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., 06/20/2024
E.g., 06/20/2024
State v. Cannon, ___ N.C. App. ___, 804 S.E.2d 199 (Aug. 1, 2017) aff’d, 370 N.C. 487 (Mar 2 2018)

The State conceded, and the court held, that the trial court should not have sentenced the defendant as a habitual felon where the issue was not submitted to the jury and no formal guilty plea was made. Here, the defendant only stipulated to habitual felon status.

The trial court erred in sentencing the defendant as a habitual felon because the issue was neither submitted to the jury nor addressed by a guilty plea. A mere stipulation to the prior felonies is insufficient; there must be a jury verdict or a record of a guilty plea.

After violating his probation, the defendant was indicted on charges of interfering with an electronic monitoring device and attaining the status of a habitual felon. The habitual felon indictment charged defendant with attaining habitual felon status based on three prior felony convictions in McDowell County: (1) a June 4, 2001 conviction for felonious breaking and entering; (2) a February 18, 2010 conviction for felonious breaking and entering; and (3) a July 22, 2014 conviction for safecracking. At trial, the State admitted into evidence certified copies of the judgments for the latter two convictions to prove their existence.

Although the State could not obtain the original judgment associated with the June 4, 2001 conviction, the State introduced as an exhibit a computer printout from the Automated Criminal/Infraction System (ACIS). The Clerk of Court for McDowell County testified that ACIS is a statewide computer system relied on by courts and law enforcement agencies for accessing information regarding a defendant’s criminal judgments, offense dates, and conviction dates, manually entered into the database by an employee in the Clerk of Court’s office. The ACIS printout offered by the State showed that the defendant had been convicted of felonious breaking and entering on June 4, 2001, and the Clerk testified that the printout was a “certified true copy of the ACIS system.” The trial court admitted the printout into evidence over the defendant’s objection, and the jury found that the defendant had attained the status of a habitual felon.

On appeal, the defendant unsuccessfully argues that the trial court improperly allowed the ACIS printout because G.S. 14-7.4 contained the exclusive methods for proving prior convictions in a proceeding to determine habitual felon status. The Court of Appeals concluded that the statute was permissive and did not exclude methods of proof not specifically delineated in the Habitual Felons Act. The Supreme Court affirmed. The Court relied on the presence of the word “may” in the statute, as well as its prior interpretation of the Fair Sentencing Act, which contained similar language.

The dissenting Court of Appeals judge concluded that the introduction of the printout violated the best evidence rule because the printout was introduced as evidence of the defendant’s prior convictions and was not the original judgment. The majority rejected this argument, noting that the best evidence rule applies only when the contents of a document are at issue. The Court reasoned that here, the issue was not the contents of the conviction but rather the existence of the conviction. However, in a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Beasley noted that the nature of the Habitual Felons Act requires that the State prove that the defendant did, in fact, commit three prior felony offenses, and to do so requires the court to consider the contents of the record to be introduced for the purpose of confirming “that said person has been convicted of former felony offenses.” While the Chief concluded that the best evidence rule did apply to the introduction of the printout, the Chief noted that the State complied with the rule through the printout coupled with the Clerk’s testimony.

In this habitual larceny case where the defendant was sentenced as a habitual felon, the use of an ACIS printout to prove one of the defendant’s prior convictions during the habitual felon phase of trial was competent evidence that did not violate the best evidence rule.  Citing State v. Waycaster, ___ N.C. App. ___, 818 S.E.2d 189 (2018), the court explained that G.S. 14-7.4 permits an original or certified copy of the court record of a prior conviction to be admitted into evidence to prove the prior conviction but does not mandate that manner of proof.  The same case held that a certified copy of an ACIS printout is sufficient evidence of a prior conviction under the habitual felon statute.  

The trial court committed reversible error by failing to instruct the jury to disregard evidence about the defendant’s habitual felon indictment when that evidence was elicited during the trial on the underlying charges. Although the trial court sustained defense counsel’s objection and instructed the jury to strike a portion of the testimony given by an officer, it was required to give a curative instruction as to additional testimony offered by the officer.

In this Craven County case, defendant appealed her guilty plea to habitual felon status, arguing the reclassification of the offense she was convicted of in Colorado from a felony to a misdemeanor removed the factual basis for her plea. The Court of Appeals majority disagreed, finding no error. 

Defendant was convicted by a jury of nine counts of embezzlement and one count of obtaining property by false pretenses in August of 2022. After her conviction, she pleaded guilty to attaining habitual felon status, based in part on a Colorado conviction for second-degree forgery in 1991. In 1993, Colorado reclassified second-degree forgery as a misdemeanor. During the colloquy required by G.S. 15A-1022(c), the trial court examined evidence showing the felony conviction from 1991, and defense counsel did not object to the factual basis of the conviction, even incorrectly stating that second-degree forgery was still a felony in Colorado. 

