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., 09/22/2021
E.g., 09/22/2021

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.

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