood a plea offer and the consequences of taking or rejecting the plea. At a January hearing on the motion, the State asserted that if Emry was allowed to withdraw, the defendant would be on his fourth lawyer. Emry however clarified that this was inaccurate. The trial court told the defendant that he could have Emry continue as counsel, have the trial court find that the defendant had forfeited his right to counsel, or hire his own lawyer. The defendant opted to proceed pro se and the trial court appointed Emry as standby counsel. A waiver of counsel form was signed and completed. However, on the form the defendant only indicated that he waived his right to assigned counsel, not his right to all assistance of counsel. The case came to trial before a different judge. Although the trial court engaged in a colloquy with the defendant about counsel, the transcript of this event was indecipherable in parts. The defendant was convicted and appealed. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by requiring him to proceed to trial pro se when he did not clearly and unequivocally elect to do so. Although the defendant did say that he wished to represent himself, he only did so after being faced with no other option than to continue with Emry’s representation. The court noted: “This case is a good example of the confusion that can occur when the record lacks a clear indication that a defendant wishes to proceed without representation.” Here, even assuming that the defendant did clearly and unequivocally assert his wish to proceed pro se, he still would be entitled to a new trial because the waiver was not knowing and voluntary as required by G.S. 15A-1242. At the January hearing, after explaining the defendant’s options to him the court asked that the defendant “be sworn to [his] waiver.” At this point the clerk simply asked the defendant if he solemnly swore that he had a right to a lawyer and that he waived that right. This colloquy did not meet the requirements of the statute. The court stated: “The fact that defendant signed a written waiver acknowledging that he was waiving his right to assigned counsel does not relieve the trial court of its duty to go through the requisite inquiry with defendant to determine whether he understood the consequences of his waiver.” Additionally, the written waiver form indicates that the defendant elected only to waive the right to assigned counsel, not the right to all assistance of counsel. With respect to the colloquy that occurred at trial, defects in the transcript made it unclear what the defendant understood about the role of standby counsel. In any event, “simply informing defendant about standby counsel’s role is not an adequate substitute for complying with [the statute].” Additionally, there is no indication that the trial court inquired into whether the defendant understood the nature of the charges and permissible punishments as required by the statute. The court rejected the State’s suggestion that the fact that Emry had informed the defendant about the charges could substitute for the trial court’s obligation to ensure that the defendant understood the nature of the charges and the potential punishments before accepting a waiver of counsel.

(2) The defendant did not engage in conduct warranting forfeiture of the right to counsel. Although the state and the trial court hinted that the defendant was intentionally delaying the trial and that he would be on his fourth attorney after counsel was dismissed, the record indicates that this was an inaccurate characterization of the facts. As explained by Emry, although other attorneys had been listed as the defendant’s counsel at various points early in the proceedings, the defendant received substantial assistance only from Emry. Additionally, nothing in the transcript indicates any type of “flagrant” tactics that would constitute extreme misconduct warranting forfeiture. Specifically, there is no indication that the defendant sought other delays of his trial or that he engaged in any inappropriate behavior either in court or with counsel.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying counsel’s motion to withdraw. The defendant was indicted for first-degree murder and armed robbery. Just prior to trial, the defendant provided defense counsel with a list of facts that he wished to concede to the jury: that he was at the scene of the crime; that he fired a gun; and that he was part of an attempted robbery. At a closed hearing, counsel advised the trial court that the defendant’s new admissions would impact his ability to handle the case. When he contacted the State Bar for guidance, it was suggested that he ask to withdraw because of a “personal conflict.” Counsel did so and the trial court denied the motion. Finding no abuse of discretion, the court noted that the personal conflict at issue related to counsel’s inability to believe what the defendant told him, in light of the eve of trial admissions. It noted:

As the State Bar confirmed, defense counsel did not have an actual conflict, and there is no evidence he breached the rules of professional conduct. Counsel had represented Defendant for nearly three years, and had presumably expended significant time and resources preparing for trial. In addition, there was no disagreement about trial strategy, nor was there an identifiable conflict of interest.

Moreover, the court concluded, the defendant could not show prejudice resulting from the denial of the motion to withdraw.

(1) Because the defendant had ample time to investigate, prepare, and present his defense and had failed to show that he received ineffective assistance of counsel by the trial court’s denial of his motion to continue, the trial court did not err by denying defense counsel’s motion to withdraw on this ground. (2) With respect to the defendant’s assertion that the trial court’s denial of the motion to withdraw resulted in him receiving ineffective assistance of counsel in other respects, the court found the record insufficient address the ineffectiveness issues and dismissed these grounds without prejudice to the defendant’s right to assert them in a motion for appropriate relief. 

(1) Where appointed counsel moved, on the sixth day of a bribery trial, for mandatory withdrawal pursuant to Rule 1.16(a) of the N.C. Rules of Professional Conduct, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing withdrawal upon counsel’s citation of Comment 3 to Rule 1.16 as grounds for withdrawal. Comment 3 states in relevant part:

Difficulty may be encountered if withdrawal is based on the client’s demand that the lawyer engage in unprofessional conduct. The court may request an explanation for the withdrawal, while the lawyer may be bound to keep confidential the facts that would constitute such an explanation. The lawyer’s statement that professional considerations require termination of the representation ordinarily should be accepted as sufficient.

In light of the Comment, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by accepting counsel’s assertion that his withdrawal was mandatory in light of professional considerations. (2) After allowing the withdrawal, the trial court was not required to appoint substitute counsel. Under G.S. 7A-450(b), appointment of substitute counsel at the request of either an indigent defendant or original counsel is constitutionally required only when it appears that representation by original counsel could deprive the defendant of his or her right to effective assistance. The statute also provides that substitute counsel is required and must be appointed when the defendant shows good cause, such as a conflict of interest or a complete breakdown in communications. Here, counsel’s representation did not fail to afford the defendant his constitutional right to counsel nor did the defendant show good cause for the appointment of substitute counsel. Nothing in the record suggests a complete breakdown in communications or a conflict of interest. Indeed, the court noted, “there was no indication that [counsel]’s work was in any way deficient. Rather, [his] withdrawal was caused by [defendant] himself demanding that [counsel] engage in unprofessional conduct. 

State v. Hunt, 367 N.C. 700 (Dec. 14, 2014)

The court affirmed per curiam that aspect of the decision below that generated a dissenting opinion. In the decision below, State v. Hunt, 221 N.C. App. 489 (July 17, 2012), the court of appeals held, over a dissent, that the trial court did not err by conducting a voir dire when an issue of attorney conflict of interest arose and denying the defendant’s mistrial motion. A dissenting judge believed that the trial court erred by failing to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether defense counsel’s conflict of interest required a mistrial.

State v. Choudhry, 365 N.C. 215 (Aug. 26, 2011)

Although the trial court’s inquiry of the defendant was insufficient to assure that the defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right to conflict free counsel, because the defendant failed to show that counsel’s performance was adversely affected by the conflict, he is not entitled to relief. At the defendant’s noncapital first-degree murder trial, the prosecution informed the trial court that defense counsel had previously represented a State’s witness, Michelle Wahome, who was the defendant’s girlfriend at the time of the incident in question and with whom the defendant had a child. Specifically, defense counsel had represented Wahome with respect to charges arising out of an incident at a shopping mall. The charges were reduced to common law forgery and although the defendant had not been charged in the matter, both he and Wahome appeared in the video surveillance and the items in question were men’s clothing. Defense counsel indicated that the prior representation would not impair his ability to represent the defendant and that he did not plan to question Wahome about the earlier incident. The trial court then informed the defendant that defense counsel had previously represented Wahome, a witness for the State and asked the defendant if he had any concerns about counsel’s ability appropriately to represent him, if he was satisfied with counsel’s representation, and if he desired to have counsel continue his representation. The defendant said that he had no concerns about counsel’s representation and gave an affirmative answer to each remaining question. The defendant was convicted and appealed. In a split decision, the court of appeals found no error. State v. Choudhry, 206 N.C. App. 418, 430 (Aug. 17, 2010). The dissenting judge contended that the trial court erred by failing to fully inform the defendant of the consequences of the potential conflict and that a remand was required. The supreme court determined that because the prosecutor brought a potential conflict to the trial judge’s attention, the trial judge was obligated to make an inquiry. The court concluded that because the trial court did not specifically explain the limitations that the conflict imposed on defense counsel’s ability to question Wahome regarding her earlier criminal charges or indicate that he had given the defendant such an explanation, the trial judge failed to establish that the defendant had sufficient understanding of the implications of counsel’s prior representation of Wahome to ensure a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of the potential conflict of interest. However, it went on to conclude that in light of counsel’s effective cross-examination of Wahome, the defendant failed to demonstrate an actual conflict of interest adversely affecting performance and thus was not entitled to relief.

State v. Phillips, 365 N.C. 103 (June 16, 2011)

The trial court did not err by failing to inquire into defense counsel’s alleged conflict of interest and by failing to obtain a waiver from the defendant of the right to conflict-free counsel. According to the defendant, the conflict arose when it became apparent that counsel might have to testify as a witness. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his claim should be assessed under the conflict of interest ineffective assistance of counsel standard rather than the standard two-prong Strickland analysis. It noted that the conflict of interest standard generally applies to conflicts that arise from multiple or successive representation and it deferred to defense counsel’s conclusion that no conflict existed in the case at hand. Applying Strickland, the court rejected the defendant’s claim, concluding that even if counsel’s conduct fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, no prejudice occurred.

Addressing the merits of an IAC claim raised in a MAR, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that attorney Warmack provided ineffective assistance of counsel at an evidentiary remand hearing because of a dual representation conflict arising from having previously represented codefendant Swain. With respect to issues involving successive or simultaneous representation of clients in related matters, a defendant who raises no objection at trial must demonstrate that an actual conflict of interest adversely affected his lawyer’s performance. Here, the trial court’s unchallenged findings concluded, in part, that the defendant presented no evidence that Warmack’s representation of the defendant was in any way influenced by his prior representation of codefendant Swain.

The trial court erred by ordering, under threat of contempt, that defense counsel’s legal assistant appear as a witness for the State. The State served the assistant with a subpoena directing her to appear to testify on the weeks of Friday, November 8, 2013, Monday, December 2, 2013, and Monday, January 13, 2014. However, the trial did not begin on any of the dates listed on the subpoena; rather, it began on Monday, November 18, 2013 and ended on Wednesday, November 20, 2013. Because the assistant had not been properly subpoenaed to appear on Tuesday, November 19th, the trial court erred by ordering, under threat of contempt, that she appear on that day as a witness for the State. The court went on to find the error prejudicial and ordered a new trial. The court held that if on re-trial the assistant again testifies for the State, the trial court must conduct a hearing to determine whether an actual conflict of interest exists that denies the defendant the right to effective assistance of counsel.

(1) Even if counsel provided deficient performance by informing the trial court, with the defendant’s consent, that the defendant wanted to go to trial and “take the chance that maybe lightning strikes, or I get lucky, or something,” no prejudice was shown. (2) The court declined the defendant’s invitation to consider his ineffective assistance claim a conflict of interest that was per se prejudicial, noting that the court has limited such claims to cases involving representation of adverse parties.

State v. King, 235 N.C. App. 187 (July 15, 2014)

No error occurred when the trial court denied defense counsel’s request for an overnight recess after having to defend himself against the State’s motion for contempt based on an allegation that counsel violated the court’s order regarding the rape shield rule in connection with his examination of the victim in this child sexual abuse case. After the trial court denied the State’s motion, defense counsel requested an overnight recess to “calm down” about the contempt motion. The trial court denied this request but at 11:38 am called a recess until 2 pm that day. The court rejected the defendant’s arguments that there was a conflict of interest between the defendant and defense counsel and that the trial court’s denial of the overnight recess resulted in ineffective assistance of counsel. 

The defendant was entitled to a new trial where the trial court proceeded to trial over the defendant’s objection to continued representation by appointed counsel who had previously represented one of the State’s witnesses. At a pretrial hearing the State informed the trial court that defense counsel had previously represented Mr. Slade, who the State intended to call as a trial witness. The defendant told the trial court that he was concerned about a conflict of interest and asked for another lawyer. Slade subsequently waived any conflict and the State Bar advised the trial court that since Slade had consented “the lawyer’s ability to represent the current client is not affected” and that the current client’s consent was not required. The trial court conducted no further inquiry. The court held that the trial court erred by failing to make any inquiry into the nature and extent of the potential conflict and whether the defendant wished to waive the conflict. It concluded:

[W]e believe that Defendant . . . was effectively forced to go to trial while still represented by his trial counsel, who had previously represented one of the State’s witnesses and who acknowledged being in the possession of confidential information which might be useful for purposes of cross-examining that witness, despite having clearly objected to continued representation by that attorney. As a result, given that prejudice is presumed under such circumstances, Defendant is entitled to a new trial.

The trial court did not err by removing the defendant’s retained counsel, Wayne Eads, based on the possibility that Eads might be called to testify as a witness at trial. The defendant was charged with attempted murder and felony assault. The defendant was having an affair with the victim’s wife and the victim’s wife had discussed with the defendant the possibility of leaving her husband. Prior to the incident at issue, the victim’s wife also communicated with Eads, who was the defendant’s best friend and attorney, about her relationship with the defendant and the consequences of a divorce. The trial court’s action was proper given “a serious potential for conflict” based on Eads’ relationship with the defendant and communication with the victim’s wife. The court stated:

Eads was aware of personal and sensitive information, including the nature of their affair, which was a major factor leading to the shooting. Had Eads remained as defendant’s counsel, he might have been called to testify, at which time he might have been asked to disclose confidential information regarding the relationship between defendant and [the victim’s wife], which information may have divulged defendant’s motive for shooting [the victim], which in turn could compromise his duty of loyalty to his client.

