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., 09/25/2022
E.g., 09/25/2022

In this Union County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals majority opinion denying defendant’s appeal of his conviction for driving while impaired and related driving offenses. 

In 2018, defendant was charged with multiple offenses after driving a pickup truck with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.12. Defendant was declared indigent and received appointed counsel; he went to trial on the charges July 15, 2019. After the trial the jury deadlocked and the trial court declared a mistrial. After the first trial, defendant’s counsel withdrew, and new counsel was appointed. On August 26, 2019, defendant’s new counsel filed a motion for a transcript of the first hearing, and requested a continuance (because defendant was indigent, the transcript would have been provided for free). The trial court denied the motions for transcript and continuance, and the matter went forward for a second trial on September 3, 2019. On the first day of the second trial, defendant’s counsel submitted renewed motions for a transcript and a continuance, both of which were denied by the trial court. Defendant was eventually convicted of all charges and appealed, arguing that the trial court’s denial of his motion for a transcript deprived him of the ability to impeach the State’s witnesses. 

Examining defendant’s appeal, the court explained that an indigent defendant does not have an absolute right to a free transcript. Instead, when considering an indigent’s request for a free transcript, courts must apply a two-part test to determine (1) the value of the transcript to defendant, and (2) the availability of alternatives that would fulfil the same function. Slip Op. at ¶16, quoting Britt v. North Carolina, 404 U.S. 226, 227 (1971). Here, the court determined it was likely that the trial court did not perform the Britt analysis and erred by denying the motion for transcript. Slip Op. at ¶19. However, the court went on to explain that under the harmless-error doctrine and N.C.G.S. § 15A-1443(b), trial court’s error is prejudicial “unless the appellate court finds that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” Slip Op. at ¶20. In this circumstance, “overwhelming evidence of guilt may render error of constitutional dimension harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” Slip Op at ¶21, quoting State v. Bunch, 363 N.C. 841, 845-46 (2010). 

The Supreme Court found just such overwhelming evidence supporting the guilty verdicts in this case. The court noted that “[e]ven if defendant had the transcript of the prior trial to impeach the testimony of [State’s witnesses], there still existed overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt,” including a recorded admission by defendant “that he was the driver of the vehicle when it was wrecked” and a blood sample taken from defendant showing he was intoxicated after being taken into custody. Slip Op. at ¶24. Based on this overwhelming evidence, the trial court’s error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Justice Earls dissented from the majority opinion.

 

State v. Tyson, 220 N.C. App. 517 (May. 15, 2012)

The trial court committed reversible error by denying the defendant’s request for a trial transcript for use in his retrial. After a mistrial, the trial court set a retrial for the following day. The defendant objected, arguing that he needed a trial transcript before the retrial. The trial court denied the defendant’s request and the defendant was convicted at the retrial. Equal protection requires the State to provide indigent defendants with the basic tools of an adequate defense—including a trial transcript—when those tools are available for a price to other defendants. A two-step test applies for determining whether a transcript must be provided to an indigent defendant: (a) whether the transcript is necessary for an effective defense and (b) whether there are alternative devices available to the defendant that are substantially equivalent to a transcript. Here, the trial judge stated in part that he did “not find that the anticipation or the speculation that a witness may get on the stand and alter their testimony to be sufficient basis to delay a trial so that a transcript can be produced.” These findings are insufficient. The trial court's ruling that the defendant’s asserted need constituted mere speculation that a witness might change his or her testimony would apply in almost every case and a defendant would rarely if ever be able to show that a witness would in fact change his or her testimony. The trial court's ruling makes no determination why this defendant had no need for a transcript, especially in light of the fact that the State's case rested entirely on the victim's identification of the defendant as the perpetrator. Although the trial court indicated that it could take "measures" or had "means" to protect the defendant's rights, without any explanation of what those measures or means would be, this is insufficient to establish that there were alternative devices available that were substantially equivalent to a transcript.

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