Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


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., 02/29/2024
E.g., 02/29/2024

In this Union County case, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision that defendant effectively waived her right to counsel and remanded the case for a new trial.

Defendant was subject to a Domestic Violence Prevention Order (DVPO) entered against her in 2013; the terms of the order required her to surrender all firearms and ammunition in her position, and forbid her from possessing a firearm in the future, with a possible Class H felony for violation. In 2017, defendant attempted to buy a firearm in Tennessee while still subject to the DVPO and was indicted for this violation. Initially defendant was represented by counsel, but over the course of 2018 and 2019, defendant repeatedly filed pro se motions to remove counsel and motions to dismiss. The trial court appointed five different attorneys; three withdrew from representing defendant, and defendant filed motions to remove counsel against the other two. The matter finally reached trial in September of 2019, where defendant was not represented by counsel. Before trial, the court inquired whether defendant was going to hire private counsel, and she explained that she could not afford an attorney and wished for appointed counsel. The trial court refused this request and determined defendant had waived her right of counsel. The matter went to trial and defendant was convicted in January of 2020, having been mostly absent from the trial proceedings.

Examining the Court of Appeals opinion, the Supreme Court noted that the panel was inconsistent when discussing the issue of waiver of counsel verses forfeiture of counsel, an issue that was also present in the trial court’s decision. The court explained that “waiver of counsel is a voluntary decision by a defendant and that where a defendant seeks but is denied appointed counsel, a waiver analysis upon appeal is both unnecessary and inappropriate.” Slip Op. at 16. Here the trial court, despite saying defendant “waived” counsel, interpreted this as forfeiture of counsel, as defendant clearly expressed a desire for counsel at the pre-trial hearing and did not sign a waiver of counsel form at that time (although she had signed several waivers prior to her request for a new attorney).

Having established that the proper analysis was forfeiture, not waiver, the court explained the “egregious misconduct” standard a trial court must find before imposing forfeiture of counsel from State v. Harvin, 2022-NCSC-111, and State v. Simpkins, 373 N.C. 530 (2020). Slip Op. at 18. The court did not find such egregious misconduct in this case, explaining that defendant was not abusive or disruptive, and that the many delays and substitutions of counsel were not clearly attributable to defendant. Instead, the record showed legitimate disputes on defense strategy with one attorney, and was silent as to the reasons for withdrawal for the others. Additionally, the state did not move to set the matter for hearing until many months after the indictment, meaning that defendant’s counsel issues did not cause significant delay to the proceedings.

Chief Justice Newby, joined by Justices Berger and Barringer, dissented and would have found that defendant forfeited her right to counsel by delaying the trial proceedings. Id. at 28.

In this New Hanover County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals majority decision vacating the judgments against defendant and ordering a new trial because he was denied his constitutional right to counsel.  

In May of 2015, defendant was indicted for first-degree murder and associated robbery charges. Over the course of the next three years, defendant had several court-appointed attorneys, and then chose to represent himself with stand-by counsel. When the charges reached trial in April of 2018, defendant expressed uncertainty about his ability to represent himself, leading to an exchange with the trial court regarding his capacity and desire to continue without counsel or obtain appointed counsel from the court, as well as defendant’s confusion about an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. After considering arguments from the State regarding defendant’s termination of his previous counsel and delay of the proceedings, the trial court concluded that defendant had forfeited his right to counsel for the trial. Defendant was subsequently convicted on all counts.

The Supreme Court majority found that defendant had not engaged in behavior justifying forfeiture of his right to counsel. The court explained that forfeiting the right to counsel is a separate concept from voluntary waiver of counsel, and generally requires (1) aggressive, profane, or threatening behavior; or (2) conduct that represents a serious obstruction of the proceedings. Slip Op. at 32-33. Although defendant cycled through four court-appointed attorneys before choosing to represent himself, two of those attorneys withdrew for reasons totally unrelated to defendant’s case, and the other two withdrew at defendant’s request, with leave of the court. Applying the relevant standards to defendant’s conduct, the majority could not find any behavior rising to the level required for forfeiture, noting that “defendant’s actions, up to and including the day on which his trial was scheduled to begin, did not demonstrate the type or level of obstructive and dilatory behavior which allowed the trial court here to permissibly conclude that defendant had forfeited the right to counsel.” Id. at 41. 

Justice Berger, joined by Chief Justice Newby and Justice Barringer, dissented and would have upheld the decision of the trial court that defendant forfeited his right to counsel. Id. at 43.

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.

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 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.

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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