The court went on to conclude that competent evidence supported the trial court’s conclusion that Eads was likely to be a necessary witness at trial and that none of the exceptions to Rule 3.7 of the N.C. Revised Rules of Professional Conduct applied.

In this habeas corpus case, the Court reversed the Sixth Circuit, which had held that defense counsel provided per se ineffective assistance of counsel under United States v. Cronic, 466 U. S. 648 (1984), when he was briefly absent during testimony concerning other defendants. The Court determined that none of its decisions clearly establish that the defendant is entitled to relief under Cronic. The Court clarified: “We have never addressed whether the rule announced in Cronic applies to testimony regarding codefendants’ actions.” The Court was however careful to note that it expressed no view on the merits of the underlying Sixth Amendment principle.

(1) Addressing the merits of the defendant’s Strickland ineffective assistance of counsel claim in this direct appeal in a capital case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that he received ineffective assistance of counsel when his lawyers disclosed to law enforcement where to look for the five-year-old child victim. Because the trial court heard evidence and made findings on this issue in a pretrial motion, the court determined that no further investigation was required and it could address the merits of the claim on direct appeal. After the defendant was charged with kidnapping, he engaged the services of attorney Rogers, who immediately associated with attorney Brewer to assist in the matter. When Rogers and Brewer undertook representation of the defendant on 13 November, the victim had been missing since the morning of 10 November and a massive search was underway, in hope that the child would be found alive. The defendant admitted to police that he had taken the victim to a hotel. Hotel cameras and witnesses confirmed this admission. By 12 November, law enforcement agencies and volunteers were searching the area around Highway 87, where the defendant’s cell phone data had placed him. Rogers had conversations with law enforcement and was aware of the evidence against the defendant and of the defendant’s admission to taking the victim to the hotel. Rogers was also aware of the defendant’s three felony convictions, which constituted aggravating circumstances that could be used at a capital sentencing proceeding. Rogers and Brewer met with the defendant and discussed the fact that the child had not been found and the possibility that capital charges could be forthcoming. The defendant denied hurting or killing the victim. Rogers asked the defendant if he had any information about the victim’s location, and the defendant told Rogers and Brewer that he did. Rogers and Brewer discussed the death penalty with the defendant, and the defendant agreed that it would be in his best interest to offer information that might be helpful as to the victim’s location. Rogers explained that providing this information could be helpful with respect to a possible plea agreement or with respect to mitigating circumstances and could avoid a sentence of death. The defendant agreed with Rogers and Brewer that they would tell law enforcement where to search for the victim, without specifically stating the defendant’s name or that he was the source of the information. According to Rogers, he was trying to give the defendant the best advice to save the defendant’s life, and the defendant understood the situation and agreed with the strategy. On 14 and 15 November Brewer told law enforcement where to look for the victim. On 16 November, the victim’s body was found in the specified area.

On appeal, the defendant argued that his lawyers’ conduct was deficient because they gave the State incriminating evidence against him without seeking any benefit or protection for the defendant in return. He asserted that his attorneys’ conduct was objectively unreasonable because they had a duty to seek or secure a benefit for him in exchange for the disclosure. The court disagreed. The court determined that to the extent counsel has a duty to seek a benefit in exchange for disclosing information, here the lawyers did so. The purpose of the disclosure was to show that the defendant could demonstrate cooperation and remorse, which would benefit the defendant in the form of achieving a plea agreement for a life sentence or as to mitigating circumstances and ultimately to avoid the death penalty. In fact, the State made a plea offer of life in prison, which the defendant rejected, and he later refused to present mitigating evidence at trial. Despite his agreement at the time of the disclosure, the defendant argued on appeal that a plea agreement for life in prison to avoid the death penalty was not a reasonable objective that could justify the disclosure of incriminating evidence at that stage because his attorneys were aware that he denied causing the victim harm and because, according to the defendant, “everything turned” on his innocence defense. The court found this contention difficult to square with the record, in light of the fact that defense counsel also were aware that the defendant had in essence confessed to kidnapping the child in the middle of the night and taking her to a remote hotel where he was the last and only person seen with her. Moreover, they knew he had information on her remote location, though he was unwilling to disclose how he acquired that information. They knew that this information directed law enforcement to search a more specific area in the vicinity in which an extensive search tracking the defendant’s cell phone data was already underway, suggesting an incriminating discovery would be imminent. Thus, while the disclosure certainly would be incriminating to the defendant and could lead to additional incriminating evidence against him, the disclosure must be viewed in light of the already heavily incriminating evidence against the defendant, and the likelihood that further incriminating evidence would be forthcoming.

The defendant further argued that his lawyers should have pushed harder for better concessions for him. Recognizing that in many situations it may make strategic sense for counsel to negotiate the best possible agreement before disclosing potentially incriminating information, the court noted that that is not necessarily true in situations such as this one, where time was a substantial factor. Had law enforcement located the victim’s body before the defendant’s disclosure, the opportunity to obtain any benefit in return for the information would have been irrevocably lost. Additionally, given that the defendant denied causing the victim harm, there was a possibility that the victim was still alive. In the end, the court disagreed with the defendant that his attorneys acted unreasonably by targeting a plea agreement for life imprisonment and avoiding the death penalty in exchange for making the disclosure. “[U]nder the unique and difficult circumstances here--with the already heavily incriminating evidence against defendant, as well as the apparent likelihood that the discovery of further incriminating evidence could be imminent” and the presumption of reasonableness of counsels’ conduct, the court held that the lawyers’ decision to disclose potentially incriminating information with the sought-after goal of avoiding imposition of the death penalty did not fall below an objective standard of reasonableness.

The court determined that it need not resolve the more difficult question of whether defense counsel erred by not first securing or attempting to secure a plea agreement for life in prison before making the disclosure. It explained: “we need not answer this question because, given that we have held that a plea agreement for life in prison and avoidance of the death penalty was a reasonable disposition in these circumstances, defendant cannot establish any prejudice when the State did offer defendant a plea agreement for life in prison.”

(2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his attorneys were deficient by failing to conduct an adequate investigation before disclosing to the police where to search for the victim, finding that the defendant’s assertions were not supported by the record. For example, the defendant argued that lawyer Rogers failed to look at any formal discovery materials before making the disclosure, yet Rogers testified that at that early stage of the case there was no discovery file to examine. Considering the defendant’s other assertions, the court found that the defendant was unable to identify anything Roger’s allegedly inadequate investigation failed to uncover and which would have had any effect on the reasonableness of his lawyers’ strategic decision to make the disclosure. Nor, the court noted, does the defendant suggest what other avenues the lawyers should have pursued.

(3) The court rejected the defendant’s assertion that his lawyers erroneously advised him that they would shield his identity as the source of the information but that their method of disclosure revealed him as the source. The defendant’s argument was premised on the fact that his agreement with his lawyers was conditioned on their implicit promise that they would prevent the disclosure from being attributed to the defendant, even by inference. The court found that this assertion was not supported by the record, noting that the entire purpose of the disclosure, to which the defendant agreed, was that it be attributable to the defendant to show cooperation. The court found that the fact that the defendant and his lawyers agreed not to explicitly name the defendant as the source of the disclosure cannot be read as an implicit understanding that his lawyers would shield him as the source but rather must be read in the context of their conversation, in which the defendant told his lawyers that he had information about the victim’s location but did not explain how he had acquired that information. The method of disclosure allowed an immediate inference of cooperation but avoided any inadvertent admission of guilt. The court explained:

Certainly, that the information came from defendant’s attorneys allowed an inference that defendant was the source, which, while demonstrating immediate cooperation on the part of defendant, was also potentially incriminating as it suggested an inference of guilt. But this trade-off goes to the heart of the agreed upon strategy—the mounting evidence against defendant was already highly incriminating, and providing this information to the police that could potentially be further incriminating was a strategic decision made to avoid imposition of the death penalty.

(4) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that by disclosing the location of the victim to the police without first securing any benefit in return, his lawyers were essentially working for the police and that the situation resulted in a complete breakdown of the adversarial process resulting in a denial of counsel. The court declined to consider this issue as a denial of counsel claim, finding that the defendant’s challenge is more properly brought as a Strickland attorney error claim, which the court had already rejected.

 

State v. Phillips, 365 N.C. 103 (June 16, 2011)

(1) Investigators did not violate the capital defendant’s constitutional right to counsel by continuing to question him after an attorney who had been appointed as provisional counsel arrived at the sheriff’s office and was denied access to the defendant. The interrogation began before the attorney arrived, the defendant waived his Miranda rights, and he never stated that he wanted the questioning to stop or that he wanted to speak with an attorney. (2) Office of Indigent Defense Services statutes and rules regarding an indigent’s entitlement to counsel did not make the defendant’s statement inadmissible. Although the relevant statutes create an entitlement to counsel and authorize provisional counsel to seek access to a potential capital defendant, they do not override a defendant’s waiver of the right to counsel, which occurred in this case. 

Where appointed counsel was allowed to withdraw, on the sixth day of a bribery trial, pursuant to Comment 3 of Rule 1.16(a) of the N.C. Rules of Professional Conduct, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that private counsel retained after this incident was presumptively ineffective given the limited time he had to review the case. The defendant noted that new counsel entered the case on the seventh day of trial and requested only a four-hour recess to prepare. Given the status of the trial and the limited work to be done, the court rejected the defendant’s argument. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that new counsel rendered deficient performance by failing to request a longer or an additional continuance.

State v. Rouse, 234 N.C. App. 92 (May. 20, 2014)

The defendant was denied his constitutional right to counsel when the trial court held a resentencing hearing on the defendant’s pro se MAR while the defendant was unrepresented. The court vacated the judgment and remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

The trial court’s denial of a motion to continue in a murder case did not violate the defendant’s right to effective assistance of counsel. The defendant asserted that he did not realize that certain items of physical evidence were shell casings found in defendant’s room until the eve of trial and thus was unable to procure independent testing of the casings and the murder weapon. Even though the relevant forensic report was delivered to the defendant in 2008, the defendant did not file additional discovery requests until February 3, 2009, followed by Brady and Kyles motions on February 11, 2009. The trial court afforded the defendant an opportunity to have a forensic examination done during trial but the defendant declined to do so. The defendant was not entitled to a presumption of prejudice on grounds that denial of the motion created made it so that no lawyer could provide effective assistance. The defendant’s argument that had he been given additional time, an independent examination might have shown that the casings were not fired by the murder weapon was insufficient to establish the requisite prejudice.

Under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant has the right to insist that defense counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty. The defendant was charged with three counts of first-degree murder in this capital case. Throughout the proceedings, the defendant insistently maintained that he was out of State at the time of the killings and that corrupt police killed the victims when a drug deal went wrong. The defendant’s lawyer concluded that the evidence against the defendant was overwhelming and that absent a concession at the guilt stage that the defendant was the killer, a death sentence would be impossible to avoid at the penalty phase. The defendant was furious when told about this strategy. The defendant told counsel not to make the concession, pressuring counsel to pursue acquittal. However, at the beginning of opening statements in the guilt phase, defense counsel told the jury there was “no way reasonably possible” that they could hear the prosecution’s evidence and reach “any other conclusion” than that the defendant was the cause of the victims’ death. Although the defendant protested in a hearing outside of the presence of the jury the trial court allowed defense counsel to continue with his strategy. Defense counsel then told the jury that the evidence was “unambiguous” that “my client committed three murders.” The defendant testified in his own defense, maintaining his innocence and pressing an alibi defense. In his closing argument, defense counsel reiterated that the defendant was the killer. The defendant was found guilty of all counts. At the penalty phase, defense counsel again conceded that the defendant committed the crimes but urged mercy. The jury returned three death verdicts.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in light of a division of opinion among state courts of last resort on the question whether it is unconstitutional to allow defense counsel to concede guilt over the defendant’s intransigent and unambiguous objection. The Court held that the Sixth Amendment was violated. It stated: “When a client expressly asserts that the objective of 'his defence' is to maintain innocence of the charged criminal acts, his lawyer must abide by that objective and may not override it by conceding guilt.” The Court distinguished Florida v. Nixon, 543 U. S. 175 (2004), in which it had considered whether the Constitution bars defense counsel from conceding a capital defendant’s guilt at trial when the defendant, informed by counsel, neither consents nor objects. In that case, defense counsel had several times explained to the defendant a proposed guilt phase concession strategy, but the defendant was unresponsive. The Nixon Court held that when counsel confers with the defendant and the defendant remains silent, neither approving nor protesting counsel’s proposed concession strategy, no blanket rule demands the defendant’s explicit consent to implementation of that strategy. The Court distinguished Nixon on grounds that there the defendant never asserted his defense objective. Here however the defendant opposed counsel’s assertion of guilt at every opportunity, before and during trial and in conferences with his lawyer and in open court. The Court clarified: “If a client declines to participate in his defense, then an attorney may permissibly guide the defense pursuant to the strategy she believes to be in the defendant’s best interest. Presented with express statements of the client’s will to maintain innocence, however, counsel may not steer the ship the other way.” It held: “counsel may not admit her client’s guilt of a charged crime over the client’s intransigent objection to that admission.” The Court went on to hold that this type of claim required no showing of prejudice. Rather, the issue was one of structural error. Thus, the defendant must be afforded a new trial without any need to first show prejudice.

