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., 02/28/2024
E.g., 02/28/2024

The defendant was tried for possession of a firearm by a felon, first-degree kidnapping, burglary, DVPO violations with a deadly weapon, first-degree rape and first-degree forcible sexual offense arising from the violent kidnapping and rape of his former girlfriend.

(1) The morning before the sixth day of the trial, the defendant jumped feet first from a second-floor mezzanine in the jail, injuring his left leg and ribs. The defendant was taken to the hospital for surgery. After a hearing, the trial court determined that the defendant’s absence from trial was voluntary and announced that the trial would proceed without him. The trial court considered and denied defense counsel’s motion that the court inquire into defendant’s capacity to proceed. The trial continued, and the defendant was convicted. He appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by denying defense counsel’s motion for an inquiry into capacity.

The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument. Nothing in the defendant’s prior record, conduct or actions provided the trial court with notice or evidence that the defendant may have been incompetent. For that reason, the court did not err by declining to conduct a more intensive hearing on the defendant’s capacity. The trial court had the opportunity to personally observe the defendant’s conduct and demeanor, heard arguments from the State and defense counsel, and took evidence concerning the defendant’s competency, including watching recorded footage of the defendant jumping 16 feet from the second-floor mezzanine.

(2) The trial court instructed the jury that it could find the defendant guilty of a first-degree sexual offense, if, in addition to the other required elements, it found the defendant had engaged in fellatio or anal intercourse. The defendant argued that this instruction deprived him of a unanimous jury verdict. The Court of Appeals rejected that argument, citing precedent that a jury verdict does not need to make a specific finding regarding precisely which sexual acts proscribed by G.S. 14-27.26 the defendant committed.

The defendant was charged with assault of a detention officer causing physical injury in Bertie County. Defense counsel obtained a capacity evaluation of the defendant. It showed that the defendant was not capable to stand trial but indicated his capacity could be restored. At a hearing on the defendant’s capacity, the trial court failed to make findings regarding the defendant’s capacity but instead found the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity (“NGRI”) and ordered him involuntarily committed.

The defendant failed to give notice of appeal in a timely manner and the Court of Appeals consequently lacked jurisdiction to consider it. In recognition of his defective notice of appeal, the defendant filed a petition for writ of certiorari. That petition was also flawed in that it failed to identify the order from which review was sought. The defendant subsequently filed a second petition for certiorari to remedy that defect. In its discretion, the court granted the second petition to reach the merits of the defendant’s arguments.

(1) G.S. 15A-1002 requires a hearing when the defendant’s capacity to proceed is at issue and requires the court to make findings supporting the trial court’s conclusions. In failing to determine the defendant’s capacity and make findings in support, the trial court violated a statutory mandate. In addition, the defendant’s due process rights were violated when the NGRI plea was entered without a finding that the defendant was capable of proceeding. There was also no evidence that the defendant agreed to the entry of the plea. Although this was a question of first impression in North Carolina, the court agreed with other jurisdictions that a NGRI plea from a person lacking capacity is a due process violation. The court observed that this error was prejudicial, in that one acquitted by reason of insanity bears the burden of proof to show that the person is no longer mentally ill. See G.S. 122C-276.1(c). The NGRI order was therefore vacated, and the matter remanded for a capacity hearing.

(2) Under G.S. 15A-1008, a defendant who lacks capacity is entitled to dismissal once he or she has been confined for the maximum period of time authorized for a prior record level VI offender. Here, because the offense was a class I felony punishable by 21 months at most and the defendant had been confined for at least 23 months, in the event the trial court determines that the defendant lacks capacity on remand, the charge must be dismissed.

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 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. 

In this Caswell County case, Defendant appealed his conviction for drug possession charges, arguing error by the trial court for the lack of a competency evaluation and admission of testimony regarding his silence at a traffic stop. The Court of Appeals found no error.

Defendant was in the front seat of an SUV stopped in 2018 under suspicion of throwing contraband into a prison yard. A search of the vehicle found two footballs cut open and filled with drugs; defendant was silent during the stop and search of the vehicle. While awaiting trial, defense counsel moved for a competency hearing; the trial court entered an order finding defendant’s competency in question, and ordering an evaluation of defendant. However the defendant was never evaluated and no finding was ever entered as to his competency, as he was instead released on bail. By the time defendant reached trial in 2021, he had new counsel, who did not assert the right to a competency evaluation, and defendant was convicted of drug possession.

Reviewing defendant’s appeal, the court noted that defendant never objected to the lack of a hearing or evaluation on his competency at trial, and this represented waiver of the statutory right to a competency evaluation and hearing. Defendant failed to assert a due process clause claim for the competency hearing, preventing consideration of the constitutional issue. The court explained that the statutory right to a competency hearing comes from G.S. 15A-1002, and under State v. Young, 291 N.C. 562 (1977), “our Supreme Court repeatedly has held that ‘the statutory right to a competency hearing is waived by the failure to assert that right at trial.’” Slip Op. at 4, quoting State v. Badgett, 361 N.C. 234 (2007). Reviewing defendant’s objection to the admission of testimony about his silence, the court found no plain error, and noted it was unclear if the issue was even reviewable on appeal. Id. at 9-10.

Judge Inman dissented by separate opinion, and would have granted defendant’s right to competency hearing. Id. at 11. 

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