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., 06/21/2024
E.g., 06/21/2024

The defendant’s plea was valid even though the plea agreement contained an unenforceable provision preserving his right to appeal the transfer of his juvenile case to superior court. Distinguishing cases holding that the inclusion of an invalid provision reserving the right to obtain appellate review of a particular issue rendered a plea agreement unenforceable, the court noted that in this case the defendant had ample notice that the provision was, in all probability, unenforceable and he elected to proceed with his guilty plea in spite of this. Specifically, he was so informed by the trial court.

The defendant’s plea agreement impermissibly sought to preserve the right to appeal adverse rulings on his motions to dismiss and in limine when no right to appeal those rulings in fact existed. The court remanded, instructing that the defendant may withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial or attempt to negotiate another plea agreement that does not violate the law.

The trial court erred by accepting a plea agreement that attempted to preserve the defendant’s right to appeal the trial court’s adverse ruling on his motion to dismiss a felon in possession of a firearm charge on grounds that the statute was unconstitutional as applied. Because a defendant has no right to appeal such a ruling, the court vacated the plea and remanded. A dissenting judge would have dismissed the appeal entirely because of the defendant’s failure to include a copy of his written motion to dismiss and suppress in the record.

The defendant’s plea had to be vacated where the plea agreement included a term that the defendant had a right to appeal an adverse ruling on a pretrial motion but the pretrial motion was not subject to appellate review.

The state and the defendant negotiated a plea agreement in which the defendant would plead guilty to assault by strangulation, second-degree kidnapping, and assault with a deadly weapon, and agreed that he would receive one consolidated active sentence. Under the terms of the plea agreement, sentencing would be postponed for two months; however, if the defendant failed to appear for sentencing, the agreement would no longer be binding and sentencing would be in the court’s discretion. The defendant did appear on the scheduled sentencing date (a Tuesday), but the sentencing was first continued to Friday of the same week before being rescheduled again to Wednesday. Defendant’s attorney stated that he had informed the defendant of the new date, but on Wednesday the defendant was not present at the beginning of court. The defendant showed up an hour and fifteen minutes later, and said he thought that court started an hour later. The prosecutor argued that by failing to appear as agreed, the defendant had breached the terms of the plea bargain and was therefore subject to sentencing in the court’s discretion. After hearing from the victim and both attorneys, the judge agreed with the state and sentenced the defendant to consecutive active sentences instead of one consolidated sentence as laid out in the plea agreement.

The defendant filed a petition for writ of certiorari, arguing that the trial court erred by failing to sentence him in accordance with the plea agreement, and the appellate court agreed. Although plea agreements are contractual in nature, they also involve a waiver of the defendant’s constitutional rights and there must be safeguards to ensure that the defendant receives what he is due. In this case, the defendant did not breach the terms of the plea agreement because he appeared as ordered on the original sentencing date. Additionally, although the defendant was late to court on the rescheduled date, he did appear. Since the state still received the benefit of its bargain by securing the guilty pleas, and since the spirit of the agreement (that the defendant would appear for sentencing at a later date) was fulfilled, the appellate court concluded that the defendant should not have to forfeit what was promised to him under the agreement. The defendant’s “tardiness” did not constitute a breach; therefore, the state violated the plea agreement by asking the court to sentence the defendant in its discretion, and the trial court erred by imposing a sentence in violation of the defendant’s due process rights. The appellate court vacated the judgment, reinstated the plea agreement, and remanded for further proceedings.

The trial court erred by setting aside the plea agreement in response to the defendant’s motion seeking return of seized property. The defendant pleaded guilty pursuant to a plea agreement that called for, in part, the return of over $6,000 in seized funds. The defendant complied with her obligations under the agreement, but the State did not return the funds, on grounds that they had been forfeited to federal and State authorities. When the defendant filed a motion for return of the property, the trial court found that the State had breached the agreement but that specific performance was impossible; instead, the trial judge struck the plea. The court began by agreeing that the State breached the plea agreement. It went on to conclude that because the State was in a better position to know whether the money had been forfeited, it bore the risk as to the mistake of fact. It explained:

[When] the district attorney entered into the plea agreement, he was capable of confirming the status of the funds prior to agreeing to return them to defendant. The money was seized from defendant and sent to the DEA the same month. The parties did not enter into the plea agreement until approximately nine months after the forfeiture . . . . The State could have easily confirmed the availability of the funds prior to the execution of the agreement but failed to do so. Therefore, the State must bear the risk of that mistake and the Court erred by rescinding the plea agreement based on a mistake of fact.