The rule of State v. Harbison, 315 N.C. 175 (1985) that a criminal defendant suffers a per se violation of the right to effective assistance of counsel when counsel concedes the defendant’s guilt to the jury without the defendant’s prior consent applies to situations involving an implied admission.  The defendant was charged with habitual misdemeanor assault based on an underlying offense of assault on a female, assault by strangulation, second-degree sexual offense, and second-degree rape.  During a recorded interview with police that was played for the jury, the defendant made inculpatory statements indicating that he had “pushed [the victim],” was in a “tussle” with her, had “backhanded” and “smacked” her, and that she was visibly injured as a result.  During closing argument, defense counsel referenced these statements and referred to them as admissions while arguing that the jury should set aside its negative feelings about the defendant arising from that behavior to see that there was no basis for convicting him of rape, sexual offense, and assault by strangulation.  The jury found the defendant guilty of assault on a female and not guilty of all other charged offenses.  Following an extensive review of its precedent flowing from Harbison, the court explained that while this was not a case where defense counsel expressly asked the jury to find the defendant guilty of a specified offense, Harbison violations are not limited to such situations and also occur in situations where counsel “impliedly concedes his client’s guilt without prior authorization.”  The court said that counsel’s argument to the jury in this case was “problematic for several reasons,” including his attestations to the accuracy of the defendant’s admissions, his reminder to the jury that the victim was “hurt,” and counsel’s own opinion that “God knows he did [wrong].”  The court further noted that counsel specifically asked the jury to return a not guilty verdict for every charged offense except assault on a female, and characterized this conspicuous omission as implicitly conceding the defendant’s guilt on that charge in violation of Harbison.  The court concluded by emphasizing “that a finding of Harbison error based on an implied concession of guilt should be a rare occurrence,” and remanded the case for a determination of whether the defendant knowingly consented in advance to the admission.

Justice Newby, joined by Justice Ervin, dissented, stating the view that the jury argument in this case did not constitute the functional equivalent of an explicit admission and that a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel in a case like this requires proof of prejudice in accordance with Strickland.

In this sex offense case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion for a mistrial and instead giving a curative instruction to the jury in response to the State’s objectionable questioning of a witness.  Defense counsel did not admit the defendant’s guilt over his objection in violation of State v. Harbison or McCoy v. Louisiana by admitting an element of the charged offense in closing argument.

(1) Prior to trial in response to the defendant’s motion to exclude certain potential testimony, the State agreed to refrain from asking a detective about the victim’s grandmother allegedly pressuring the victim not to testify.  At trial, the State asked the victim about the manner in which she had been pressured not to testify and the defendant objected.  The trial court sustained the objection but denied the defendant’s motion for a mistrial, instead issuing a curative instruction striking the testimony from the record and from the jury’s consideration.  The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying a mistrial and properly exercised its discretion and cured any potential prejudice by issuing the curative instruction and polling the jury.

(2) Even if defense counsel admitted an element of second-degree forcible sexual offense by saying in closing argument that the State would have had a “slam-dunk incest case” if the defendant and the victim were related to each other and referring to an issue of consent under the “dirty and unpalatable” facts of the case, counsel did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights by admitting the defendant’s guilt without his consent.  The court explained that defense counsel’s statements may have constituted admissions of the “sexual act with another person” element of the crime, but did not constitute an admission of guilt because counsel “vociferously argued” that the defendant did not perpetrate the sexual contact “by force and against the will” of the victim, another element of the crime.  First addressing the issue through the lens of ineffective assistance of counsel, the court explained that an admission of an element does not constitute an admission of guilt and consequently counsel’s comments were not a Harbison violation.  The court then distinguished defense counsel’s admission of “at most” an element of the offense from the situation in McCoy v. Louisiana, ___ U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 1500 (2018) where defense counsel admitted his client’s guilt and found that no Sixth Amendment structural error occurred.

This Pitt County case involved charges of attempted first-degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury (“AWDWIKISI”) and felony breaking or entering. Before trial, the defendant signed a document allowing his attorney to argue that he was guilty of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury (“AWDWISI”). This “Harbison acknowledgement” stated that the defendant understood his right to plead not guilty and have all issues in his case tried; that the defendant understood he was not required to concede guilt as to any offense; that he voluntarily admitted guilt to the assault while understanding the consequences of that admission; and that he authorized his attorney to argue his guilt of that offense to the jury. The trial court conducted a colloquy with the defendant where the defendant orally reaffirmed the terms of the document. At trial, defense counsel argued that the defendant was guilty of AWDWISI but lacked the intent to kill necessary to support the first-degree attempted murder (or AWDWIKISI). The jury convicted on all counts and the defendant appealed. He argued that his admission of guilt to the assault was not knowing or voluntary and that he therefore received ineffective assistance of counsel. He also claimed the trial court’s Harbison colloquy was deficient.

(1) Under State v. Harbison, 315 N.C. 175 (1985), it is per se ineffective assistance of counsel for defense counsel to admit a defendant’s guilt to an offense without the defendant’s consent. The defendant argued that his admission to the assault was effectively an admission to attempted murder. AWDWISI and attempted first-degree murder have different elements and AWDWISI is not a lesser-included offense of attempted first-degree murder. Thus, the admission to AWDWISI did not admit guilt to attempted murder. Further, the defendant knowingly and voluntarily admitted guilt to that assault, and his attorney never conceded guilt to attempted murder. The defendant therefore could not demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel.

(2) Before accepting an admission of guilt at trial, the record should reflect the defendant’s knowing and informed consent to the admission. Here, it did:

The record demonstrates that Defendant fully understood that trial counsel was going to concede guilt to AWDWISI, and the Defendant expressly consented to the concession. Further, Defendant specifically acknowledged that he understood the consequences of such admission. Id. at 11.

Thus, the trial court’s Harbison colloquy with the defendant was proper. In addition to his appeal, the defendant filed a motion for appropriate relief (“MAR”) in the appellate division. Denying that motion, the court found that no Harbison violation occurred and that the defendant could not therefore show the existence of a ground for relief under the MAR statute. The convictions were thus unanimously affirmed.

State v. Cook, 246 N.C. App. 266 (Mar. 15, 2016)

(1) In this murder case, counsel’s statement in closing argument did not exceed the scope of consent given by the defendant during a Harbison inquiry. In light of the Harbison hearing, the defendant knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily, and with full knowledge of the awareness of the possible consequences agreed to counsel’s concession that he killed the victim and had culpability for some criminal conduct. The court noted that counsel’s trial strategy was to argue that the defendant lacked the mental capacity necessary for premeditation and deliberation and therefore was not guilty of first-degree murder. (2) The Harbison standard did not apply to counsel’s comments regarding the “dreadfulness” of the crimes because these comments were not concessions of guilt. Considering these statements under the Strickland standard, the court noted that counsel pointed out to the jury that while the defendant’s crimes were horrible, the central issue was whether the defendant had the necessary mental capacity for premeditation and deliberation. The defendant failed to rebut the strong presumption that counsel’s conduct was reasonable. Additionally no prejudice was established given the overwhelming evidence of guilt.

In this murder case, trial counsel did not render ineffective assistance by failing to produce evidence, as promised in counsel’s opening statement to the jury, that the shooting in question was justified or done in self-defense. After the trial court conducted a Harbison inquiry, defense counsel admitted to the jury that the defendant had a gun and shot the victim but argued that the evidence would show that the shooting was justified. The concession regarding the shooting did not pertain to a hotly disputed factual matter given that video surveillance footage of the events left no question as to whether the defendant shot the victim. The trial court’s Harbison inquiry was comprehensive, revealing that the defendant knowingly and voluntarily consented to counsel’s concession. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that making unfulfilled promises to the jury in an opening statement constitutes per se ineffective assistance of counsel. And it found that because counsel elicited evidence supporting a defense of justification, counsel did not fail to fulfill a promise made in his opening statement. The court stated: “Defense counsel promised and delivered evidence, but it was for the jury to determine whether to believe that evidence.”

In an attempted murder case, counsel did not commit a Harbison error when he stated during closing argument: “You have heard my client basically admit that while pointing the gun at someone, he basically committed a crime: Assault by pointing a gun.” Because assault by pointing a gun is not a lesser-included of the charged offense, counsel’s statement fell outside of Harbison. 

In a murder case, trial counsel did not impermissibly concede the defendant’s guilt under Harbison. Although defense counsel never explicitly conceded the defendant’s guilt during trial, she did make factual concessions, including admitting that the defendant was present at the shooting and that he believed that he was participating in a plan to commit a robbery. The court found that it did not need to decide whether the factual admissions constituted an admission of guilt to first degree felony-murder given that the defendant expressly consented to counsel’s admissions. 

In an appeal from a conviction obtained in the Eve Carson murder case, the court held that counsel did not commit a Harbison error (unconsented to admission of guilt by counsel). Even taken out of context, the remark at issue did not even approach a concession of guilt.

The court rejected the defendant’s Harbison claim (it is ineffective assistance of counsel for a defense lawyer to concede guilt without the defendant’s consent) where defense counsel raised the admission with the trial court before it was made and the defendant consented to counsel’s strategy.

The court dismissed the defendant’s Harbison claim without prejudice to it being raised in a motion for appropriate relief. During closing argument, defense counsel stressed that the defendant was a drug user, not a drug dealer. With regard to a charge of possession of drug paraphernalia, counsel stated “finding him guilty of the drug paraphernalia I would agree is about as open and shut as we can get in this case, but finding him guilty of the selling, you don’t have the seller.” The court noted that this statement conceded guilt. However, because of the incomplete record as to consent by the defendant, the court dismissed without prejudice. 

Although concluding that counsel admitted the defendant’s guilt to the jury, the court dismissed the defendant’s Harbison claim without prejudice to his right to file a motion for appropriate relief on that basis in the trial court. Counsel conceded guilt to resisting a public officer and eluding arrest when he stated, among other things, that the defendant “chose to get behind the wheel after drinking, and he chose to run from the police[,]” and “[the officer] was already out of the way and he just kept on going, kept running from the police.” However, the record did not indicate whether the defendant had consented to these admissions.

The court dismissed the defendant’s Harbison claim without prejudice in order for it to be raised by way of a motion for appropriate relief in the trial division. As to a charge of resisting an officer, defense counsel had argued to the jury that “[T]he elements are there. They were officers of the law. They were discharging a duty of their office. We are not contending they were doing anything unlawful at the time and he didn’t obey. He delayed them. He obstructed them, he resisted them[.]” The court concluded that such statements cannot be construed in any other light than admitting the defendant’s guilt. However, the court determined, based on the record on appeal, it was unclear whether the defendant consented to this admission of guilt.

(1) Defense counsel did not commit a Harbison error during the habitual felon proceeding by admitting that the defendant had pled guilty to three felonies. Although defense counsel admitted the defendant’s prior convictions, he never argued that the jury should find that the defendant had attained habitual felon status and in fact suggested that the jury take certain mitigating factors into account. (2) Even if such an admission occurred, the defendant would not be entitled to relief because Harbison does not apply to a habitual felon proceeding. 

Because defense counsel admitted the defendant’s guilt to assault with a deadly weapon and involuntary manslaughter to the jury without obtaining the defendant’s express consent, counsel was per se ineffective under State v. Harbison, 315 N.C. 175 (1985). A majority of the panel distinguished the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175 (2004) (under federal law, when the defendant alleges ineffective assistance due to an admission of guilt, the claim should be analyzed under the Strickland attorney error standard), on grounds that Nixon was a capital case and the case before the court was non-capital. The majority further concluded that post-Nixon decisions by the North Carolina Supreme Court and the court of appeals required it to apply the Harbison rule.

No Harbison error occurred in this murder case where the defendant consented, on the record, to counsel’s strategy of admitting guilt.

In a per curiam decision, the Court determined that defense counsel’s performance in the punishment phase of a capital murder trial was deficient and remanded the case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for that court to address the prejudice prong of a Strickland ineffective assistance of counsel analysis.  Noting that under prevailing professional norms defense counsel had an obligation to conduct a thorough investigation of the defendant’s background, the Court found that defense counsel fell short of that obligation in multiple ways:

First, counsel performed almost no mitigation investigation, overlooking vast tranches of mitigating evidence. Second, due to counsel’s failure to investigate compelling mitigating evidence, what little evidence counsel did present backfired by bolstering the State’s aggravation case. Third, counsel failed adequately to investigate the State’s aggravating evidence, thereby forgoing critical opportunities to rebut the case in aggravation. 

Calling defense counsel’s nominal case in mitigation “an empty exercise,” the court explained that counsel was “barely acquainted” with the witnesses he called during the punishment phase and did not prepare them to testify, that he “did not look into or present the myriad tragic circumstances that marked [the defendant’s] life,” and that he ignored avenues of investigation of which he should have been aware.  The Court went on to explain that because of his failure to investigate the mitigation case, defense counsel essentially introduced aggravating evidence as he elicited witness testimony that did not accurately reflect the defendant’s life experience and presented the defendant in a poor light.  Finally, the court noted that defense counsel’s failure to investigate the State’s case in aggravation resulted in a deficient failure to rebut critical aggravation evidence.  Finding defense counsel’s performance deficient as a matter of law, the Court said that there was a “significant question” as to whether the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had properly considered the prejudice prong of the Strickland analysis and remanded the case so that issue could be addressed.

Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, dissented, disagreeing with the majority’s view that the lower court had not properly considered the prejudice prong of the analysis.

