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., 01/26/2022
E.g., 01/26/2022
State v. Godwin, 369 N.C. 604 (June 9, 2017)

In this DWI case, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request for a special jury instruction explaining that results of a chemical breath test are not conclusive evidence of impairment. Following the pattern jury instructions for DWI, the trial court explained to the jury that impairment could be proved by an alcohol concentration of .08 or more and that a chemical analysis was “deemed sufficient evidence to prove a person’s alcohol concentration.” The trial court also inform the jury that they were the sole judges of the credibility of each witness and the weight to be given to each witness’s testimony. This statement signaled to the jury that it was free to analyze the weight and effect of the breathalyzer evidence, along with all the evidence presented at trial. Therefore, the standard jury instruction on credibility was sufficient and the trial court adequately conveyed the substance of the defendant’s request instructions to the jury.

The defendant was arrested for driving while impaired. At the jail, the defendant provided a breath sample, and his alcohol concentration was reported as 0.09. The defendant pled not guilty to impaired driving in district court. Following a bench trial, the judge found the defendant guilty of impaired driving and imposed a Level Five sentence pursuant to G.S. 20-179. The defendant gave notice of appeal in open court.

At trial in superior court, the judge denied the defendant’s request for a special jury instruction and instead delivered the pattern jury instruction for impaired driving. The jury found the defendant guilty of impaired driving. During sentencing, the defendant argued for three statutorily mandated mitigating factors, only one of which the judge ultimately found. The judge imposed a Level Five sentence and sentenced the defendant to 60 days in jail, suspended for 12 months of supervised probation and several special conditions of probation.

(1) On appeal, the defendant first argued that the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s request for a special jury instruction. The defendant claimed that the pattern jury instruction did not allow the jury an adequate opportunity to fully weigh the breath sample evidence. In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court’s instruction encompassed the substance of the law requested. The Court further found that the trial judge instructed the jurors that (1) they “are the sole judges of the weight to be given to any evidence”; (2) they “should weigh all the evidence in the case”; (3) they “should consider all the evidence”; and (4) “it is their duty to find the facts and to render a verdict reflecting the truth,” which signaled to the jury that they were free to analyze and weigh the effect of the breath sample evidence along with all the evidence presented during the trial. Slip op. at ¶ 13.

(2) The defendant next argued that the trial court erred by failing to find two statutory mitigating factors and that the error was prejudicial because he received supervised probation as part of his sentence. Under G.S. 20-179, Level Five is the minimum sentencing level that a defendant can statutorily receive for impaired driving, and a defendant may be placed on probation as part of a Level Five sentence. The Court of Appeals determined that the trial judge erred by failing to find one of the mitigating factors. However, the Court concluded that the defendant was not prejudiced because even if the trial judge had found the two additional mitigating factors, the judge could not have sentenced the defendant at a lower sentencing level under the impaired driving statutes.

(3) The defendant’s final argument was that the trial court erred by sentencing the defendant more harshly because the defendant exercised his right to a trial by jury. In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant’s punishment fit within the statutory limit and the defendant did not overcome the “presumption of regularity” by showing that “the court considered irrelevant and improper matters in determining the severity of the sentence.” Slip op. at ¶ 27. The defendant also argued that the trial judge relied on uncharged criminal conduct not found by the jury because the defendant was asked about his marijuana use. The Court of Appeals declined to consider this argument because the defendant did not assert his Fifth Amendment privilege or object at trial and thus waived the argument for appeal.

In this DWI case, the trial court erred by refusing to instruct the jury on the defense of necessity. The defendant was arrested for DWI while driving a golf cart. The evidence showed that the defendant and his wife used the golf cart on paths connecting their home to a local bar, that he drove the golf cart to the bar on those paths on the evening in question, and that he planned to return the same way. However when a fight broke out at the bar, the defendant and his wife fled on the golf cart, driving on the roadway. The defendant was convicted and he appealed. The court began its analysis by noting that the affirmative defense of necessity is available to DWI defendants and involves these elements: reasonable action, taken to protect life, limb, or health of a person, and no other acceptable choices available. The trial court erred by applying an additional element, requiring that the defendant’s action was motivated by fear. The court went on to determine that an objective standard of reasonableness applies to necessity, as compared to duress which appears to involve a subjective standard. The evidence was sufficient to satisfy the first two elements of the defense: reasonable action taken to protect life, limb, or the health of a person. Here, the bar attracted a rough clientele, including “the biker crowd.” It was not unusual for fights to break out there, but the bar had no obvious security. On the night in question, the bar atmosphere became “intense” and “mean” such that the two decided to leave. The defendant then argued with several men in the parking lot, which escalated to shouting and cursing. The main person with whom the defendant was arguing was described as the “baddest mother_cker in the bar.” The defendant punched the man, knocking him to the ground. The man was angry and drew a handgun, threatening the defendant. Neither the defendant nor his wife were armed. The scene turned “chaotic,” with a woman telling the defendant’s wife that the man was “crazy” and that they needed to “get out of [t]here.” The defendant’s wife was concerned that the man might shoot the defendant, her or someone else. When the defendant saw the gun, he screamed at his wife to leave. The defendant’s wife said she had no doubt that if they had not fled in the golf cart they would have been hurt or killed by the man with the gun. On these facts the court held:

[S]ubstantial evidence was presented that could have supported a jury determination that a man drawing a previously concealed handgun, immediately after having been knocked to the ground by Defendant, presented an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to Defendant, [his wife], or a bystander, and that attempting to escape from that danger by driving the golf cart for a brief period on the highway was a reasonable action taken to protect life, limb, or health.

The court also found that there was sufficient evidence as to the third element of the defense: no other acceptable choices available. With respect to whether the perceived danger had abated by the time the defendant encountered the officer, the court noted that the defendant had pulled off the highway approximately 2/10 of a mile from the bar and the defendant’s wife said that she saw the officer within minutes of the altercation. The court concluded: “On the facts of this case, including . . . that there was a man with a firearm who had threatened to shoot Defendant, and who would likely have access to a vehicle, we hold two-tenths of a mile was not, as a matter of law, an unreasonable distance to drive before pulling off the highway.” The court further clarified that the defenses of necessity and duress are separate and distinct. And it held that the evidence also supported a jury instruction on duress.

 

In this impaired driving case, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s requested special jury instruction and instructing instead using Pattern Jury Instruction 270.20A. The special instruction would have informed the jury that the results of the chemical analysis did not create a presumption that the defendant was impaired or that the defendant had an alcohol concentration of .08 or greater; the jury was permitted to find that the defendant had an alcohol concentration of .08 or greater based on the results of the chemical analysis but was not required to do so; and the jury was allowed to consider the credibility and weight to be accorded to the results of the chemical analysis.

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