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., 09/21/2021
E.g., 09/21/2021
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.”

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