The presumption of prejudice recognized in Roe v. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470 (2000), applies regardless of whether the defendant has signed an appeal waiver. Defendant Garza signed two plea agreements arising from charges brought by the State of Idaho. Each agreement included a provision stating that Garza waived his right to appeal. The trial court accepted the agreements and sentenced Garza. Shortly thereafter Garza told his trial counsel that he wanted to appeal. Although Garza continuously reminded his attorney of this directive, counsel did not file a notice of appeal informing Garza that appeal was problematic because of the waiver. About four months after sentencing Garza sought post-conviction relief in state court, alleging that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to file notices of appeal despite his requests. The trial court denied relief, and this ruling was affirmed by the state appellate courts. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a split of authority on this issue.

            As a general rule, a defendant claiming ineffective assistance of counsel must prove that counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that prejudice occurred. In certain circumstances however prejudice is presumed, such as where the defendant is denied counsel at a critical stage or where counsel entirely fails to subject the prosecution’s case to meaningful adversarial testing. Additionally, in Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470 (2000), the Court held that when an attorney’s deficient performance costs a defendant an appeal that the defendant would have otherwise pursued, prejudice is presumed. The question presented in this case was: whether that rule applies even when the defendant has, in the course of pleading guilty, signed an “appeal waiver”—that is, an agreement forgoing certain, but not all, possible appellate claims. The Court held that it does.

            The Court first determined that Garza’s lawyer provided deficient performance: “Where, as here, a defendant has expressly requested an appeal, counsel performs deficiently by disregarding the defendant’s instructions.” Turning to the crux of the case, the Court held that the Flores-Ortega presumption of prejudice applied despite the appeal waiver. The Court reasoned that because there is no dispute that Garza wished to appeal, a direct application of that case resolves this one. It held: When counsel’s constitutionally deficient performance deprives a defendant of an appeal that he otherwise would have taken, the defendant has made out a successful ineffective assistance of counsel claim entitling him to an appeal, with no need for a further showing of the merit of his claim, regardless of whether an appeal waiver was signed.

Under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant has the right to insist that defense counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty. The defendant was charged with three counts of first-degree murder in this capital case. Throughout the proceedings, the defendant insistently maintained that he was out of State at the time of the killings and that corrupt police killed the victims when a drug deal went wrong. The defendant’s lawyer concluded that the evidence against the defendant was overwhelming and that absent a concession at the guilt stage that the defendant was the killer, a death sentence would be impossible to avoid at the penalty phase. The defendant was furious when told about this strategy. The defendant told counsel not to make the concession, pressuring counsel to pursue acquittal. However, at the beginning of opening statements in the guilt phase, defense counsel told the jury there was “no way reasonably possible” that they could hear the prosecution’s evidence and reach “any other conclusion” than that the defendant was the cause of the victims’ death. Although the defendant protested in a hearing outside of the presence of the jury the trial court allowed defense counsel to continue with his strategy. Defense counsel then told the jury that the evidence was “unambiguous” that “my client committed three murders.” The defendant testified in his own defense, maintaining his innocence and pressing an alibi defense. In his closing argument, defense counsel reiterated that the defendant was the killer. The defendant was found guilty of all counts. At the penalty phase, defense counsel again conceded that the defendant committed the crimes but urged mercy. The jury returned three death verdicts.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in light of a division of opinion among state courts of last resort on the question whether it is unconstitutional to allow defense counsel to concede guilt over the defendant’s intransigent and unambiguous objection. The Court held that the Sixth Amendment was violated. It stated: “When a client expressly asserts that the objective of 'his defence' is to maintain innocence of the charged criminal acts, his lawyer must abide by that objective and may not override it by conceding guilt.” The Court distinguished Florida v. Nixon, 543 U. S. 175 (2004), in which it had considered whether the Constitution bars defense counsel from conceding a capital defendant’s guilt at trial when the defendant, informed by counsel, neither consents nor objects. In that case, defense counsel had several times explained to the defendant a proposed guilt phase concession strategy, but the defendant was unresponsive. The Nixon Court held that when counsel confers with the defendant and the defendant remains silent, neither approving nor protesting counsel’s proposed concession strategy, no blanket rule demands the defendant’s explicit consent to implementation of that strategy. The Court distinguished Nixon on grounds that there the defendant never asserted his defense objective. Here however the defendant opposed counsel’s assertion of guilt at every opportunity, before and during trial and in conferences with his lawyer and in open court. The Court clarified: “If a client declines to participate in his defense, then an attorney may permissibly guide the defense pursuant to the strategy she believes to be in the defendant’s best interest. Presented with express statements of the client’s will to maintain innocence, however, counsel may not steer the ship the other way.” It held: “counsel may not admit her client’s guilt of a charged crime over the client’s intransigent objection to that admission.” The Court went on to hold that this type of claim required no showing of prejudice. Rather, the issue was one of structural error. Thus, the defendant must be afforded a new trial without any need to first show prejudice.

By wrongly advising the defendant that a guilty plea to a drug charge would not result in deportation, counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) in connection with the defendant’s plea. After he was charged with possessing ecstasy with intent to distribute, the defendant feared that a criminal conviction might affect his status as a lawful permanent resident. His attorney assured him that the Government would not deport him if he pleaded guilty. As a result the defendant, who had no real defense to the charge, accepted a plea that carried a lesser prison sentence than he would have faced at trial. The defendant’s attorney was wrong: The conviction meant that the defendant was subject to mandatory deportation. Before the Court, the Government conceded that the defendant received objectively unreasonable representation when counsel assured him that he would not be deported if he pleaded guilty. The question before the Court was whether the defendant could show prejudice as a result. The Court noted that when an IAC claim involves a claim of attorney error during the course of a legal proceeding—for example, that counsel failed to raise an objection at trial or to present an argument on appeal—a defendant raising such a claim can demonstrate prejudice by showing a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. This case, however was different. The Court explained:

             But in this case counsel’s “deficient performance arguably led not to a judicial proceeding of disputed reliability, but rather to the forfeiture of a proceeding itself.” When a defendant alleges his counsel’s deficient performance led him to accept a guilty plea rather than go to trial, we do not ask whether, had he gone to trial, the result of that trial “would have been different” than the result of the plea bargain. That is because, while we ordinarily “apply a strong presumption of reliability to judicial proceedings,” “we cannot accord” any such presumption “to judicial proceedings that never took place.”

            We instead consider whether the defendant was prejudiced by the “denial of the entire judicial proceeding . . . to which he had a right.” As we held in Hill v. Lockhart, when a defendant claims that his counsel’s deficient performance deprived him of a trial by causing him to accept a plea, the defendant can show prejudice by demonstrating a “reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” (citations omitted).

The Court rejected the dissent’s argument that the defendant must also show that he would have been better off going to trial. It conceded “[t]hat is true when the defendant’s decision about going to trial turns on his prospects of success and those are affected by the attorney’s error—for instance, where a defendant alleges that his lawyer should have but did not seek to suppress an improperly obtained confession.” The Court found that the error at issue was different. Here, the defendant “knew, correctly, that his prospects of acquittal at trial were grim, and his attorney’s error had nothing to do with that. The error was instead one that affected [the defendant’s] understanding of the consequences of pleading guilty.” And here, the defendant argues that he never would have accepted a guilty plea had he known that he would be deported as a result; the defendant insists he would have gambled on trial, risking more jail time for whatever small chance there might be of an acquittal that would let him remain in the United States. Considering this claim, the Court rejected the Government’s request for a per se rule that a defendant with no viable defense cannot show prejudice from the denial of his right to trial. Instead it held: “In the unusual circumstances of this case, we conclude that [the defendant] has adequately demonstrated a reasonable probability that he would have rejected the plea had he known that it would lead to mandatory deportation.” 

Weaver v. Massachusetts, 582 U.S. ___, 137 S. Ct. 1899 (June 22, 2017)

In a case where the defendant failed to preserve a claim of structural error with respect to improper closure of the courtroom and raised it later in the context of an ineffective assistance claim, the Court held that the defendant was not relieved of his burden of establishing prejudice, which he failed to do. During the defendant’s state criminal trial, the courtroom was occupied by potential jurors and closed to the public for two days of jury selection. Defense counsel neither objected to the closure at trial nor raised the issue on direct review. The case came to the Court in the context of an ineffective assistance of counsel claims. On the facts presented, the Court held that the defendant had not established prejudice. It explained:

In the criminal justice system, the constant, indeed unending, duty of the judiciary is to seek and to find the proper balance between the necessity for fair and just trials and the importance of finality of judgments. When a structural error is preserved and raised on direct review, the balance is in the defendant’s favor, and a new trial generally will be granted as a matter of right. When a structural error is raised in the context of an ineffective assistance claim, however, finality concerns are far more pronounced. For this reason, and in light of the other circumstances present in this case, petitioner must show prejudice in order to obtain a new trial. As explained above, he has not made the required showing.

In this Texas capital murder case, the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated when his lawyer introduced evidence from a psychologist that the defendant was statistically more likely to act violently because he is black. A Texas jury convicted the defendant of capital murder. Under state law, the jury could impose a death sentence only if it found that the defendant was likely to commit acts of violence in the future. The defendant’s attorney called a psychologist to offer his opinion on that issue. The psychologist testified that the defendant probably would not engage in violent conduct. But he also stated that one of the factors pertinent in assessing a person’s propensity for violence was his race, and that the defendant was statistically more likely to act violently because he is black. The jury sentenced the defendant to death. With respect to first prong of the Strickland attorney error standard, the Court held that counsel’s performance fell outside the bounds of competent representation. Counsel knew that the expert’s report reflected the view that the defendant’s race disproportionately predisposed him to violent conduct; he also knew that the principal point of dispute during the trial’s penalty phase was whether the defendant was likely to act violently in the future. Counsel nevertheless called the expert to the stand and specifically elicited testimony about the connection between the defendant’s race and the likelihood of future violence. Additionally counsel put into evidence the expert’s report stating that the defendant’s race, “Black,” suggested an “[i]ncreased probability” as to future dangerousness. This report “said, in effect, that the color of [the defendant’s] skin made him more deserving of execution. It would be patently unconstitutional for a state to argue that a defendant is liable to be a future danger because of his race.” The Court went on to hold that the second prong of the Strickland test—prejudice--also was satisfied, finding that it was reasonably probable that the proceeding would have ended differently had counsel rendered competent representation. It noted that the evidence at issue was “potent” and “appealed to a powerful racial stereotype—that of black men as ‘violence prone.’” The expert’s opinion “coincided precisely with a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice, which itself coincided precisely with the central question at sentencing.” The court concluded: “the effect of this unusual confluence of factors was to provide support for making a decision on life or death on the basis of race.” This effect was heightened because the witness took the stand as a medical expert, “bearing the court’s imprimatur.” The Court rejected the notion that any mention of race was de minimis, concluding “Some toxins can be deadly in small doses.” [This case also addresses a number of procedural issues that apply in federal court; because they are not relevant to state court proceedings they are not summarized here.]

The Court reversed the state decision below which had held that the defendant’s lawyers were ineffective under Strickland. At the defendant’s 1995 murder trial, the State offered FBI Agent Peele as an expert witness on Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis (CBLA). Peele’s testimony linked a bullet fragment removed from the victim’s brain to the defendant’s gun. In 2006, the defendant asserted a post-conviction claim that his defense attorneys were ineffective for failing to question the legitimacy of CBLA. At this point—eleven years after his conviction--CBLA had fallen out of favor. In fact, in 2006, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that CBLA evidence was not generally accepted by the scientific community and was therefore inadmissible. Although the defendant’s post-conviction claim failed in the trial court, he appealed and the Maryland appellate court reversed. According to the Maryland court, defendant’s lawyers were deficient because they failed to unearth a report co-authored by Peele in 1991 and containing a single finding which could have been used to undermine the CBLA analysis. The Supreme Court reversed, noting at the time of the defendant’s trial “the validity of CBLA was widely accepted, and courts regularly admitted CBLA evidence.” And in fact, the 1991 report at issue “did not question the validity of CBLA, concluding that it was a valid and useful forensic tool to match suspect to victim.” The Court held: “Counsel did not perform deficiently by dedicating their time and focus to elements of the defense that did not involve poking methodological holes in a then-uncontroversial mode of ballistics analysis.” Furthermore the Court noted, it is unclear that counsel would have been able to uncover the report, if a diligent search was made.

Defense counsel in a capital case rendered deficient performance when he made an “inexcusable mistake of law” causing him to employ an expert “that he himself deemed inadequate.” Counsel believed that he could only obtain $1,000 for expert assistance when in fact he could have sought court approval for “any expenses reasonably incurred.” The Court clarified:

We wish to be clear that the inadequate assistance of counsel we find in this case does not consist of the hiring of an expert who, though qualified, was not qualified enough. The selection of an expert witness is a paradigmatic example of the type of “strategic choic[e]” that, when made “after thorough investigation of [the] law and facts,” is “virtually unchallengeable.” We do not today launch federal courts into examination of the relative qualifications of experts hired and experts that might have been hired. The only inadequate assistance of counsel here was the inexcusable mistake of law—the unreasonable failure to understand the resources that state law made available to him—that caused counsel to employ an expert that he himself deemed inadequate.

Slip Op. at 12 (citation omitted). The court remanded for a determination of whether counsel’s deficient performance was prejudicial.

