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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E.g., 06/18/2024
E.g., 06/18/2024

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.

In this Guilford County case, the State appealed an order granting dismissal of the assault, interfering with emergency communications, and communicating threats charges against defendant after the district court imposed a $250 secured bond when defendant announced his intention to appeal to superior court. The Court of Appeals reversed the superior court order dismissing the charges, remanding for further findings to support the imposition of a secured cash bond. 

In June of 2019, defendant was charged with felony assault by strangulation, interfering with emergency communications, and communicating threats, and received a $2,500 unsecured bond for pretrial release. The State reduced the assault by strangulation charge to simple assault, and a district court bench trial was held in August 2022. Defendant was found guilty on all charges, and given a 150-day suspended sentence. Defendant then gave notice of appeal, at which point the district court modified defendant’s pretrial release to require a $250 secured bond, leading to defendant being taken into custody for a few hours while his family posted the bond. In October 2022, defendant moved at the superior court to dismiss the charges, and the superior court granted the motion, finding the district court did not properly modify defendant’s bond pursuant to statute and the denial of his right to a reasonable bond impermissibly infringed on his Fourth Amendment and Sixth Amendment rights.

Taking up the State’s appeal, the Court of Appeals first looked at the district court’s jurisdiction to modify the pretrial release bond, as defendant argued that the district court was immediately divested of jurisdiction when he announced his appeal. Looking to the language of G.S. 15A-1431, the court concluded “[g]iven that the plain language contained in Section 1431 mandates action from a magistrate or district court following a defendant giving notice of appeal, we conclude that the district court is not immediately divested of jurisdiction following ‘the noting of an appeal.’” Slip Op. at 11. This meant that the district court retained jurisdiction to modify defendant’s pretrial release. The court then looked to G.S. 15A-534 for the requirements to impose a secured cash bond, finding that the district court did not properly record its reasons in writing, meaning the superior court’s order was correct in finding the district court erred. 

Having established that the district court erred by imposing a secured bond without written findings, the court moved to the question of whether defendant’s rights were flagrantly violated and whether his case suffered irreparable prejudice to support dismissal of the charges against him under G.S. 15A-954. The court concluded that defendant had not been irreparably prejudiced, looking to the superior court’s own findings, pointing to Finding No. 12 that “the court does not find, that the $250 cash bond and subsequent time in custody affected defendant’s ability to prepare his case in superior court, or otherwise to consult with counsel to be ready for trial.” Id. at 14 (cleaned up). Because the superior court’s own findings showed no prejudice and the findings were not challenged on appeal, the court determined it was error to grant defendant’s motion to dismiss. 

In this Buncombe County case, defendant appealed his convictions for driving while impaired and reckless driving, arguing error in (1) denying his motion to dismiss, (2) improperly applying aggravating factors to his impaired driving conviction, and (3) imposing a reckless driving sentence without making specific findings justifying the length of community punishment. The Court of Appeals vacated and remanded for new sentencing hearings on the convictions, but otherwise affirmed. 

Defendant’s driving offenses came for trial at district court in August of 2021. After being found guilty at district court, defendant timely appealed to superior court. However, due to a court system error, defendant’s appeal was not properly entered, and defendant was held in detention for six additional days. While he was in detention, he was not provided with necessary medication, and he suffered a seizure resulting in a concussion. At superior court, defendant filed a motion to dismiss arguing irreparable prejudice to his ability to prepare a defense due to the concussion, a motion denied by the trial court. Defendant was found guilty and during sentencing, the trial court found three aggravating factors: “(1) defendant’s driving was especially reckless; (2) defendant’s driving was especially dangerous; and (3) defendant was convicted of death by motor vehicle in August 2015.” Slip Op. at 3. This led to defendant receiving a sentence at Level III for the impaired driving conviction. 

Considering (1) defendant’s motion to dismiss, the Court of Appeals explained that G.S. 15A-954(a)(4) governed motions to dismiss for flagrant violations of a defendant’s constitutional rights. The court looked for “structural errors” in the framework of the trial process as explained in State v. Hamer, 377 N.C. 502 (2021). Slip Op. at 6. Defendant did not testify at the district court level, and it appeared unlikely he would have testified regardless of his injury at superior court, leading the court to conclude that he could not meet the burden of irreparable prejudice required for dismissal. The court also noted defendant was acquitted of two of the charges against him at superior court, suggesting that he mounted a solid defense.  

Considering (2) the aggravating factors for driving while impaired, the court explained that on December 1, 2006, changes in the applicable law moved the responsibility for consideration of aggravating factors from the trial judge to the jury. The current law in G.S. 20-179(a1) places the responsibility on the state to prove these factors beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury. The court examined the caselaw arising from Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004), and the concept of harmless error review when a judge fails to submit aggravating factors to the jury. Slip Op. at 9. After exploring applicable federal and state precedent on the failure to submit an aggravating factor to the jury and harmless error, the court concluded: 

Since the relevant federal cases provide the bare minimum, and all relevant state cases are distinguishable because they were decided prior to the modification of the statute where it is clear from the timing and language of the statute that the legislature intended to change the standards adopted by our courts, we hold aggravating factors must be decided by the jury or the case must be remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

Id. at 12. As a result, the court vacated the trial court’s judgement and remanded for resentencing. 

Considering the final issue, (3) defendant’s reckless driving sentence, the court explained that G.S. 15A-1343.2(d)(1) requires a trial court to make specific findings if they sentence a defendant to a community punishment longer than 18 months for a misdemeanor like reckless driving, and here defendant received a 36-month community punishment without specific findings. The state conceded this was error, and the matter was also vacated and remanded for resentencing. 

Judge Gore dissented by separate opinion, and would have found the trial court’s error as harmless under the harmless error standard. Id. at 14. 

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