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

On appeal, the defendant’s sole argument was that the trial court erred because his waiver of counsel was not voluntary and was a result of the defendant’s belief that representing himself was the only way to avoid delaying his trial. On May 19, 2019, the defendant requested that his first appointed counsel be removed. The defendant was appointed new counsel on June 3, 2019. On October 10, 2019, the defendant’s second appointed counsel filed a motion to withdraw because the defendant asked him to and the defendant was threatening to file a complaint with the state bar. 

After the trial court granted the motion to withdraw and announced new appointed counsel, the ADA told the trial court that the trial would need to be pushed back from the calendared date of December 16, 2019, to February 24, 2020, so that the new appointed counsel had time to become familiar with the case. Upon hearing this, the defendant stated to the court: “Excuse me, Your Honor. I withdraw for an attorney if we can have this date of December the 16th. I withdraw, and I will represent myself if I can have a date in court,” and “I would withdraw counsel if I could have my date in court.” Slip op. at ¶ 10. The trial court asked the defendant if he wanted to represent himself and the defendant responded, “Yes, I’m ready. I’ll represent myself.” Slip op. at ¶ 11. Following this response, the defendant signed a waiver of counsel form.

The defendant later sent a letter to the trial court requesting a “co-counselor” for trial and the defendant was brought back to court on December 10, 2020 to address this matter. The trial court again asked the defendant if he wanted to represent himself, to which he responded “yes”. The ADA asked the court to further go over with the defendant what it would mean to represent himself. The court ensured the defendant was competent and that he understood that he had a right to an attorney, that one would be appointed to him if he couldn’t afford one, that he would be required to follow the same rules of evidence and procedure if he represented himself, the nature of the charges against him, and the potential punishment. The trial court also explained that the defendant would not be given a co-counsel and explained the purpose of standby counsel. Following this conversation, the trial court again asked whether the defendant was waiving his right to be represented by counsel at trial to which the defendant said “Yes. I don’t want my court date pushed back. I don’t want the court date pushed back.” The defendant also said, “I’ll waive that if I could have a standby, if you don’t mind, for some legal issues.” Slip op. at ¶ 16. The trial court then accepted the Defendant’s waiver and appointed standby counsel. 

Noting that the trial court’s questions mirrored a fourteen-question checklist published by the School of Government cited approvingly in State v. Moore, 362 N.C. 319, 327 (2008), the Court of Appeals determined that “[t]hese exchanges show that on several occasions, Defendant clearly and unequivocally stated his desire to waive counsel and represent himself.” Slip op. at ¶ 18. The Court of Appeals also distinguished the defendant’s situation from that of the defendants in State v. Bullock, 316 N.C. 180 (1986) and State v. Pena, 257 N.C. App. 195 (2017). The Court of Appeals reasoned that “[u]nlike in Bullock and Pena where the trial court was unwilling to allow defendants more time to secure attorneys and, thus, defendants had no option but to represent themselves at trial, the trial court in this case had just announced that it would appoint” the defendant a new attorney. Slip op. at ¶ 22. The defendant then “voluntarily waived counsel to accommodate his own desire to keep a December trial date. His understanding, either correct or incorrect, that his trial could be delayed until February if he accepted the appointment of the third attorney did not make his choice to waive counsel involuntary. His motivation simply explains why he chose to voluntarily waive counsel and proceed pro se with standby counsel.” Slip op. at ¶ 22.

In this case involving a waiver of counsel at a probation revocation hearing and the defendant’s appeal of the trial court’s revocation of her probation, the court declined to dismiss the appeal due to the defendant’s failure to comply with Rule 4 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure and held that the defendant’s waiver of counsel was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.  The defendant timely filed a handwritten notice of appeal that failed to comply with Rule 4 in that it did not indicate that it had been served on the State.  Noting that the State was informed of the appeal and was able to timely respond, and that the violation had not frustrated the adversarial process, the court held that the nonjurisdicitional Rule 4 defect was neither substantial nor gross and proceeded to the merits.  As to the merits, the court found that the trial court’s inquiry of the defendant regarding her waiver of counsel, a waiver which the defendant also executed in writing, was similar to that in State v. Whitfield, 170 N.C. App 618 (2005) and satisfied the requirements of G.S. 15A-1242.