Missouri v. Frye, 566 U.S. 133 (Mar. 21, 2012)

The Court held that a defense lawyer rendered ineffective assistance by allowing a plea offer by the prosecution to expire without advising the defendant of the offer or allowing him to consider it. The defendant was charged with felony driving with a revoked license, an offense carrying a maximum term of imprisonment of four years. On November 15, the prosecutor sent a letter to defense counsel offering a choice of two plea bargains. First, the prosecutor offered to recommend a 3-year sentence for a guilty plea to the felony charge, without a recommendation regarding probation but with a recommendation for 10 days in jail as so called “shock” time. Second, to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor and, if the defendant pleaded guilty, to recommend a 90-day sentence. The misdemeanor charge would have carried a maximum term of imprisonment of one year. The letter stated both that offers would expire on December 28. The defendant’s attorney did not tell the defendant of the offers and they expired. Before this charge was resolved, the defendant was again arrested for driving with a revoked license. The defendant subsequently plead guilty to the initial charge. There was no plea agreement. The trial court accepted the guilty plea and sentenced the defendant to three years in prison. The defendant challenged his conviction, arguing that counsel’s failure to inform him of the plea offer constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.

            The Court began its analysis by concluding that the constitutional right to counsel extends to the negotiation and consideration of plea offers that lapse or are rejected. It stated: “In today’s criminal justice system . . . the negotiation of a plea bargain . . . is almost always the critical point for a defendant.” Having determined that there is a right to effective assistance with respect to plea offers, the Court turned to the question of whether defense counsel has the duty to communicate the terms of a formal offer to accept a plea on terms and conditions that may result in a lesser sentence, a conviction on lesser charges, or both. On this issue it held:

[A]s a general rule, defense counsel has the duty to communicate formal offers from the prosecution to accept a plea on terms and conditions that may be favorable to the accused. Any exceptions to that rule need not be explored here, for the offer was a formal one with a fixed expiration date. When defense counsel allowed the offer to expire without advising the defendant or allowing him to consider it, defense counsel did not render the effective assistance the Constitution requires.

The Court then turned to the issue of prejudice and laid out the following standards:

To show prejudice from ineffective assistance of counsel where a plea offer has lapsed or been rejected because of counsel’s deficient performance, defendants must demonstrate a reasonable probability they would have accepted the earlier plea offer had they been afforded effective assistance of counsel. Defendants must also demonstrate a reasonable probability the plea would have been entered without the prosecution canceling it or the trial court refusing to accept it, if they had the authority to exercise that discretion under state law.  To establish prejudice in this instance, it is necessary to show a reasonable probability that the end result of the criminal process would have been more favorable by reason of a plea to a lesser charge or a sentence of less prison time. 

Applying these standards to the case before it, the Court concluded that because defense counsel made no meaningful attempt to inform the defendant of the written plea offer, counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. As to prejudice, the Court found that the state court applied the wrong standard. Specifically, it did not require the defendant to show that the first plea offer, if accepted, would have been adhered to by the prosecution and accepted by the trial court, particularly given the defendant’s subsequent arrest for the same offense. The Court remanded on this issue. 

Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156 (Mar. 21, 2012)

The Court held that defense counsel rendered ineffective assistance by advising a defendant to reject a plea offer and it specified the appropriate remedy for the constitutional violation. The defendant was charged with assault with intent to murder, possession of a firearm by a felon, possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony, misdemeanor possession of marijuana, and being a habitual offender. The prosecution twice offered to dismiss two of the charges and to recommend a sentence of 51-85 months for the other two, in exchange for a guilty plea. The defendant rejected both offers, allegedly after his attorney convinced him that the prosecution would be unable to establish intent to murder. On the first day of trial the prosecution offered a significantly less favorable plea deal, which the defendant rejected. The defendant was convicted on all counts and received a mandatory minimum sentence of 185-360 months’ imprisonment. He then challenged the conviction, arguing that his attorney’s advice to reject the plea constituted ineffective assistance.

On appeal the parties agreed that counsel rendered deficient performance when he advised the defendant to reject the plea offer. Thus, the only issue before the Court was how to apply Strickland’s prejudice prong. The court held that when ineffective assistance results in a rejection of the plea offer and the defendant is convicted at the later trial

a defendant must show that but for the ineffective advice of counsel there is a reasonable probability that the plea offer would have been presented to the court (i.e., that the defendant would have accepted the plea and the prosecution would not have withdrawn it in light of intervening circumstances), that the court would have accepted its terms, and that the conviction or sentence, or both, under the offer’s terms would have been less severe than under the judgment and sentence that in fact were imposed.

            The Court then addressed the issue of the appropriate remedy, noting that the injury suffered by defendants who decline a plea offer as a result of ineffectiveness and then receive a greater sentence at a trial can come in at least one of two forms. Sometimes, the Court explained, the sole advantage a defendant would have received under the plea is a lesser sentence. In this situation, the trial court may conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the defendant has shown a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s errors he or she would have accepted the plea. “If the showing is made,” the Court elaborated, “the court may exercise discretion in determining whether the defendant should receive the term of imprisonment the government offered in the plea, the sentence he received at trial, or something in between.” In some situations, however, the Court noted “resentencing alone will not be full redress for the constitutional injury,” such as when an offer was for a guilty plea to a less serious crime than the one the defendant ends up getting convicted for at trial, or if a mandatory sentence limits a judge’s sentencing discretion. In these situations, the Court explained, “the proper exercise of discretion to remedy the constitutional injury may be to require the prosecution to reoffer the plea proposal. Once this has occurred, the judge can then exercise discretion in deciding whether to vacate the conviction from trial and accept the plea or leave the conviction undisturbed.” The Court noted that when implementing a remedy in both situations, the trial court must weigh various factors. Although it determined that the “boundaries of proper discretion need not be defined here” the Court noted two relevant considerations:

First, a court may take account of a defendant’s earlier expressed willingness, or unwillingness, to accept responsibility for his or her actions.  Second, it is not necessary here to decide as a constitutional rule that a judge is required to prescind (that is to say disregard) any information concerning the crime that was discovered after the plea offer was made.  The time continuum makes it difficult to restore the defendant and the prosecution to the precise positions they occupied prior to the rejection of the plea offer, but that baseline can be consulted in finding a remedy that does not require the prosecution to incur the expense of conducting a new trial.

Applying the relevant test to the case at hand, the Court found that the defendant met Strickland’s two-part test for ineffective assistance. The fact of deficient performance had been conceded and the defendant showed that but for counsel’s deficient performance there is a reasonable probability that both he and the trial court would have accepted the guilty plea. Additionally, as a result of not accepting the plea and being convicted at trial, respondent received a minimum sentence 3½ times greater than he would have received under the plea. The Court found that the correct remedy is to order the State to reoffer the plea agreement. It continued: “Presuming [the defendant] accepts the offer, the state trial court can then exercise its discretion in determining whether to vacate the convictions and resentence respondent pursuant to the plea agreement, to vacate only some of the convictions and resentence respondent accordingly, or to leave the convictions and sentence from trial undisturbed.”

In a capital case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals improperly granted the defendant habeas relief on his claim of penalty-phase ineffective assistance of counsel. The defendant and two accomplices broke into a house at night, killing two men who interrupted the burglary. A jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to death. After the California Supreme Court twice denied the defendant habeas relief, a federal district court held an evidentiary hearing and granted the defendant relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on grounds of “inadequacy of counsel by failure to investigate and present mitigation evidence at the penalty hearing.” Sitting en banc, the Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that the California Supreme Court unreasonably applied Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668 (1984), in denying the defendant’s claim of penalty-phase ineffective assistance of counsel. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the defendant failed to show that the state court unreasonably concluded that defense counsel’s penalty phase “family sympathy” strategy (that consisted principally of the testimony of the defendant’s mother) was appropriate. Likewise, the defendant failed to show that the state court unreasonably concluded and that even if counsel’s conduct was deficient, no prejudice occurred, given that the new evidence largely duplicated the mitigation evidence presented at trial and the extensive aggravating evidence.

The Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, which had held that the state court unreasonably applied existing law when rejecting the defendant’s claim that his counsel was deficient by failing to present expert testimony on serology, pathology, and blood spatter patterns; the defendant had asserted that this testimony would have confirmed his version of how the events in question occurred. The Court concluded that it was at least arguable that a reasonable attorney could decide to forgo inquiry into the blood evidence under the circumstances, which included, among other things, the fact that counsel had reason to question the truth of the defendant’s version of the events. The Court also rejected the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that counsel was deficient because he had not expected the prosecution to offer expert testimony and therefore was unable to offer expert testimony of his own in response. The Court concluded that although counsel was mistaken in thinking the prosecution would not present forensic testimony, the prosecution itself did not expect to make that presentation and had made no preparations for doing so on the eve of trial. For this reason alone, the Court concluded, it is at least debatable whether counsel’s error was so fundamental as to call the fairness of the trial into doubt. Finally, the Court concluded that it would not have been unreasonable for the state court to conclude that the defendant failed to establish prejudice. Justice Kagan did not participate in the consideration or decision of the case.

Premo v. Moore, 562 U.S. 115 (Jan. 19, 2011)

The Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, which had held that the state court unreasonably applied existing law when rejecting the defendant’s claim that counsel was ineffective by failing to file a motion to suppress the defendant’s confession to police before advising him to accept a plea offer. Counsel had explained that he discussed the plea bargain with the defendant without first challenging the confession to the police because suppression would serve little purpose given that the defendant had made full and admissible confessions to two other private individuals, both of whom could testify. The state court would not have been unreasonable to accept this explanation. Furthermore, the Court held, the state court reasonably could have determined that the defendant would have accepted the plea agreement even if his confession had been ruled inadmissible. Justice Kagan did not participate in the consideration or decision of the case.

Sears v. Upton, 561 U.S. 945 (June 29, 2010)

After the defendant was sentenced to death in state court, a state post-conviction court found that the defendant’s lawyer conducted a constitutionally inadequate penalty phase investigation that failed to uncover evidence of the defendant’s significant mental and psychological impairments. However, the state court found itself unable to assess whether counsel’s conduct prejudiced the defendant; because counsel presented some mitigating evidence, the state court concluded that it could not speculate as to the effect of the new evidence. It thus denied the defendant’s claim of ineffective assistance. The United State Supreme Court held that although the state court articulated the correct prejudice standard (whether there was a reasonable likelihood that the outcome of the trial would have been different if counsel had done more investigation), it failed to properly apply that standard. First, the state court put undue reliance on the assumed reasonableness of counsel’s mitigation theory, given that counsel conducted a constitutionally unreasonable mitigation investigation and that the defendant still might have been prejudiced by counsel’s failures even if his theory was reasonable. More fundamentally, the Court continued, in assessing prejudice, the state court failed to consider the totality of mitigation evidence (both that adduced at trial and the newly uncovered evidence). The prejudice inquiry, the Court explained, requires the state court to speculate as to the effect of the new evidence. A proper prejudice inquiry, it explained, requires the court to consider the newly discovered evidence along with that introduced at trial and assess whether there is a significant probability that the defendant would have received a different sentence after a constitutionally sufficient mitigation investigation.

After pleading guilty to a charge of transportation of a large amount of marijuana, the defendant, a lawful permanent resident of the United States for more than 40 years, faced deportation. He challenged his plea, arguing that his counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to inform him that the plea would result in mandatory deportation and by incorrectly informing him that he did not have to worry about his immigration status because he had been in the country so long. The Court concluded that when, as in the present case, “the deportation consequence [of a plea] is truly clear,” counsel must correctly inform the defendant of this consequence. However, the Court continued, where deportation consequences of a plea are “unclear or uncertain[] [t]he duty of the private practitioner . . . is more limited.” It continued: “When the law is not succinct and straightforward . . . , a criminal defense attorney need do no more than advise a noncitizen client that pending criminal charges may carry a risk of adverse immigration consequences.” The Court declined to rule whether the defendant was prejudiced by his lawyer’s deficient conduct.

Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290 (Jan. 20, 2010)

The state court’s conclusion that the defendant’s counsel made a strategic decision not to pursue or present evidence of his mental deficiencies was not an unreasonable determination of the facts. The Court did not reach the question of whether the strategic decision itself was a reasonable exercise of professional judgment under Strickland.

Smith v. Spisak, 558 U.S. 139 (Jan. 12, 2010)

Even if counsel’s closing argument at the sentencing phase of a capital trial fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, the defendant could not show that he was prejudiced by this conduct.

Porter v. McCollum, 558 U.S. 30 (Nov. 30, 2009)

A capital defendant’s trial counsel’s conduct fell below an objective standard of reasonableness when counsel failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence, including evidence of the defendant’s mental health, family background, and military service. The state court’s holding that the defendant was not prejudiced by counsel’s deficient representation was unreasonable. To establish prejudice, the defendant need not show that counsel’s deficient conduct more likely than not altered the outcome; the defendant need only establish a probability sufficient to undermine the confidence in the outcome, as he did in this case.

Wong v. Belmontes, 558 U.S. 15 (Nov. 16, 2009)

Even if counsel’s performance was deficient with regard to mitigating evidence in a capital trial, the defendant could not establish prejudice. Trial counsel testified that he presented a limited mitigating case in order to avoid opening the door for the prosecution to admit damaging evidence regarding a prior murder to which the defendant admitted but for which the defendant could not be tried. The defendant did not establish a reasonable probability that the jury would have rejected a capital sentence after it weighed the entire body of mitigating evidence (including the additional testimony counsel could have presented, some of which was cumulative) against the entire body of aggravating evidence (including evidence of the prior murder, which would have be admitted had counsel made a broader case for mitigation). 