In this case, it concluded, rescission could not repair the harm to the defendant because the defendant had already completed approximately nine months of probation and had complied with all the terms of the plea agreement, including payment of fines and costs. The court reasoned that while the particular funds seized were no longer available, “money is fungible” and “there is no requirement that the exact funds seized must be returned to defendant and the State cannot avoid its obligation on this basis.” The court reversed the trial court’s order, reinstated the plea, and ordered the State to return the funds.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to continue after rejecting his Alford plea, where the defendant did not move for a continuance until the second week of trial. The defendant argued that he had an absolute right to a continuance under G.S. 15A-1023(b) (providing in part that “[u]pon rejection of the plea arrangement by the judge the defendant is entitled to a continuance until the next session of court”). Here, where the defendant failed to move for a continuance until the second week of trial, his statutory right to a continuance was waived.

State v. Rico, 366 N.C. 327 (Dec. 14, 2012)

For the reasons stated in the dissenting opinion below, the court reversed State v. Rico, 218N.C. App. 109 (Jan. 17, 2012) (holding, over a dissent, that where there was a mistake in the plea agreement and where the defendant fully complied with the agreement, and the risk of any mistake in a plea agreement must be borne by the State; according to the court, both parties mistakenly believed that the aggravating factor of use of a firearm could enhance a sentence for voluntary manslaughter by use of that same firearm; the court determined that the State remains bound by the plea agreement and that the defendant must be resentenced on his guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter; the dissenting judge argued that the proper remedy was to set aside the plea arrangement and remand for disposition of the original charge (murder)).

Having found that the defendant’s convictions for drug offenses that were part of a plea agreement had to be vacated on grounds of fatal defects in the indictments, the court held that the entire plea agreement and the judgments entered on it must be set aside and the matter remanded to the trial court. The court expressly noted that nothing in its opinion binds either party to the vacated pleas or sentences or restricts the State from re-indicting the defendant.

Because the trial court failed to consider evidence of the defendant’s eligibility for conditional discharge pursuant to G.S. 90-96, the court vacated the judgment and remanded for resentencing. The defendant pleaded guilty to driving while impaired and possession of LSD. According to the plea agreement, the defendant stipulated to his prior record level for each offense, and that he would be placed on probation. In exchange, the State agreed to dismiss additional drug possession charges against the defendant. Pursuant to the plea agreement, the defendant received suspended sentences. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by granting a suspended sentence rather than a conditional discharge. The trial court had denied this request, concluding that the defendant was asking for something beyond the scope of his plea agreement. The Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant, noting that defense counsel asked for such a discharge during the plea hearing and that the conditional discharge statute was mandatory for eligible defendants. The court rejected the State’s argument that the defendant failed to present evidence that he was qualified for conditional discharge, concluding instead that the burden is on the State to establish that the defendant is not eligible for conditional discharge by proving the defendant’s prior record. Here, the trial court did not afford either party the opportunity to establish whether or not the defendant was eligible for conditional discharge. The court therefore vacated the judgment and remanded for a new sentencing hearing, directing the trial court to follow the procedure for the consideration of eligibility for conditional discharge.

State v. Khan, 366 N.C. 448 (Mar. 8, 2013)

(1) There was no ambiguity in a plea agreement with regard to whether the defendant understood that he was stipulating to an aggravating factor that could apply to both indictments. Although the Transcript of Plea Form listed only a file number for the first indictment, the document as a whole clearly referenced all of the charges and the in-court proceedings confirmed that the stipulation applied to both indictments.