In this drug trafficking case, the trial court did not err by requiring the defendant to represent himself at trial. In September 2013, the defendant appeared before a Superior Court Judge and signed a waiver of counsel form. In December 2013 the defendant appeared before another judge and signed a second waiver of counsel form. On that same day, attorney Palmer filed a notice of limited appearance, limiting his representation of the defendant to pretrial case management. In September 2015 the defendant again appeared in Superior Court. Palmer informed the court that the State “got their labs back” and would be ready to set a trial date. The trial court informed the defendant that if he wanted a court appointed lawyer, he should ask now. Among other things, the trial court informed the defendant of the hazards of proceeding pro se. In response to the judge’s questioning, the defendant indicated that he would hire an attorney for trial. The ADA stated that the case would come on for trial in the middle of the following year. The judge told the defendant he had two months to hire a lawyer and scheduled him to return to court on November 5 with his lawyer to talk about trial date. He expressly warned the defendant not to return in November saying that he did not have a lawyer. On November 5, 2015 the defendant appeared in court without a lawyer. The judge again warned the defendant that it was his responsibility to hire a lawyer and of the hazards of proceeding pro se. On December 10, 2015 the defendant again appeared in court, indicating that he continued to have trouble hiring a lawyer. The court informed the defendant to report back on January 27, and warned the defendant that the trial was soon approaching. In January 2016, the defendant again appeared in court, this time with attorney Byrd. Byrd told the court he was not in a position to make an appearance for the defendant and asked for more time. The judge scheduled the matter to return in February. On February 15, 2016, the trial court reported to the defendant that Mr. Byrd was not ready to make an appearance in his case. He warned the defendant to make arrangements to hire Byrd or someone else because a trial date would be set on March 10. On March 28, 2016, the defendant appeared before a different judge. The State indicated it was ready to proceed to trial. After hearing from the defendant regarding his dealings with various lawyers over the past months, the trial court informed the defendant of his counsel rights and asked the defendant how he intended to proceed. During this colloquy the defendant indicated that he would represent himself. The trial court reset the matter for the next administrative session so that the senior resident judge could address the counsel issue. On April 7, 2016 the case came back in Superior Court. The State requested a July trial date and asked the court to address the counsel issue. The court summarized the prior discussions with the defendant and appointed standby counsel. Proceedings continued in this vein until the defendant’s case came on for trial August 30, 2016. The defendant appeared pro se with standby counsel. The defendant was found guilty and appealed, asserting a violation of his sixth amendment counsel rights. The court disagreed with the defendant’s assertion that the trial court did not adhere to the requirements of G.S. 15A-1242 in procuring his waiver. The court noted, in part:

The trial court gave Defendant years to find an attorney. At each stage the trial court advised and counseled Defendant about his right to an attorney including his right to appointed counsel. The trial court also repeatedly counseled Defendant on the complexity of handling his own jury trial and the fact the judge would not be able to help him. Finally, the trial court repeatedly addressed the seriousness of the charges and advised Defendant a conviction likely meant a life sentence. Despite this, Defendant proceeded to represent himself at trial.

Defendant’s assertion the trial court failed to take any measures to ascertain whether Defendant understood the various difficulties associated with representing himself is without merit. Our review of the record indicates the trial court advised Defendant he would have to adhere to rules of court and evidence. The trial court also informed Defendant the court would not assist Defendant, and Defendant was facing serious charges which could result in a life sentence upon conviction. The record also indicates Defendant repeatedly expressed his understanding of the trial court’s instruction on this issue. We conclude Defendant waived his right to court appointed counsel.

The court went on to hold that even if the defendant’s waiver of counsel was not knowing and voluntary, the defendant forfeited his right to counsel through extended delaying tactics. It explained:

First, Defendant waived his right to assigned counsel in 2013. The trial court repeatedly advised Defendant on the seriousness of the charges and informed Defendant a conviction could lead to a life sentence due to Defendant’s age. Time after time, Defendant stated he intended to hire his own attorney. Defendant made close to monthly appearances in court over a 10-month period, and consistently told the court he wished to hire his own attorney. During these appearances, the trial court asked Defendant at least twice if he needed appointed counsel. Defendant answered by claiming to have sufficient funds to hire an attorney. Additionally, the trial court continued Defendant’s case several times to give Defendant’s attorney time to prepare since Defendant claimed the attorneys he met with did not have adequate time to prepare for trial.

Because the trial court properly conducted the inquiry required by G.S. 15A-1242, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that his waiver of counsel, in connection with a probation violation hearing, was not knowing and voluntary. In addition to finding that the trial court’s colloquy with the defendant established that the waiver was knowing and voluntary, the court noted that its conclusion was consistent with G.S. 7A-457(a). That provision states that a waiver of counsel shall be effective only if the court finds that the indigent person acted with “full awareness of his rights and of the consequences of the waiver,” and that in making such a finding the court must consider among other things the person’s age, education, familiarity with the English language, mental condition and complexity of the crime charged. Here, the defendant was 23 years old, spoke English, had a GED degree, had attended college for one semester, and had no mental defects of record; additionally, there were no factual or legal complexities associated with the probation violation. The defendant described himself as a “Moorish National” and a “sovereign citizen.” The court rejected the defendant’s argument that certain responses to the judge’s statements during the waiver colloquy indicated that the waiver was not knowing and voluntary. The court noted that a defendant’s contention that he does not understand the proceedings is a common aspect of a sovereign citizen defense.

