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., 09/22/2021
E.g., 09/22/2021

In this Chatham County case, the State appealed from an order suppressing DNA evidence. The defendant was serving a life sentence for felony murder stemming from a robbery and killing in 1975. In 2008, the Court of Appeals ruled that inmates serving life under the Fair Sentencing Act were entitled to certain credits towards their sentence, which would have allowed the inmates (including the defendant) to be released. See State v. Bowden, 193 N.C. App. 597 (2008). In response, the Department of Public Safety began collecting DNA blood samples from inmates impacted by the Bowden decision to comply with the mandate of G.S. 15A-266.4 (requiring DNA samples before release from prison) and took the defendant’s sample. The North Carolina Supreme Court later reversed Bowden, and the defendant remained in prison.

In 2013, a codefendant contacted the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission and asserted that the defendant had not been involved in the 1975 murder. Investigation into the defendant’s background revealed that he had significant intellectual limitations and mental health issues and was functionally illiterate. Other evidence showed that the defendant’s confession at the time was unconstitutionally obtained. The Innocence Commission recommended release, and a three-judge panel found the defendant innocent and ordered him released from prison in 2014.

In 2017, law enforcement discovered a woman murdered in her apartment in Pittsboro. The defendant lived in the apartment complex at the time. Blood found on the crime scene matched to the defendant, but the SBI did not initially alert police to the match. Because the underlying murder conviction had been set aside, the SBI believed that the defendant’s DNA sample should not have been in the database. Months later, the SBI alerted local law enforcement to the DNA match to the defendant. A search warrant was obtained to procure a new sample from the defendant. The affidavit acknowledged that the match was based on a sample provided for the earlier, now-vacated conviction, but noted that the SBI did not receive an order for expunction of that sample. The new sample of the defendant’s DNA matched to the blood on the scene of the Pittsboro murder and the defendant could not be excluded as a source for other forensic evidence at the scene. The defendant was consequently charged with first-degree murder and moved to suppress the DNA results.

The suppression motion alleged that the DNA test results stemmed from the defendant’s illegal confession in 1975 as well as an unjustified warrantless search of the defendant’s DNA in 2017, and that counsel at the defendant’s innocence hearing was ineffective for failing to seek an expunction of the defendant’s DNA sample. The trial court found that the SBI lawfully obtained the defendant’s DNA sample and that defense counsel was not ineffective. It nonetheless granted the motion to suppress. The trial court reasoned that the DNA expunction statute wrongfully placed the burden on the defendant to move for relief, and that the lack of an automatic process for expunction in cases of exoneration violated the Law of the Land clause of the state constitution under Article 1, section 19. Neither party raised this argument. The Court of Appeals reversed.

(1) The State sought to have the suppression order reversed on the basis that the Law of the Land clause argument was not raised in the trial court and was not therefore preserved for appellate review. This was incorrect. According to the court: “Our precedents clearly allow the party seeking to uphold the trial court’s presumed-to-be-correct and ultimate ruling to, in fact, choose and run any horse to race on appeal to sustain the legally correct conclusion of the order appealed from.” Womble Slip op. at 16. The trial court had inherent authority to grant the motion on grounds other than those argued before it and the issue was preserved for review.

(2) G.S. 15A-148 permits a defendant whose conviction is dismissed on appeal or by pardon of innocence to petition for expunction of a DNA sample provided in connection with the case. This statute did not apply to the defendant’s situation because an appellate court did not dismiss his original conviction and he did not receive a pardon. Innocence Commission cases are heard by a three-judge panel. They conduct an evidentiary hearing and sit as finder of fact, unlike an appellate court. While a superior court can in some instances act as an appellate court (reviewing only record evidence), innocence-claim judicial panels are expressly tasked with taking and weighing evidence. G.S. 15A-1469.