Although the trial court erred by ordering the defendant to pay restitution for pecuniary losses arising from his alleged perpetration of charges in three indictments dismissed by the State pursuant to a plea agreement, the plea agreement need not be set aside. The defendant asserted that because he agreed to pay the invalid restitution as part of the plea deal, the appropriate remedy is to set aside the plea agreement. Although agreeing that the restitution order was improper, the court disagreed with the defendant that the plea agreement needed to be set aside. According to the transcript of plea, the plea arrangement provided that “‘[defendant] will plea to 7 counts of breaking and/or entering in lieu of the charges listed on the back of this transcript[,]’ and defendant checked the following box in that same section: ‘The defendant stipulates to restitution to the party(ies) in the amounts set out on ‘Restitution Worksheet, Notice And Order (Initial Sentencing)’ (AOC-CR-611).’” In a plea colloquy with the defendant the trial court specified: “And the plea bargain is that upon your plea of guilty to these seven charges the State will dismiss all other charges,” to which the defendant responded, “Yes, sir.” The court found that despite the defendant’s stipulation to restitution as provided in the State’s restitution worksheet, the defendant never agreed to pay restitution as part of the plea agreement. Rather, as described in the transcript of plea and explained during the plea colloquy, the essential and fundamental terms of the plea agreement were that the defendant would plead to seven counts of felony breaking or entering, and the State would drop the remaining charges. It concluded: “As defendant never agreed to pay restitution as part of the plea agreement, the invalidly ordered restitution was not an ‘essential or fundamental’ term of the deal. Accordingly, we hold the proper remedy here is not to set aside defendant’s entire plea agreement but to vacate the restitution order and remand for resentencing solely on the issue of restitution.”

In this Cabarrus County case, defendant appealed judgment entered on his guilty plea, arguing that the trial court refused to allow him to withdraw his plea after imposing a sentence differing from the plea agreement. The Court of Appeals agreed, vacating the judgment and remanding for further proceedings. 

In August of 2022, defendant entered a plea agreement for felony fleeing to elude arrest. The agreement specified that defendant would receive a suspended sentence in the presumptive range. However, at defendant’s plea hearing, the trial court imposed an additional “split sentence of 30 days” in jail as a special condition of probation. Slip Op. at 2. Defense counsel moved to strike the plea, but the trial court denied the motion. 

After reviewing the applicable caselaw and statutes, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred by failing to strictly adhere to the terms of the plea agreement. Based upon the transcript, it appeared that the trial court felt the addition was permitted because the plea agreement did not mention special conditions related to probation. The court explained: 

Our courts have held that strict adherence to plea arrangements means giving the defendant what they bargained for. . . [t]o the extent the terms of the arrangement—including whether the parties had agreed to the imposition of a special condition of probation—were unclear, the trial court should have sought clarification from the parties rather than impose a sentence it decided was appropriate.

Id. at 6-7.

The trial court erred by imposing a sentence inconsistent with that set out in his plea agreement without informing the defendant that he had a right to withdraw his guilty plea. The defendant was charged with multiple counts involving multiple victims and occurring between 1998 and 2015. On the third day of trial, he negotiated a plea agreement with the State, whereby he would plead guilty to a number of offenses and would receive a single, consolidated active sentence of 290 to 408 months imprisonment. Over the next weeks and prior to sentencing, the defendant wrote to the trial court asserting his innocence to some of the charges and suggesting his desire to withdraw from the plea agreement. The trial court acknowledged receipt of the letters and forwarded them to defense counsel. When the defendant later appeared for sentencing, he formally moved to withdraw his guilty plea, which was denied. Contrary to the plea agreement, the trial court entered two judgments, one for the 2015 offenses and one for the 1998 offenses, based on the different sentencing grids that applied to the crimes. Specifically, the trial court sentenced the defendant to 290 to 408 months for the 2015 offenses, and for the 1998 offenses a separate judgment sentencing the defendant to 288 to 355 months imprisonment. The trial court ordered that the sentences would run concurrently. The defendant appealed. Because the concurrent sentences imposed by the trial court differed from the single sentence agreed to by the defendant in his plea agreement, the defendant was entitled to withdraw his plea. Any change by the trial judge in the sentence agreed to in the plea agreement, even a change benefiting the defendant, requires the judge to give the defendant an opportunity to withdraw his plea.

As conceded by the State, the trial court erred by resentencing the defendant to a sentence greater than that provided for in his plea agreement without giving the defendant an opportunity to withdraw his plea, as required by G.S. 15A-1024.

The trial court did not violate G.S. 15A-1024 (withdrawal of guilty plea when sentence not in accord with plea arrangement) by sentencing the defendant in the presumptive range. Under G.S. 15A-1024, if the trial court decides to impose a sentence other than that provided in a plea agreement, the court must inform the defendant of its decision and that he or she may withdraw the plea; if the defendant chooses to withdraw, the court must grant a continuance until the next court session. Although the defendant characterized the agreement as requiring sentencing in the mitigated range, the court found that his interpretation was not supported by the plain language of the plea arrangement, which stated only that the State “shall not object to punishment in the mitigated range.”