Taking up defendant’s argument, the Court of Appeals first established that it had jurisdiction to review her guilty plea under G.S. 15A-1444(a2), even though habitual felon status is not a crime. Because defendant was challenging “whether her term of imprisonment was authorized by statute[,]” the court concluded that G.S. 15A-1444(a2)(3) granted it jurisdiction to consider the appeal. The court then moved to the substance of defendant’s argument and reviewed the text of the habitual felon statute under G.S. 14-7.1. Rejecting defendant’s argument that the reclassification removed the factual basis for her plea, the court concluded “there was sufficient evidence for the trial court to properly determine a factual basis existed showing Defendant had committed three prior felonies, including the second-degree forgery felony.” Slip Op. at 8. 

Judge Arrowood dissented by separate opinion, and would have held that defendant had no right of appeal under G.S. 15A-1444(a2), but would have granted a petition for certiorari and concluded that the reclassification of the felony offense justified remand for resentencing. Id. at 11. 

In this Jackson County case, defendant appealed his sentence as a habitual felon, arguing that his South Carolina conviction for larceny could not serve as a predicate conviction for habitual felon purposes as the statute in question no longer classifies the crime as a felony. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding no error. 

Defendant came to trial for stealing a TV from Wal-Mart in May of 2021. After being found guilty of felony larceny and possession of stolen goods, the trial proceeded to the habitual felon phase. The prosecution offered evidence of defendant’s 2005 conviction in South Carolina for grand larceny. Defense counsel objected during the charge conference that the South Carolina code did not refer to the crime as a felony but was overruled; the trial court instructed the jury with the habitual felon status pattern jury instruction, using “crime” to refer to the 2005 conviction instead of “felony” at the request of the prosecutor. Defendant was convicted of habitual felon status and appealed.

The Court of Appeals first noted that the South Carolina larceny statute in question was changed in June of 2010 and the offense is no longer a felony, but the relevant consideration was the status of the offense at the time defendant was convicted. The court then explained that G.S. 14-7.1(b)(3) provides a mechanism for classifying crimes as felonies in states that do not explicitly refer to crimes as felonies or misdemeanors. To incorporate this mechanism, the pattern jury instruction in question was changed to permit the use of “felony” or “crime.” Slip Op. at 8-9. Even if the use of “crime” in the present case was erroneous, the court held that the jury had ample evidence to determine the South Carolina conviction was a felony due to the evidence of defendant’s conviction and the 2005 version of the statute in effect when he was convicted. The court likewise dismissed defendant’s arguments that no substantial evidence of his felony conviction was admitted and that the indictment for habitual felon status was fatally flawed. 

 

In this Harnett County case, defendant appealed the denial of his motion for appropriate relief (MAR). The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of defendant’s MAR and the imposition of life without parole.

Defendant first pleaded guilty to second degree kidnapping, a class E felony, in 1984, when he was sixteen years old. Four years later in 1988, defendant pleaded no contest to second-degree sexual offense (class H felony), common law robbery (class D felony), and armed robbery (class D felony). In 2001, a jury found defendant guilty of second-degree kidnapping, and subsequently of violent habitual felon status due to his prior felonies. The sentence imposed was mandatory life without parole. Defendant appealed that judgment, but the Court of Appeals found no error in State v. McDougald, 190 N.C. App. 675 (2008) (unpublished).

The current MAR at issue was filed in 2017. Defendant asserted two grounds for relief: (1) that defendant’s trial counsel was ineffective during plea negotiations because defendant was not adequately advised that he would receive mandatory life without parole if convicted, and (2) that applying violent habitual felon status due to defendant’s 1984 felony, which was committed when defendant was a juvenile, violated the Eighth Amendment. 

The Court of Appeals first examined the ineffective assistance of counsel ground, and found that, although defense counsel’s records were incomplete, and counsel could not recall if he informed defendant that life without parole was mandatory if he was convicted, the evidence showed that counsel did apprise defendant of the desirability of the plea deal, and the possible risk of life without parole if he went to trial. The court found that defense counsel’s performance was not objectionably unreasonable and was not prejudicial to defendant.  

Examining the second ground for relief, the court found that applying a felony committed while defendant was a juvenile did not violate the Eighth Amendment, because defendant was receiving a stiffer punishment for the felony committed as an adult, not a life without parole sentence for the initial felony committed while he was a juvenile. The court reviewed and applied “United States Supreme Court precedent, North Carolina Supreme Court precedent, and in the persuasive precedent from other jurisdictions” to determine that “the application of the violent habitual felon statute to Defendant’s conviction of second-degree kidnapping, committed when Defendant was thirty-three years old, did not increase or enhance the sentence Defendant received for his prior second-degree kidnapping conviction, committed when Defendant was sixteen.” Slip Op. at ¶ 27. Because the punishment of life without parole was not imposed for the juvenile conviction, the court found that it did not run afoul of United States Supreme Court precedent forbidding life sentences for juvenile convictions.