G.S. 15A-146 permits expunction when a case is dismissed and may include a request for expunction of the defendant’s DNA sample taken in connection with the case. Under the version of the statute in effect in 2019, a person did not qualify for this type of expunction if they had previously been convicted of a felony. The defendant had felony convictions unrelated to the original murder conviction, and those rendered the defendant ineligible for expunction under G.S. 15A-146 as well. The trial court therefore correctly determined that the SBI lawfully possessed and retained the defendant’s DNA sample.

(3) The court agreed with the trial court that the defendant has the burden to seek expunction under the statutory framework. It further observed that expunctions act prospectively and not retrospectively—the criminal record is only erased after the final order of expunction has been filed. Here, the defendant did not seek expunction and alleged no disability preventing him from doing so. The trial court’s ruling on the Law of the Land clause was incorrect. In determining a violation under that clause, the court asks “(1) Does the regulation have a legitimate objective; and (2) if so, are the means chosen to implement that objective reasonable?” Womble Slip op. at 27. The State has a legitimate interest in maintaining records of convicted felons to assist with solving other crimes, and this is sufficient to satisfy the first prong of the test. The statutes regarding collection of DNA samples from convicted felons and the process by which those records may be expunged were also reasonable. According to the court:

The trial court’s suppression of the DNA evidence based upon the Law of the Land Clause denied the longstanding presumption of validity of legislative policy choices and is error. The application of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-148 is presumed to be, and is, constitutional under the Law of the Land Clause. Id. at 28.

The trial court’s order to the contrary was therefore reversed.

(4) While not addressed by the trial court, the Court of Appeals also examined due process arguments under the Fourteenth Amendment as issues likely to recur on remand. North Carolina’s Law of the Land clause is the state counterpart to the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and has been interpreted to provide greater protections than its federal relative. Because no violation occurred under the Law of the Land clause, no federal due process violation occurred either.

The defendant also argued Nelson v. Colorado, 581 U.S. ___, 137 S. Ct. 1249 (2017), as an additional ground to affirm the trial court. That case found Colorado’s process of requiring the defendant to prove by clear and convincing evidence in a new civil action that the person was actually innocent before refunding financial costs imposed in relation to an overturned conviction violated due process. Under Nelson, “a State may not impose anything more than minimal procedures on the refund of exactions dependent upon a conviction subsequently invalidated” to comport with due process. Id. The court assumed without deciding that the defendant’s DNA could be treated like the fees and fines in Nelson. Here though, the defendant never pursued the statutory minimum procedure of filing for an expunction. This precluded review by the Court of Appeals. “Defendant did not argue this basis before the trial court and his failure to request the return of his blood as an exaction of his invalidated conviction prevents us from considering the matter as a violation of his federal Due Process rights.” Womble Slip op. at 31. This claim was therefore dismissed.

(5) The defendant argued that his DNA sample obtained while in prison for his original conviction was the fruit of the poisonous tree as an additional ground to affirm the trial court. According to the defendant, the detective coerced his confession in 1975 and this rendered the DNA sample inadmissible. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument too, finding that the sample was obtained from an independent source. Under the independent source exception to the exclusionary rule, “evidence obtained illegally should not be suppressed if it is later acquired pursuant to a constitutionally valid search or seizure.” Id. at 32. No court had ever ruled that the detective at issue wrongfully obtained the defendant’s confession or that the confession was the fruit of the poisonous tree. Furthermore, the defendant also confessed to other law enforcement agents at the time, and this was an adequate independent source of the DNA sample. This argument was dismissed as well.

(6) The defendant argued his 2009 DNA sample was wrongfully obtained as a warrantless search unsupported by exigent circumstances. In Maryland v. King, 569 U.S. 435 (2013), the Supreme Court approved the taking of a DNA sample by swabbing the inner cheek of a person validly arrested on probable cause, reasoning that the search (the swab) was reasonable under the circumstances. The defendant’s case was different, in that the DNA sample was obtained by way of an intravenous blood-draw. While this process is more invasive than the swab at issue in King, it was not a significant intrusion. As an inmate at the time, the defendant had a reduced (though not nonexistent) expectation of privacy. The defendant was not singled out to provide a sample; he was part of a category of prisoners being prepared for release. “This intrusion is weighted against the government’s interest in preserving an identification record of convicted felons for resolving past or future crimes.” Womble Slip op. at 40. The court determined that the State’s interest outweighed the intrusion upon the defendant’s privacy rights and again affirmed that no Fourth Amendment violation occurred.