The trial court did not err by allowing the defendant to waive his right to counsel and proceed pro se. Notwithstanding the defendant’s refusal to acknowledge that he was subject to court’s jurisdiction, the trial court was able to conduct a colloquy that complied with G.S. 15A-1242. The court reminded trial judges, however, that “our Supreme Court has approved a series of 14 questions that can be used to satisfy the requirements of Section 15A-1242.” “[B]est practice,” it continued “is for trial courts to use the 14 questions . . . which are set out in the Superior Court Judges’ Benchbook provided by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government.”

Although the trial court misstated the maximum sentence during the waiver colloquy, it adequately complied with G.S. 15A-1242. The trial court twice informed the defendant that if he was convicted of all offenses and to be a habitual felon, he could be sentenced to 740 months imprisonment, or about 60 years. However, this information failed to account for the possibility that the defendant would be sentenced in the aggravated range and thus understated the maximum term by 172 months. The court held:

[W]e do not believe that a mistake in the number of months which a trial judge employs during a colloquy with a defendant contemplating the assertion of his right to proceed pro se constitutes a per se violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1242. Instead, such a calculation error would only contravene N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1242 if there was a reasonable likelihood that the defendant might have made a different decision with respect to the issue of self-representation had he or she been more accurately informed about “the range of permissible punishments.

The court found that although the trial court’s information “was technically erroneous” the error did not invalidate the defendant’s “otherwise knowing and voluntary waiver of counsel.” It explained:

Our conclusion to this effect hinges upon the fact that Defendant was thirty-five years old at the time of this trial, that a sentence of 740 months imprisonment would have resulted in Defendant’s incarceration until he reached age 97, and that a sentence of 912 months would have resulted in Defendant’s incarceration until he reached age 111. Although such a fourteen year difference would be sufficient, in many instances, to preclude a finding that Defendant waived his right to counsel knowingly and voluntarily as the result of a trial court’s failure to comply with N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1242, it does not have such an effect in this instance given that either term of imprisonment mentioned in the trial court’s discussions with Defendant was, given Defendant’s age, tantamount to a life sentence. Simply put, the practical effect of either sentence on Defendant would have been identical in any realistic sense. In light of this fact, we cannot conclude that there was a reasonable likelihood that Defendant’s decision concerning the extent, if any, to which he wished to waive his right to the assistance of counsel and represent himself would have been materially influenced by the possibility that he would be incarcerated until age 97 rather than age 111. As a result, we conclude that Defendant’s waiver of the right to counsel was, in fact, knowing and voluntary and that the trial court did not err by allowing him to represent himself.

 

The trial court did not err when taking the defendant’s waiver of counsel. The trial court complied with the statute and asked the standard waiver questions in the judges’ bench book. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the waiver was invalid because the trial judge did not inform him of his right to hire a private lawyer.

Based on the trial court’s extensive colloquy with the defendant, the trial court properly took a waiver of counsel in compliance with G.S. 15A-1242.

(1) The defendant’s waiver of counsel was sufficient even though a box on the waiver form was left blank and the form was executed before the court advised the defendant of the charges and the range of punishment. Citing State v. Heatwole, 344 N.C. 1, 18 (1996), and State v. Fulp, 355 N.C. 171, 177 (2002), the court first concluded that a waiver of counsel form is not required and any deficiency in the form will not render the waiver invalid, if the waiver was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Next, the court concluded that the waiver was not invalid because the trial court failed to go over the charges and potential punishments prior to the defendant signing the waiver form. The trial court discussed the charges and potential punishments with the defendant the following day, and defendant confirmed his desire to represent himself in open court. Although the waiver form requires the trial judge to certify that he or she informed the defendant of the charges and punishments, given that the form is not mandatory, no prejudice occurs when the trial court does, in fact, provide that information in accordance with the statute and the defendant subsequently asserts the right to proceed pro se. (2) The trial court conducted an adequate inquiry under G.S. 15A-1242. The court noted that there is no mandatory formula for complying with the statute. Here, the trial judge explicitly informed the defendant of his right to counsel and the process to secure a court-appointed attorney; the defendant acknowledged that he understood his rights after being repeatedly asked whether he understood them and whether he was sure that he wanted to waive counsel; the judge informed him of the charges and potential punishments; and the judge explained that he would be treated the same at trial regardless of whether he had an attorney. The trial court’s colloquies at the calendar call and before trial, coupled with the defendant’s repeated assertion that he wished to represent himself, demonstrate that the defendant clearly and unequivocally expressed his desire to proceed pro se and that such expression was made knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.

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