Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


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., 12/10/2023
E.g., 12/10/2023

In this Wake County case, the Supreme Court affirmed per curiam the unpublished Court of Appeals opinion State v. Johnson, COA19-529-2, 275 N.C. App. 980 (table), 2020 WL 7974001 (Dec. 31, 2020). Previously, the Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion on April 21, 2020, which the Supreme Court remanded for consideration of defendant’s equal protection claims. The current opinion affirms the Court of Appeals’ decision after remand that found no error in the denial of defendant’s motion to suppress. 

The matter arose from an arrest in November of 2017. A police officer noticed defendant, a black man, parked at an apartment complex and approached his vehicle. As the officer approached, defendant left his vehicle, and the officer smelled marijuana. Defendant attempted to flee, and the officer detained him, eventually finding cocaine and marijuana on his person. At trial, defendant moved to suppress the results of the search, arguing the discriminatory intent and violation of his equal protection rights. During the hearing on the motion to suppress for equal protection violations, defendant introduced statistical evidence of the arresting officer’s law enforcement actions to show that the arrest was discriminatory and represented selective enforcement of the law. Defense counsel told the trial court that the burden of proof for the motion to suppress was on the defense, and the trial court agreed, assigning the initial burden to defendant. After the hearing, the trial court denied defendant’s motion.

Taking up the case after the Supreme Court’s remand, the Court of Appeals established that the initial burden was properly placed on defendant after looking to applicable equal protection caselaw under the U.S. and N.C. Constitutions. The Court of Appeals then dispensed with defendant’s statistical analysis evidence as it lacked adequate benchmarks for the data, explaining that “without reliable data indicating the population and demographics in southeast Raleigh and further details on [the officer’s] patrol history, these statistics do not establish a prima facie case that [the officer’s] actions had a discriminatory effect or evinced a discriminatory purpose.” State v. Johnson, COA19-529-2 at 21, 2020 WL 7974001 at *8. 

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Morgan, dissented by separate opinion, and would have held that the data collected under G.S. 143B-903, referenced by defendant’s witnesses when discussing the history of the arresting officer’s actions, could support a claim of discriminatory intent without additional benchmarking statistics. The dissent also would have held that defendant’s evidence represented a prima facie showing of discrimination. 

Justices Berger and Dietz did not participate in consideration or decision of the case. 

State v. Scott, 377 N.C. 199 (Apr. 16, 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.

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