(7) The defendant claimed his innocence-claim attorneys were ineffective for failing to expunge his conviction and DNA sample. The State argued that there is no right to an attorney in collateral review and that there was therefore no ineffective assistance claim to be made. The defendant analogized this situation to that of Kentucky v. Padilla, 559 U.S. 356 (holding that the right to counsel requires the client to be correctly informed of clear immigration consequences). He argued that the DNA sample was a similar collateral consequence. The Court of Appeals again disagreed. In the words of the court:

Defendant did not have a statutory right to expungement under either N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 15A-146 or 15A-148. Defendant’s counsel does not have a duty to pursue a remedy unavailable at law. Under Strickland, Defendant’s counsel’s performance cannot be ‘deficient’ for not pursuing a claim that is unavailable to him. Womble Slip op. at 43.

(8) The State argued that the DNA sample was admissible even if the defendant’s rights were violated under the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule. Pursuant to that rule, if State shows by a preponderance of evidence that law enforcement would have discovered the evidence despite their unconstitutional actions, the evidence may still be admitted. See Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984). According to the State, law enforcement had already decided upon the defendant as a prime suspect in the 2017 murder and would have ultimately arrested him even without the DNA sample. The trial court precluded the State from presenting evidence of prior altercations between the defendant and his girlfriend spanning a period of time from the month before the 2017 murder to several months after. The trial court based its ruling on the fact that the detective did not learn of these prior disturbances until after the SBI alerted law enforcement to the DNA match. This was error. “Nowhere does our precedent impose a temporal component to evidence subject to inevitable discovery, only that the evidence ‘would have been inevitably discovered’ by police.” Womble Slip op. at 46.

The case was therefore affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings.

In a prior decision, State v. Swain, 259 N.C. App. 253 (2018) (“Swain I”), the defendant appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress. The defendant argued that the cocaine discovered in this drug trafficking case was based on a search warrant affidavit that contained false statements in violation of Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978). The appellate court in Swain I concluded that it could not adequately review the defendant’s arguments because the trial court had not entered a written order resolving factual disputes in the evidence presented at the suppression hearing, so the matter was remanded to the trial court for entry of a written order clarifying the court’s findings. However, since the judge who conducted the hearing had retired, another superior court judge reviewed the hearing transcript and prepared a written order denying the defendant’s motion.

The appellate court found that this procedure was improper and a new hearing should have been held, for two reasons. First, pursuant to G.S. 15A-977 and State v. Bartlett, 368 N.C. 309 (2015), only the judge who presided over the hearing could make findings of fact concerning the evidence presented. Second, the appellate court pointed out that when it remanded this matter in Swain I, it had already concluded that the transcript alone provided an insufficient basis to resolve the conflicts in the evidence, and those disputes remained unresolved by the new order. Therefore, the court once again vacated the trial court’s order and remanded with instructions to hold a new evidentiary hearing and enter a written order resolving any factual disputes and ruling on the motion.