Bobby v. Van Hook, 558 U.S. 4 (Nov. 9, 2009)

Although restatements of professional conduct, such as ABA Guidelines, can be useful guides to whether an attorney’s conduct was reasonable, they are relevant only when they describe the professional norms prevailing at the time that the representation occurred. In this case, the lower court erred by applying 2003 ABA standards to a trial that occurred eighteen years earlier. Moreover, the lower court erred by treating the ABA Guidelines “as inexorable commands with which all capital defense counsel must comply.” Such standards are merely guides to what is reasonable; they do not define reasonableness. The Court went on to reject the defendant’s arguments that counsel was ineffective under prevailing norms; the defendant had argued that his lawyers began their mitigation investigation too late and that the scope of their mitigation investigation was unreasonable. The Court held that even if the defendant’s counsel had performed deficiently, the defendant suffered no prejudice.

Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111 (Mar. 24, 2009)

Counsel was not ineffective by recommending that the defendant withdraw his insanity defense. The defendant entered pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity (NGI) at his first-degree murder trial in state court. State procedure required a bifurcated trial consisting of a guilt phase followed by a NGI phase. During the guilt phase, the defendant sought, through medical testimony, to show that he was insane and thus incapable of premeditation and deliberation. The jury nevertheless convicted him of first-degree murder. For the NGI phase, the defendant had the burden of showing insanity. Counsel had planned to meet that burden presenting medical testimony similar to that offered in the guilt phase. Although counsel had planned to offer additional testimony of the defendant’s parents, counsel learned that the parents were refusing to testify. At this point, counsel advised the defendant to withdraw his NGI plea and the defendant complied. Defense counsel was not ineffective by recommending withdrawal of a defense that counsel reasonably believed was doomed to fail. The defendant’s medical testimony already had been rejected in the guilt phase and the defendant’s parents’ expected testimony, which counsel believed to be the strongest evidence, was no longer available. Counsel is not required to raise claims that are almost certain to lose. Additionally, the defendant did now show prejudice; it was highly improbable that jury that had just rejected testimony about the defendant’s mental state when the state bore the burden of proof would have reached a different result when the defendant presented similar evidence at the NFI phase. 

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision below, 259 N.C. App. 127 (2018), the court reversed the Court of Appeals and held that appellate counsel was not ineffective for failing to cite a particular line of cases because the facts of this case were distinguishable from those in the line of cases the Court of Appeals would have had appellate counsel cite.  The Court of Appeals had held that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to make the argument under State v. Pakulski, 319 N.C. 562 (1987) that a trial court commits plain error when it instructs a jury on disjunctive theories of a crime, one of which is erroneous, and it cannot be discerned from the record the theory upon which the jury relied.  Noting that its opinion in Pakulski “lacks clarity” with respect to the standard of review applied there, the court explained that Pakulski applied the harmless error rather than plain error standard, as evidenced by subsequent precedent.  Because the defendant in this case did not object to the trial court’s jury instructions, the court explained that Pakulski “would have had little precedential value in the instant case, and appellate counsel’s failure to cite it was not objectively unreasonable.”  The court went on to explain that the arguments made by appellate counsel were appropriate for plain error review as counsel argued that the jury was presented with multiple theories of guilt, one of which was erroneous, and the error had a probable impact on the jury’s verdict.

Justice Ervin, joined by Justice Newby, concurred, agreeing with the court’s interpretation of Pakulski and its determination that appellate counsel was not ineffective, but writing separately to clarify the general matter that a defendant may be convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon under an acting in concert theory.  Noting that neither the North Carolina Supreme Court nor the Court of Appeals has ever directly held that a defendant can be convicted of that offense on the basis of an acting in concert theory, Justice Ervin described the “general availability of the acting in concert doctrine in possession-related cases” and stated that he was not persuaded that the theory is inapplicable to the offense of possession of a firearm by a felon.

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Davis, dissented, expressing the view that the majority opinion’s explanations of Pakulski and appellate counsel’s arguments were inaccurate.  In Justice Earls’ view, Pakulski applied the plain error standard of review and appellate counsel did not meet the obligation to argue to the Court of Appeals that the defendant could not be convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon based on someone else’s possession.

State v. Ryan, 371 N.C. 445 (Sept. 27, 2019)

After a hung jury and mistrial in 2009, the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon in 2010 and sentenced to death. Defendant appealed, but the case was remanded to the trial court to resolve the defendant’s post-conviction motions, including a motion for appropriate relief (“MAR”) alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. After conducting a hearing on the MAR, the trial court found that the defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel and ordered the convictions vacated. In its written order, the trial court found that the state’s DNA expert “failed to follow scientific protocol and included scientifically invalid interpretations of DNA samples,” and defendant’s counsel was deficient for failing to obtain an expert to assist him in cross-examining the state’s expert and presenting a contrary interpretation. Additionally, the trial court found that defendant’s counsel was deficient for failing to call three witnesses who could have testified in support of defendant’s alibi or impeached other witnesses. The defense witnesses also could have testified that they were “threatened…with criminal charges if they testified in criminal court in accordance with their out of court statements,” a fact that “should have been brought to the attention of the trial court and the jury.” The state appealed the order granting the MAR, and argued that the trial court: (i) made findings in its order that were not supported by the evidence developed at the hearing; (ii) overstated the significance of the flawed DNA evidence in light of other evidence of the defendant’s guilt; and (iii) misapplied the standard for evaluating ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), which requires showing that counsel’s performance “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” as well as “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

In a per curiam decision, three justices voted to affirm the order granting the MAR and three justices voted to reverse it. (Justice Ervin did not participate in the decision.) As a result, the superior court’s order granting the MAR and vacating the defendant’s conviction is undisturbed, but stands without precedential value. [Note: the per curiam opinion does not include a factual summary or legal analysis. To review the parties’ arguments, see Appellant’s Brief (12/21/18), Appellee’s Brief (2/22/19), and Appellant’s Reply Brief(3/11/19).]

The court per curiam affirmed an unpublished decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 813 S.E.2d 478 (2018) holding that the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) alleging ineffective assistance of appellate counsel with respect to admission of 404(b) evidence of the defendant’s prior sexual acts. The Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant made a sufficient showing of both deficient performance by appellate counsel and actual prejudice. The defendant was charged with statutory sexual offense, sex offense by a substitute parent, indecent liberties with a minor, and sexual battery. The defendant filed two motions in limine to preclude testimony of Melissa and Tony (the defendant’s adult niece and nephew) regarding sexual encounters with the defendant that allegedly occurred while the defendant was a teenager. The trial court denied the defendant’s motions and allowed the witnesses to testify under Rule 404(b). Without any contemporaneous objection by defense counsel, the witnesses testified at trial. The defendant was found guilty and was sentenced to prison. Appellate counsel argued that the trial court erred by admitting testimony by Melissa and Tony. However counsel’s brief ignored the fact that trial counsel failed to object to the testimony when it was offered and did not seek plain error review. After reviewing the brief, a member of the Office of Appellate Defender contacted appellate counsel by email and suggested that he either file a substitute brief requesting plain error review or submit a reply brief explaining how the issue had, in fact, been preserved. Appellate counsel responded stating, in part, that it was not necessary to allege plain error. Subsequently the Court of Appeals held that the defendant failed to preserve the issue for review because trial counsel failed to object to the 404(b) evidence at trial. It further stated that it would not review an appeal for plain error where that issue had not been alleged. The defendant subsequently filed a MAR arguing that appellate counsel’s failure to assert plain error deprived him of his right to effective assistance of appellate counsel. At a hearing on the MAR, appellate counsel acknowledged that his representation was deficient. The trial court however denied the MAR, finding that appellate counsel’s performance did not prejudice the defendant because even if appellate counsel had argued plain error, there was no reasonable probability that the Court of Appeals would have found plain error and reversed the conviction. The defendant filed a petition for writ of certiorari seeking review of the MAR order. The Court of Appeals reversed. It began by considering whether the 404(b) evidence was properly admitted at trial as proof of common plan or scheme. It concluded that assuming arguendo that the acts described were sufficiently similar to the instances alleged by the child victim, the temporal proximity requirement of the 404(b) analysis was not met. Each of the acts in question occurred over 20 years before the first incident described by the child victim in this case. Additionally, there was no evidence of recurring sexual acts, nor did the State establish that the defendant’s lack of access to children explained the lack of allegations of sexual contact between the defendant and minors during the intervening decades. The court went on to reject the State’s alternative argument that the trial court properly admitted the evidence to establish the defendant’s motive. In this respect, the court concluded: “Testimony suggesting that a defendant committed a sexual act with a minor in the past is simply not enough by itself to warrant the admission of such evidence under the ‘motive’ prong of Rule 404(b).”

            Having found that the trial court erred by admitting the 404(b) evidence, the court found that the defendant met his burden of showing a reasonable probability that, had the issue been properly raised on appeal, the Court of Appeals would have found plain error and reversed the conviction. Specifically, the court evaluated the evidence in conjunction with the jury’s assessment of the victim’s credibility and the weaknesses in the State’s case, as discussed in the court’s opinion.

            Finally, the court determined that appellate counsel performed below an objective standard of reasonableness, satisfying the first prong of the Strickland ineffective assistance of counsel analysis. The court noted, in part, that appellate counsel ignored the fact that trial counsel had failed to object to the evidence at trial, meaning that the issue was not properly preserved for appeal. Although a request for the court of appeals to conduct plain error review was the only recourse available under the circumstances, appellate counsel failed to invoke the plain error doctrine in his appellate brief. This issue was immediately flagged by a member of the Office of Appellate Defender.

(1) Addressing the merits of the defendant’s Strickland ineffective assistance of counsel claim in this direct appeal in a capital case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that he received ineffective assistance of counsel when his lawyers disclosed to law enforcement where to look for the five-year-old child victim. Because the trial court heard evidence and made findings on this issue in a pretrial motion, the court determined that no further investigation was required and it could address the merits of the claim on direct appeal. After the defendant was charged with kidnapping, he engaged the services of attorney Rogers, who immediately associated with attorney Brewer to assist in the matter. When Rogers and Brewer undertook representation of the defendant on 13 November, the victim had been missing since the morning of 10 November and a massive search was underway, in hope that the child would be found alive. The defendant admitted to police that he had taken the victim to a hotel. Hotel cameras and witnesses confirmed this admission. By 12 November, law enforcement agencies and volunteers were searching the area around Highway 87, where the defendant’s cell phone data had placed him. Rogers had conversations with law enforcement and was aware of the evidence against the defendant and of the defendant’s admission to taking the victim to the hotel. Rogers was also aware of the defendant’s three felony convictions, which constituted aggravating circumstances that could be used at a capital sentencing proceeding. Rogers and Brewer met with the defendant and discussed the fact that the child had not been found and the possibility that capital charges could be forthcoming. The defendant denied hurting or killing the victim. Rogers asked the defendant if he had any information about the victim’s location, and the defendant told Rogers and Brewer that he did. Rogers and Brewer discussed the death penalty with the defendant, and the defendant agreed that it would be in his best interest to offer information that might be helpful as to the victim’s location. Rogers explained that providing this information could be helpful with respect to a possible plea agreement or with respect to mitigating circumstances and could avoid a sentence of death. The defendant agreed with Rogers and Brewer that they would tell law enforcement where to search for the victim, without specifically stating the defendant’s name or that he was the source of the information. According to Rogers, he was trying to give the defendant the best advice to save the defendant’s life, and the defendant understood the situation and agreed with the strategy. On 14 and 15 November Brewer told law enforcement where to look for the victim. On 16 November, the victim’s body was found in the specified area.

On appeal, the defendant argued that his lawyers’ conduct was deficient because they gave the State incriminating evidence against him without seeking any benefit or protection for the defendant in return. He asserted that his attorneys’ conduct was objectively unreasonable because they had a duty to seek or secure a benefit for him in exchange for the disclosure. The court disagreed. The court determined that to the extent counsel has a duty to seek a benefit in exchange for disclosing information, here the lawyers did so. The purpose of the disclosure was to show that the defendant could demonstrate cooperation and remorse, which would benefit the defendant in the form of achieving a plea agreement for a life sentence or as to mitigating circumstances and ultimately to avoid the death penalty. In fact, the State made a plea offer of life in prison, which the defendant rejected, and he later refused to present mitigating evidence at trial. Despite his agreement at the time of the disclosure, the defendant argued on appeal that a plea agreement for life in prison to avoid the death penalty was not a reasonable objective that could justify the disclosure of incriminating evidence at that stage because his attorneys were aware that he denied causing the victim harm and because, according to the defendant, “everything turned” on his innocence defense. The court found this contention difficult to square with the record, in light of the fact that defense counsel also were aware that the defendant had in essence confessed to kidnapping the child in the middle of the night and taking her to a remote hotel where he was the last and only person seen with her. Moreover, they knew he had information on her remote location, though he was unwilling to disclose how he acquired that information. They knew that this information directed law enforcement to search a more specific area in the vicinity in which an extensive search tracking the defendant’s cell phone data was already underway, suggesting an incriminating discovery would be imminent. Thus, while the disclosure certainly would be incriminating to the defendant and could lead to additional incriminating evidence against him, the disclosure must be viewed in light of the already heavily incriminating evidence against the defendant, and the likelihood that further incriminating evidence would be forthcoming.

