Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

About

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.

Instructions

Navigate using the table of contents to the left or by using the search box below. Use quotations for an exact phrase search. A search for multiple terms without quotations functions as an “or” search. Not sure where to start? The 5 minute video tutorial offers a guided tour of main features – Launch Tutorial (opens in new tab).

E.g., 11/27/2021
E.g., 11/27/2021

In 2013, the defendant’s car collided with another vehicle, killing its driver. The defendant was taken to the hospital, where he was treated and released. The State later obtained an order directing the hospital to provide the defendant’s medical records and blood. Tests of the blood indicated a blood alcohol concentration of 0.22. The defendant was charged with second-degree murder and death by vehicle. Before trial, the defendant moved to suppress, arguing that the blood was obtained in violation of the state and federal constitutions because there was no exigent circumstance or finding of probable cause. The trial court denied the motion and the defendant was convicted. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred by denying the motion to suppress, but went on to conclude over a dissent that “Defendant ha[d] failed to carry his burden to show any prejudicial error in the denial of the motion to suppress.” State v. Scott, 269 N.C. App. 457 (2020). The dissent argued that the proper legal standard for evaluating whether a federal constitutional error is prejudicial is whether the State has proved its harmlessness beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. (Brook, J., dissenting). On appeal, the Supreme Court agreed with the dissent, holding that the Court of Appeals applied the incorrect standard and wrongly placed the burden on the defendant to show prejudice. The Court remanded the matter to the Court of Appeals for application of the proper standard.

On remand from the North Carolina Supreme Court, this Alamance County case involved a medical blood draw from a defendant suspected of driving while impaired and second-degree murder. The Court of Appeals previously determined that the seizure of the defendant’s medical records without a search warrant violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights but found that the defendant failed to prove prejudice and was not entitled to relief (here). A dissent at the Court of Appeals agreed that the warrantless seizure was a Fourth Amendment violation but disagreed that the defendant was required to show prejudice. The North Carolina Supreme Court unanimously reversed, agreeing with the dissent below. It remanded to that court for application of the correct standard, harmless error, whereby the State has the burden to demonstrate that the error did not affect the validity and fairness of the proceedings beyond a reasonable doubt.

Evidence at trial showed that the defendant was driving recklessly at a high speed and passed another car in a no passing zone, and the defendant admitted as much. The defendant also had prior convictions for impaired driving and speeding. The State argued that this was sufficient to show malice for purposes of second-degree murder even without the blood result. However, the blood result was the only evidence of impairment—there were no signs of impairment at the scene, and no witness could attest that the defendant was impaired. The jury was instructed that it could find malice based on impairment, reckless driving, or speeding. It returned a general verdict and did not specify a theory of malice supporting the murder conviction. While the evidence of speeding, recklessness, and prior convictions were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss the murder charge, the State here did not establish that the erroneous admission of the blood evidence was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The conviction for second degree murder was therefore vacated and the matter remanded for a new trial. Judges Gore and Griffin concurred.

The trial court did not impermissibly place the burden of proof on the defendant at a suppression hearing. Initially the burden is on the defendant to show that the motion is timely and in proper form. The burden then is on the State to demonstrate the admissibility of the challenged evidence. The party who bears the burden of proof typically presents evidence first. Here, the fact that the defendant presented evidence first at the suppression hearing does not by itself establish that the burden of proof was shifted to the defendant.

Show Table of Contents