The defendant was charged with impaired driving, was convicted in district court, appealed to superior court, and prevailed on a motion to suppress at a pretrial hearing in superior court. The State appealed. (1) The Court of Appeals rejected the State’s argument that the superior court judge lacked jurisdiction to enter a written order after the State gave oral notice of appeal at the conclusion of the hearing at which the judge granted the motion to suppress. At the hearing, the trial judge stated that the State could not establish a nexus between the person the officer saw driving and the defendant who later walked up to the officer. The Court found that the judge’s written order was a chronicle of the findings and conclusions he decided at the motion hearing and was not a new order affecting the merits of the case. (2) The Court rejected the State’s argument that certain findings of fact were not supported by the evidence. In regard to the green pickup truck that the defendant was allegedly driving, the trial judge found that the arresting officer testified that he did not see the truck park or anyone get in or out of the truck. The State asserted that the officer testified that he observed a video at the mini-mart where the truck was parked showing the defendant getting out of the truck. The Court found that the officer testified that the video was lost because he left the flash drive containing the video in his patrol car when he took the car to a mechanic. The Court held that the trial judge determines the credibility of witnesses, the weight to be given to testimony, and reasonable inferences. “The trial court was free to give no weight to [the officer’s] testimony regarding viewing the Mini-mart video.” (3) The Court rejected the State’s argument that probable cause existed to arrest the defendant for impaired driving. The Court found that the trial judge’s findings supported his conclusion that the State failed to show that the defendant was driving and, although the truck was registered to the defendant, failed to establish a connection between the driver of the truck and the defendant.

The defendant was arrested for impaired driving. Because of his extreme intoxication, he was taken to a hospital for medical treatment. The defendant was belligerent and combative at the hospital, and was medicated in an effort to calm his behavior. After the defendant was medically subdued, a nurse withdrew his blood. She withdrew some blood for medical purposes and additional blood for law enforcement use. No warrant had been issued authorizing the blood draw. The defendant moved to suppress evidence resulting from the warrantless blood draw on constitutional grounds. The trial court granted the motion, suppressing evidence of the blood provided to law enforcement and the subsequent analysis of that blood. The State appealed from that interlocutory order, certifying that the evidence was essential to the prosecution of its case. The North Carolina Supreme Court, in State v. Romano, 369 N.C. 678 (2017), affirmed the trial court’s ruling suppressing the State’s blood analysis, and remanded the case for additional proceedings. 

While the case was pending before the state supreme court, the State filed a motion for disclosure of the defendant’s medical records on the date of his arrest, which included records of the hospital’s analysis of his blood. The motion was granted, and the medical records were disclosed.

After the case was remanded, the State proceeded to try the defendant on charges of habitual impaired driving and driving while license revoked for impaired driving. The defendant moved to dismiss the charges and to suppress the evidence of his medical records. The trial court denied the motions, and the defendant was convicted.

The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss. Noting that the State appealed the order suppressing evidence from the warrantless blood draw on the basis that the State’s analysis of his blood was essential to its case, the defendant argued that the State should not have been permitted to try the case against him on remand because that evidence was ordered suppressed. The court rejected the defendant’s argument, stating that the supreme court’s decision simply upheld the suppression of the evidence. It did not preclude the State from proceeding to trial without the suppressed evidence on remand. Thus, the court of appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in denying defendant’s motion to dismiss.

At a suppression hearing, the trial court may consider testimony from an officer about a vehicle stop that includes material information not contained in the officer’s contemporaneous reports. On the date of the traffic stop, Trooper Myers—the stopping officer--made handwritten notes in an Affidavit and Revocation Report and in a Driving While Impaired Report form (DWIR form). He testified that for most of his impaired driving cases, he was unable to put a lot of information on the DWIR form due to space constraints and his own sloppy handwriting. His practice was to later type his full observations into a Word document so that it would be easier to read. He followed this practice with respect to the incident in question, typing his notes into a Word document the following day; these notes contained greater detail about the incident than the prior Revocation Report or DWIR form. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court could not consider additional details included in the typed notes. This additional information supplemented rather than contradicted that in the earlier-created documents.

Because the trial court summarily denied the defendant’s motion to suppress, a full hearing with sworn testimony was not required under G.S. 15A-977 (motion to suppress procedure). The defendant’s own affidavit clearly laid out facts establishing that the officer had reasonable suspicion to detain the defendant. The information presented in the affidavit was sufficient to allow the trial court to determine that the defendant’s allegation did not merit a full suppression hearing because the affidavit did not as a matter of law support the ground alleged for suppression.

Any alleged violation of the New Jersey constitution in connection with a stop in that state leading to charges in North Carolina, provided no basis for the suppression of evidence in a North Carolina court.

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