The court also established that the punishment of life without parole was not disproportionate for defendant’s second-degree kidnapping conviction, applying State v. Mason, 126 N.C. App. 318 (1997) to affirm the constitutionality of the habitual violent offender statute. 

During the habitual felon trial stage, the jury may consider evidence of a prior felony presented during the trial for the principal offense. Evidence of one prior conviction was presented during the trial for the principal offense; evidence of two prior convictions was introduced in the habitual felon phase. The defendant argued that the evidence was insufficient because the State did not introduce evidence of all three priors at the habitual phase. There is no need to reintroduce evidence presented during the trial for the principal offense at the habitual felon hearing; evidence presented during the trial for the principal offense can be used to prove the habitual felon charge.

Habitual misdemeanor assault cannot serve as a prior felony for purposes of habitual felon.

State v. Holloway, 216 N.C. App. 412 (Oct. 18, 2011)

A conviction for habitual misdemeanor assault can be used as a predicate felony for habitual felon status.

In this Mecklenburg County case, defendant appealed his convictions for breaking and entering, larceny, and attaining habitual breaking and entering offender status, arguing error in (1) the trial court’s comments about the existence of defendant’s previous convictions during the habitual offender phase, (2) admission of expert testimony without the necessary foundation, and (3) the felony class of habitual breaking and entering on the written judgment. The Court of Appeals found no prejudicial error.

In 2018, defendant was indicted for breaking and entering and larceny after DNA and fingerprint evidence linked defendant to a break-in at a Charlotte residence. The trial proceeded first on the charges related to the break in, then after the jury convicted defendant of the initial charges, proceeded to habitual breaking and entering offender status. During this second phase, the trial court told the jury “[the state] will present evidence relating to previous convictions of breaking and/or entering at this time.” Slip Op. at 5. The jury convicted defendant of habitual offender status, and defendant subsequently appealed.

Reviewing issue (1), the Court of Appeals disagreed with defendant’s characterization of the trial court’s remarks, explaining that “the trial court did not offer to the jury the court’s opinion as to whether [d]efendant did in fact have previous convictions . . . [r]ather, the trial court notified the jury and the parties of its plan for the outset of the second phase of trial.” Id. at 12.

Turning to issue (2), the court noted that defendant did not object at trial to the testimony, meaning the review was under a plain error standard. The court examined the testimony of two experts under Rule of Evidence 702, finding that the fingerprint expert testimony “[did] not clearly indicate that [state’s expert] used the comparison process he described in his earlier testimony when he compared [d]efendant’s ink print card to the latent fingerprints recovered at the crime scene.” Id. at 28. However, the court found no prejudicial error in admitting the testimony, as properly admitted DNA evidence also tied defendant to the crime.

Finally, the court reviewed (3), defendant’s argument that the trial court incorrectly recorded his habitual breaking and entering offense as a Class E felony. The court disagreed, explaining that the form filled out by the trial court identifies the breaking and entering charge as a Class H felony (with punishment Class E), and the habitual breaking and entering offender charge as a Class E felony. Based on relevant precedent, defendant’s habitual offender status represented a status offense enhancing the punishment for the underlying substantive offense. The court concluded that the “trial court’s identification of habitual breaking and entering as a Class E status offense, as compared to a Class E substantive offense, was not error.” Id. at 37.

The court remanded for resentencing where the trial court imposed consecutive sentences based on a misapprehension of G.S. 14-7. The jury found the defendant guilty of multiple counts of robbery and attaining habitual felon status. The trial court sentenced the defendant as a habitual felon to three consecutive terms of imprisonment for his three common law robbery convictions, stating that “the law requires consecutive sentences on habitual felon judgments.” However, under G.S. 14-7.6, a trial court only is required to impose a sentence consecutively to “any sentence being served by” the defendant. Thus, if the defendant is not currently serving a term of imprisonment, the trial court may exercise its discretion in determining whether to impose concurrent or consecutive sentences.

The trial court did not err by ordering the defendant to serve a habitual felon sentence consecutive to sentences already being served. The defendant argued that the trial court “misapprehend[ed]” the law “when it determined that it did not have the discretion to decide” to run the defendant’s sentence concurrently with his earlier convictions. The court noted that G.S. 14-7.6 “has long provided” that habitual felon sentences “shall run consecutively with and shall commence at the expiration of any sentence being served by the person sentenced under this section.” 

A defendant may be sentenced as a habitual felon for an underlying felony of drug trafficking.

Rejecting the defendant’s argument that his sentence of 84-110 months in prison for possession of cocaine as a habitual felon constituted cruel and unusual punishment. 

Trial judge could have could have consolidated into a single judgment multiple offenses, all of which were elevated to a Class C because of habitual felon status. 

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