The defendant further argued that his lawyers should have pushed harder for better concessions for him. Recognizing that in many situations it may make strategic sense for counsel to negotiate the best possible agreement before disclosing potentially incriminating information, the court noted that that is not necessarily true in situations such as this one, where time was a substantial factor. Had law enforcement located the victim’s body before the defendant’s disclosure, the opportunity to obtain any benefit in return for the information would have been irrevocably lost. Additionally, given that the defendant denied causing the victim harm, there was a possibility that the victim was still alive. In the end, the court disagreed with the defendant that his attorneys acted unreasonably by targeting a plea agreement for life imprisonment and avoiding the death penalty in exchange for making the disclosure. “[U]nder the unique and difficult circumstances here--with the already heavily incriminating evidence against defendant, as well as the apparent likelihood that the discovery of further incriminating evidence could be imminent” and the presumption of reasonableness of counsels’ conduct, the court held that the lawyers’ decision to disclose potentially incriminating information with the sought-after goal of avoiding imposition of the death penalty did not fall below an objective standard of reasonableness.

The court determined that it need not resolve the more difficult question of whether defense counsel erred by not first securing or attempting to secure a plea agreement for life in prison before making the disclosure. It explained: “we need not answer this question because, given that we have held that a plea agreement for life in prison and avoidance of the death penalty was a reasonable disposition in these circumstances, defendant cannot establish any prejudice when the State did offer defendant a plea agreement for life in prison.”

(2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his attorneys were deficient by failing to conduct an adequate investigation before disclosing to the police where to search for the victim, finding that the defendant’s assertions were not supported by the record. For example, the defendant argued that lawyer Rogers failed to look at any formal discovery materials before making the disclosure, yet Rogers testified that at that early stage of the case there was no discovery file to examine. Considering the defendant’s other assertions, the court found that the defendant was unable to identify anything Roger’s allegedly inadequate investigation failed to uncover and which would have had any effect on the reasonableness of his lawyers’ strategic decision to make the disclosure. Nor, the court noted, does the defendant suggest what other avenues the lawyers should have pursued.

(3) The court rejected the defendant’s assertion that his lawyers erroneously advised him that they would shield his identity as the source of the information but that their method of disclosure revealed him as the source. The defendant’s argument was premised on the fact that his agreement with his lawyers was conditioned on their implicit promise that they would prevent the disclosure from being attributed to the defendant, even by inference. The court found that this assertion was not supported by the record, noting that the entire purpose of the disclosure, to which the defendant agreed, was that it be attributable to the defendant to show cooperation. The court found that the fact that the defendant and his lawyers agreed not to explicitly name the defendant as the source of the disclosure cannot be read as an implicit understanding that his lawyers would shield him as the source but rather must be read in the context of their conversation, in which the defendant told his lawyers that he had information about the victim’s location but did not explain how he had acquired that information. The method of disclosure allowed an immediate inference of cooperation but avoided any inadvertent admission of guilt. The court explained:

Certainly, that the information came from defendant’s attorneys allowed an inference that defendant was the source, which, while demonstrating immediate cooperation on the part of defendant, was also potentially incriminating as it suggested an inference of guilt. But this trade-off goes to the heart of the agreed upon strategy—the mounting evidence against defendant was already highly incriminating, and providing this information to the police that could potentially be further incriminating was a strategic decision made to avoid imposition of the death penalty.

(4) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that by disclosing the location of the victim to the police without first securing any benefit in return, his lawyers were essentially working for the police and that the situation resulted in a complete breakdown of the adversarial process resulting in a denial of counsel. The court declined to consider this issue as a denial of counsel claim, finding that the defendant’s challenge is more properly brought as a Strickland attorney error claim, which the court had already rejected.

 

State v. Todd, 369 N.C. 707 (June 9, 2017)

The Court of Appeals erred by holding that the defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel when appellate counsel failed to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the defendant’s armed robbery conviction. Before the Supreme Court, the State argued that appellate counsel made a strategic decision not to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence. However, because the lower courts did not determine whether there was a strategic reason for counsel to refrain from addressing the sufficiency of the evidence, the record was insufficient to determine the merits of the ineffective assistance claim. The court reversed and remanded so that the trial court could fully address whether counsel made a strategic decision not to raise the sufficiency of the evidence argument, if such a decision was reasonable and whether the defendant suffered prejudice. 

The defendant was indicted for stalking, violating a domestic violence protective order, and making a false report to law enforcement. The state gave notice of two statutory aggravating factors under G.S. 15A-1340.16(d)(5) (disrupting enforcement of laws) and 1340.16(d)(15) (taking advantage of position of trust), and notice that the state would seek to prove the existence of an additional prior record level point under G.S. 15A-1340.14(b)(7) (defendant was on probation at the time of the offense) for sentencing purposes. The state filed superseding indictments alleging additional offenses, and the defendant was ultimately convicted at trial of one count of perjury and one count of violating a DVPO. At sentencing, the state asked to proceed only on an “aggravating factor” for the defendant being on probation at the time of the offense, and defense counsel admitted that the defendant was on probation. The trial judge found it as an aggravating factor under the catch-all provision in G.S. 15A-1340.16(d)(20) for “any other aggravating factor reasonably related to the purposes of sentencing” and entered an aggravated judgment.

On appeal, the defendant argued he received ineffective assistance of counsel based on his attorney’s failure to object to the aggravating factor, and the appellate court agreed. To pursue one of the enumerated aggravating factors listed in G.S. 15A-1340.16(d), the state must give notice of its intent, but the factor does not have to be pleaded in the indictment. However, aggravating factors under the catch-all provision in section (d)(20) must be “included in an indictment or other charging instrument.” G.S. 15A-1340.16(a4). Defense counsel erred by failing to object to the factor used at sentencing since it was not alleged in any of the indictments, and the defendant suffered prejudice because he otherwise could not have received an aggravated sentence. Even if the state had offered the factor as originally indicated in its notice to add 1 point to defendant’s prior record under G.S. 15A-1340.14(b)(7), it would not have changed his record level and therefore did not expose him to a higher sentence. The appellate court vacated the judgment and remanded for resentencing.

Judge Tyson concurred with the majority opinion, but wrote separately because he also would have found that the trial court erred by accepting a stipulation from defense counsel, instead of addressing the defendant personally to ensure that it was a knowing and voluntary waiver of his right to have the factor proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

In this sex offense case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion for a mistrial and instead giving a curative instruction to the jury in response to the State’s objectionable questioning of a witness.  Defense counsel did not admit the defendant’s guilt over his objection in violation of State v. Harbison or McCoy v. Louisiana by admitting an element of the charged offense in closing argument.

(1) Prior to trial in response to the defendant’s motion to exclude certain potential testimony, the State agreed to refrain from asking a detective about the victim’s grandmother allegedly pressuring the victim not to testify.  At trial, the State asked the victim about the manner in which she had been pressured not to testify and the defendant objected.  The trial court sustained the objection but denied the defendant’s motion for a mistrial, instead issuing a curative instruction striking the testimony from the record and from the jury’s consideration.  The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying a mistrial and properly exercised its discretion and cured any potential prejudice by issuing the curative instruction and polling the jury.

(2) Even if defense counsel admitted an element of second-degree forcible sexual offense by saying in closing argument that the State would have had a “slam-dunk incest case” if the defendant and the victim were related to each other and referring to an issue of consent under the “dirty and unpalatable” facts of the case, counsel did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights by admitting the defendant’s guilt without his consent.  The court explained that defense counsel’s statements may have constituted admissions of the “sexual act with another person” element of the crime, but did not constitute an admission of guilt because counsel “vociferously argued” that the defendant did not perpetrate the sexual contact “by force and against the will” of the victim, another element of the crime.  First addressing the issue through the lens of ineffective assistance of counsel, the court explained that an admission of an element does not constitute an admission of guilt and consequently counsel’s comments were not a Harbison violation.  The court then distinguished defense counsel’s admission of “at most” an element of the offense from the situation in McCoy v. Louisiana, ___ U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 1500 (2018) where defense counsel admitted his client’s guilt and found that no Sixth Amendment structural error occurred.

In this Moore County case, the defendant was convicted of first-degree rape and sex offense, crime against nature, possession of firearm by felon, communicating threats and various assaults stemming from attacks on his estranged then-wife. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court plainly erred by permitting multiple witnesses for the State to refer to the woman as the “victim,” that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to those references, and that the trial court plainly erred by using “victim” to describe the woman in its jury instructions.

(1) A total of eight witnesses for the State used the term “victim” in reference to the woman, five of whom were law enforcement officers and four of whom were expert witnesses. The defendant contended this amounted to improper vouching for the accuser’s credibility and argued the trial court should have intervened ex mero motu. The court found that the defendant could not show prejudice and therefore could not establish plain error. “…[T]he strength of the State’s evidence against defendant . . . outweighed any potential subliminal effect of the witnesses’ occasional references to [the woman] as the victim.” Slip. op. at 13.

(2) For the same reasons, the defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim failed. The defendant could not demonstrate a reasonable possibility of a different result at trial had his counsel objected to the uses of the word “victim” and therefore could not establish prejudice under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). 

(3) According to the defendant, the trial court’s use of the word “victim” in its jury instruction violated the statutory mandate against expression of judicial opinion. Rejecting this argument, the court observed:

Our Supreme Court has consistently rejected a defendant’s attempt to couch the trial court’s use of the term “victim” in its jury instructions as an improper expression of judicial opinion in violation of N.C.G.S. §§ 15A-1222 and 1232. . . Likewise, our Supreme Court has rejected arguments that the trial court’s use of the term “victim” in its charge to the jury amounts to plain error . . . Id. at 17.

Any constitutional challenge to the jury instructions on this point was not raised in the trial court and therefore waived on appeal. The convictions were thus unanimously affirmed.

Defendant was convicted in December 2016 of trafficking in opium or heroin and related offenses He appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury that possession pursuant to a valid prescription was a defense to trafficking by possession. The Court of Appeals in State v. Lane, 257 N.C. App. 262 (2017) (unpublished), held the trial court did not commit plain error because defendant could not show that he was prejudiced by the lack of such an instruction. The defendant subsequently filed a motion for relief alleging ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on his trial counsel’s failure to request a jury instruction on the definition of “unlawful” in the context of trafficking by possession or an instruction that possession pursuant to a valid prescription was a defense to trafficking in possession.

The trial court denied relief, concluding that because the defendant was not prejudiced under the plain error standard, his ineffective assistance of counsel claim must also fail. The defendant sought certiorari review, which the Court of Appeals granted.

(1) The Court of Appeals held that the plain error standard and ineffective assistance of counsel test are not so similar that a finding of no plain error precludes a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel. Noting that neither the Court of Appeals nor the North Carolina Supreme Court has thoroughly examined and compared the two standards, the Court of Appeals took the opportunity to do so in Lane II.

Prejudice under plain error requires that the trial court’s error have had a probable impact on the jury’s finding of guilt. The plain error rule requires a defendant to show that the error in question tilted the scales and caused the jury to convict the defendant.

In contrast, prejudice under the ineffective assistance of counsel test requires a showing of reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome. Under the reasonable probability standard, a defendant does not have to show that counsel’s deficient conduct more likely than not altered the outcome in the case. The defendant does need to demonstrate, however, that at least one juror would have struck a different balance. While under the reasonable probability standard the likelihood of a different result must be substantial, not just conceivable, it is something less than that required under plain error.

There are other significant differences between the standards. Plain error is applied to trial court errors. Ineffective assistance of counsel applies to counsel errors and takes into account the objective reasonableness of counsel’s performance. Plain error relief requires there be settled precedent at the time of appellate review; the ineffective assistance standard considers available authority at the time of the allegedly deficient representation and may require that counsel raise material issues even absent decisive precedent.

Thus, the court concluded that when deficient performance by counsel creates a fundamentally unfair trial whose results are unreliable, an ineffective assistance of counsel claim will be successful despite the absence of plain error.

(2) Under the facts of the case, the Court of Appeals determined that trial counsel’s failure to request that the jury be instructed on the definition of “unlawful” and on the defense of possession pursuant to a valid prescription did not undermine confidence in the result and did not create a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different.

This Mecklenburg County case involved charges of attempted first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury. The defendant and two other men (one of whom was unidentified) entered the victim’s home and attacked him with a machete and hammer. The victim’s girlfriend escaped with an infant and called police. The defendant and his named co-conspirator apprehended the girlfriend outside of the home, where the defendant instructed the other man to kill her. He refused, and the defendant fled; the other man stayed with the woman until police arrived (and became the named co-conspirator in the indictment). The defendant was convicted of all charges at trial and sentenced to a minimum term of 336 months.

The defendant failed to preserve his challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the conspiracy charge. At the motion to dismiss, defense counsel conceded that the state had sufficient evidence for conspiracy. The court declined to invoke Rule 2 of the Appellate Rules of Procedure to reach the issue, finding the case did not present the type of “exceptional circumstances” justifying Rule 2 review. The defendant maintained in the alternative that his trial counsel’s failure to move for dismissal constituted ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”). IAC claims are typically reviewed via a motion for appropriate relief, where facts may be developed at an evidentiary hearing. Here, though, the cold record was sufficient for the court to determine the IAC claim. “An attorney’s failure to move to dismiss a charge is not ineffective assistance of counsel when the evidence is sufficient to defeat the motion.” Slip op. at 6. The conspiracy charge here was amply supported by the evidence—it showed three men attacked the victim in the victims in the victims’ bedroom and that the attack was “simultaneous [and] coordinated.” This was substantial evidence of an agreement between the attackers to murder the victim, and the motion to dismiss was properly denied. The defendant thus could not demonstrate prejudice for an IAC claim, and the claim was rejected.