Where a negotiated plea agreement involving several charges included a plea to a crime later held to be unconstitutional, the entire agreement must be set aside. After the jury convicted the defendant of being a sex offender on the premises of a daycare, the defendant pled guilty based on a negotiated plea arrangement to being a sex offender unlawfully within 300 feet of a daycare, failing to report a new address as a sex offender, and three counts of attaining habitual felon status. While his direct appeal was pending, the statute prohibiting a sex offender from being within 300 feet of a daycare was held to be unconstitutional. The court thus held that the defendant’s conviction for that offense must be vacated. Having determined that the defendant’s guilty plea to violating the unconstitutional statute must be vacated the essential and fundamental terms of the plea agreement became unfulfillable and that the entire plea agreement must be set aside.

A drug trafficking defendant who pled guilty and was sentenced pursuant to a plea agreement allowing for a sentence greater than that provided for in the applicable drug trafficking statute was entitled to have the plea agreement set aside on this basis.

In a per curiam decision in a case decided under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the Court held that no decision from the Court clearly establishes that a state court must impose a lower, originally expected sentence when—after the defendant has pled guilty—the State is allowed to amend the criminal complaint, subjecting the defendant to a higher sentence, and the defendant is allowed to withdraw his plea but chooses to enter into a new plea agreement based on the amended complaint. A California court permitted the State to amend a criminal complaint to which the defendant had pleaded guilty. That guilty plea would have led to a maximum sentence of 14 years, 4 months. The court acknowledged that permitting the amendment would lead to a higher sentence, and it consequently permitted the defendant to withdraw his guilty plea. The defendant then pleaded guilty to the amended complaint and was sentenced to a term with a minimum of 25 years. The Ninth Circuit held that the defendant was entitled to specific performance of the lower 14-year, 4-month sentence that he would have received had the complaint not been amended. The Court reversed. It began by assuming that the State violated the Constitution when it moved to amend the complaint. But it went on to conclude: “we still are unable to find in Supreme Court precedent that clearly established federal law demanding specific performance as a remedy. To the contrary, no holdin[g] of this Court requires the remedy of specific performance under the circumstances present here.” (quotation omitted).

State v. Chandler, 376 N.C. 361 (Dec. 18, 2020)

Under G.S. 15A-1023(c), a trial court does not have the discretion to reject a defendant’s guilty plea when the plea is the defendant’s informed choice, is supported by a factual basis, and is the product of an agreement where the prosecutor does not make any recommendations concerning sentence.  In this case, the defendant negotiated a plea arrangement with the State where he would plead guilty to indecent liberties in exchange for the State’s dismissal of a first-degree sexual offense charge.  During the plea colloquy, the defendant stated that he was pleading guilty to prevent the child victim “from being more traumatized” but that he “did not intentionally do what they say I’ve done.”  The trial judge rejected the plea, explaining that his practice was not to accept pleas in situations where a defendant asserts factual innocence.  The defendant’s case was continued to a later court date where he entered a plea of not guilty and was convicted by a jury of first-degree sex offense and indecent liberties.  Construing language in G.S. 15A-1023(c) that a trial judge “must accept the plea” when it is the product of an informed choice and is supported by a factual basis as a statutory mandate, court first found that the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by not accepting the plea automatically was preserved for appellate review notwithstanding the defendant’s failure to raise the argument at trial.  The court then found that because there was a factual basis for the plea and evidence that it was the product of the defendant’s informed choice, the trial judge lacked discretion to reject the plea on grounds of the defendant’s refusal to admit factual guilt and plainly erred by doing so.  The court explained: “Nothing in [G.S.] 15A-1022 or our case law announces a statutory or constitutional requirement that a defendant admit factual guilt in order to enter a guilty plea.”  The court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to the district attorney to renew the plea offer.

Justice Morgan, joined by Justice Newby, dissented and expressed the view that the defendant’s argument was not properly preserved for appellate review.  In Justice Morgan’s view, the trial judge is “the determiner” of whether there is a factual basis for a plea and whether it is the product of informed choice.  While G.S. 15A-1023(c) mandates that a plea be accepted when those conditions are satisfied, the majority erred by substituting its judgement on those conditions for the trial court’s and by considering the defendant’s argument on appeal when the defendant had failed to object in the trial court.

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