In this Duplin County case, the defendant was convicted by a jury of financial card fraud, obtaining property by false pretenses, identity theft, and habitual felon. She appealed, arguing that her motion to dismiss for insufficiency of the evidence should have been granted as to the identity theft and that she received ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed.

(1) The evidence showed that the defendant used the credit cards of two other people to make purchases for herself, representing herself as the owner of the cards. The defendant eventually admitted to police that she used the credit cards and provided a full written confession. At the close of evidence, the defendant asked the trial court to dismiss two (of six) counts of identity theft regarding Victim #1 based on a lack of proof that the defendant acted without that victim’s permission. On appeal, the defendant challenged all six identity theft convictions, contending that there was no evidence she meant to represent herself as the two victims. This was a different argument than the one made to the trial court and was not preserved under State v. Walker, 252 N.C. App. 409 (2017) (holding that, without a “global” motion to dismiss, sufficiency arguments not raised in the trial court are waived on appeal).

Defendant failed to preserve any argument as to the four charges of identity theft pertaining to [Victim #2]. Likewise, the defendant failed to preserve the specific argument—that there was insufficient evidence that Defendant intended to represent that she was [Victim #1]. We thus decline to reach the merits of her argument.

The court declined to invoke its discretionary authority under Rule 2 of the Appellate Rules of Procedure to consider the unpreserved arguments.

(2) The defendant argued that she received ineffective assistance of counsel based on her trial lawyer’s failure to preserve the above issues, arguing that the motion to dismiss for insufficiency would have been granted if had her trial lawyer made the argument. While ineffective assistance claims should normally be litigated through a motion for appropriate relief, here, the “cold record” was sufficient to allow appellate review of the claim. The defendant’s argument that the State failed to present evidence that she represented herself as the victims was meritless under State v. Jones, 367 N.C. 299, 304 (2014) (rejecting interpretation of identity theft statute to require use of the victim’s name, which would cause “absurd” results). The defendant’s use of the victims’ credit card numbers was sufficient “identifying information” under the statute and it was not error for defense counsel to fail to make this argument. The defendant did not therefore receive ineffective assistance of counsel.

(3) The trial court instructed the jury on false or conflicting statements of the defendant under N.C. P. I.—Crim. 105.21. The defendant originally told police that an ex-boyfriend was responsible for the fraud before later admitting to the conduct. On appeal, she argued that this instruction to the jury prejudiced her trial by impugning her character. The court disagreed.

[This] instruction is proper not only where defendant’s own statements contradict each other but also where the defendant’s statements flatly contradict relevant evidence. The instruction is in appropriate if it fails to make clear to the jury that the falsehood does not create a presumption of guilt.

The statements of the defendant to law enforcement were contradictory and conflicting, “tending to reflect the mental processes of a person possessed of a guilty conscience seeking to divert suspicion and to exculpate [her]self.” The instruction was given in accordance with the considerable warnings in the commentary to that pattern instruction, was supported by the evidence, and was therefore proper under these facts.  

The defendant, a lawful permanent resident, was charged with various drug offenses and pled guilty under Alford to the charges of possession of heroin and maintaining a vehicle or dwelling, for which the trial judge imposed a two-year suspended sentence. About one year into his sentence, the defendant was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and placed into detention and removal proceedings. He filed a motion for appropriate relief (MAR), arguing that had he known the plea would affect his immigration status and result in deportation, he would not have taken it. The trial judge denied the MAR. The Court of Appeals granted certiorari and ordered the trial judge to review whether the defendant’s Alford plea was induced by misadvice of counsel and whether the misadvice resulted in prejudice. The trial judge again denied the MAR. He found that the defendant had been advised that he might be deported if he pled guilty and that he should speak to an immigration attorney. The Court of Appeals granted certiorari a second time. Relying on Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010), and State v. Nkiam, 243 N.C. App. 777 (2015), the Court recognized that it is not sufficient for an attorney to advise a client that there is a risk of deportation where, as here, deportation is presumptively mandatory. The Court stated: “Waffling language suggesting a mere possibility of deportation does not adequately inform the client of the risk before him or her, and does not permit a defendant to make a reasoned and informed decision.” The Court remanded the case to the trial judge to determine prejudice—that is, whether there is a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s ineffective assistance, the result of the proceeding would have been different. The Court specifically directed the trial court to consider the impact of other charges against the defendant. The Court recognized that a defendant cannot show a different outcome, as required by the prejudice standard, if deportation would still result from other charges. The Court found the record insufficient on this issue. The defendant had a prior drug paraphernalia conviction, but that offense does not render him presumptively deportable, and other pending charges, but the record did not contain findings as to whether any other convictions made the defendant deportable.

The defendant was convicted by a jury of two counts of statutory sexual offense with a child by an adult and one count of first-degree kidnapping based on his repeated sexual assaults of his seven-year-old niece. The trial court sentenced the defendant to prison and ordered him to enroll in satellite-based monitoring (SBM) for life. (1) Based on the defendant’s failure to file a written notice of appeal as required by Rule 3 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure, the court of appeals concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to hear his SBM appeal. The defendant also failed to argue in the trial court that SBM was an unconstitutional search under the Fourth Amendment. The court of appeals declined grant his petition for writ of certiorari and, in the absence of evidence of a manifest injustice, to invoke Appellate Rule 2 to address his unpreserved constitutional argument. (2) A pediatrician that the State tendered as an expert testified without objection that children don’t tend to make up stories about sexual abuse, and that the victim “gave excellent detail” and that her story was “very consistent.” The court of appeals found no error, noting that while it would be improper for an expert witness to opine based on an interview with a victim as to whether the child had been sexually abused, statements regarding the child’s consistency in recounting the alleged abuse are nevertheless admissible. (3) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that witnesses’ repeated use of the words “disclose” and “disclosure” to describe what the victim told them in private amounted to impermissible vouching. Citing State v. Betts, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Sept. 3, 2019), and declining to follow unpublished State v. Jamison, ___ N.C. App. ___, 821 S.E.2d 665 (2018) (unpublished), the court agreed that nothing about the term “disclose” conveys believability or credibility. (4) Some statements admitted by a marriage and family therapist who treated the victim were improper vouching. Her general statement about “this incident that happened” was not improper, but her statement that the victim would need therapy “because of the sexual abuse that she experienced” and “I believe [the victim]” were improper as an opinion of the victim’s veracity. However, in the absence of an objection at trial and in light of the substantial evidence against the defendant (medical evidence and testimony from corroborating witnesses), the court concluded that the admission of the improper evidence did not rise to the level of plain error warranting a new trial. (5) Finally, defense counsel’s failure to object to the improper vouching evidence was not ineffective assistance of counsel where there was no reasonable probability that the errors prejudiced the defendant.

In this child sexual assault case, the court reversed the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR) seeking a new trial for ineffective assistance of counsel related to opinion testimony by the State’s expert. The defendant was convicted of sexual offenses against Kim. On appeal the defendant argued that the trial court should have granted his MAR based on ineffective assistance of both trial and appellate counsel regarding expert opinion testimony that the victim had in fact been sexually abused.

(1) The court began by concluding that the testimony offered by the State’s expert that Kim had, in fact, been sexually abused was inadmissible. The court reiterated the rule that where there is no physical evidence of abuse, an expert may not opine that sexual abuse has in fact occurred. In this case the State offered no physical evidence that Kim had been sexually abused. On direct examination the State’s expert testified consistent with governing law. On cross-examination, however, the expert expressed the opinion that Kim “had been sexually abused.” And on redirect the State’s expert again opined that Kim had been sexually abused. In the absence of physical evidence of sexual abuse, the expert’s testimony was inadmissible.

(2) The court went on to hold, however, that because the defendant failed to raise the issue on direct appeal, his claim that trial counsel was ineffective by failing to move to strike the expert’s opinion that victim Kim had in fact been sexually abused was procedurally defaulted. The record from the direct appeal was sufficient for the court to determine in that proceeding that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel. Defense counsel failed to object to testimony that was “clearly inadmissible” and the court could not “fathom any trial strategy or tactic which would involve allowing such opinion testimony to remain unchallenged.” And in fact, the trial transcript reveals that allowing the testimony to remain unchallenged was not part of any trial strategy. Moreover trial counsel’s failure to object to the opinion testimony was prejudicial. Because the “cold record” on direct appeal was sufficient for the court to rule on the ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the MAR claim was procedurally barred under G.S. 15A-1419(a)(3).

(3) The court continued, however, by holding that the defendant was denied effective assistance of appellate counsel in his first appeal when appellate counsel failed to argue that it was error to allow the expert’s testimony that Kim had, in fact, been sexually abused. The court noted that the ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim was not procedurally barred. And, applying the Strickland attorney error standard, the court held that appellate counsel’s failure to raise the issue on direct appeal constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. The court thus reversed and remanded for entry of an order granting the defendant’s MAR.

One judge on the panel concurred with the majority “that appellate counsel was ineffective”; concurred in result only with the majority’s conclusion that the claim regarding trial counsel’s ineffectiveness was procedurally barred; but, concluding that the defendant was not prejudiced by the expert’s testimony, dissented from the remainder of the opinion.

The court reversed the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s motion for reconsideration and motion for appropriate relief (MAR), holding that the requirement that counsel advise the defendant of the immigration consequences of a plea agreement established by Padilla does not apply retroactively. The defendant pled no contest to a drug charge in 1997. In 2015 the defendant asserted a MAR claim under Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010), that he was not informed of the impact his conviction would have on his immigration status, particularly the risk of deportation. The trial court initially denied the MAR but subsequently granted a motion to reconsider and entered an order granting the MAR. Reversing, the court noted that it had previously decided, in State v. Alshaif, 219 N.C. App. 162 (2012), that Padilla does not apply retroactively.

In this second-degree murder and armed robbery case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that trial counsel was ineffective by failing to ensure the jury knew that the State’s key witness, Damon Bell, could have been but was not charged with first-degree murder in the case. The defendant’s argument hinged on the notion that Bell’s testimony was the result of a deal or immunity agreement with the State that the jury should have been informed about. The defendant argued that he suffered prejudice because the jury did not know that Bell was receiving something of value in exchange for his testimony which might bear on his credibility. However, counsel repeatedly attempted to elicit that information on cross-examination of both Bell and a Detective. Moreover, during the charge conference counsel requested that the trial court instruct the jury on the testimony of a witness with immunity or quasi-immunity. The prosecutor adamantly maintained that there had been no discussions with Bell or his lawyer related to testifying in exchange for immunity, a reduction in sentencing, or any other concession that might undermine his credibility. The trial court denied the request for the instruction but went on to state that it would instruct the jury on the testimony of interested witnesses and accomplice testimony. The record reveals that no deal or immunity agreement with the State existed. On these facts the court rejected the ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

In this drug trafficking case, the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) which asserted ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. Drug were discovered after a vehicle stop. The defendant lost his motion to suppress and after being convicted appealed. On appeal appellate counsel did not challenge the trial court’s findings of fact in connection with the suppression motion, and thus they were binding on appeal. After the Court of Appeals affirmed, the defendant filed a MAR alleging ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. Specifically he asserted that there was no evidence to support the finding of fact that the officer was aware of an inspection violation at the time of the stop. The defendant asserted that if appellate counsel had properly challenged this finding of fact, the court would have reversed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress and vacated the convictions. The trial court denied the defendant’s MAR, concluding that to rule favorably would require the court to reverse the order denying the motion to suppress and thus violate the rule that one Superior Court Judge cannot overrule another. The defendant filed a petition for writ of certiorari, which the Court of Appeals granted.

                  The court began by finding that the rule that one Superior Court Judge cannot overrule another “is generally inapplicable where a judge is tasked with deciding the merits of a defendant’s motion for appropriate relief.” The court noted that such action is authorized by the MAR statute. Thus, the trial court acted under a misapprehension of the law when it denied the defendant’s MAR on grounds that it would impermissibly require the MAR court to overrule another Superior Court Judge.

                  The court went on to find that the defendant was denied effective assistance of appellate counsel. Appellate counsel’s failure to challenge the trial court’s findings of fact regarding the inspection violation was not a reasonable strategic decision but rather an oversight. In fact, appellate counsel’s affidavit stated that counsel had “missed” the issue. Thus, the defendant satisfied the first prong of his ineffective assistance of counsel claim: deficient performance. The court went on to conclude that the defendant was prejudiced by counsel’s deficient performance. Here, had appellate counsel challenged the trial court’s findings of fact, there is a reasonable probability that the Court of Appeals would have concluded that the trial court’s finding that the stop was initiated because of an inspection violation was not supported by competent evidence and thus could not support the trial court’s conclusion as to the stop’s validity. Specifically, the DMV printout at issue contained no information concerning the vehicle’s inspection status and the officers did not claim any other knowledge of the vehicle’s inspection violation. In light of the actual DMV information presented, the officers could not have known that the vehicle’s inspection was expired at the time of the stop. Given the reasonable probability that the inspection status would not have been found to support the validity of the stop, this court would have proceeded to examine the defendant’s arguments pertaining to the two other grounds upon which the trial court based its denial of his motion to suppress, and it likely would have found for the defendant on both.

In this assault case tried as a bench trial, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that he received ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) when his lawyer failed to assert and argue self-defense. The defendant filed a MAR with his direct appeal, asserting the IAC claim. Finding that it could resolve the issue on direct appeal, the court considered the IAC claim on the merits. The defendant argued that counsel did not give pretrial notice of his intention to present a defense of self-defense and that he failed to mention self-defense in his opening statement, failed to ask the court at the close of the evidence to consider self-defense, and failed to argue self-defen