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

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.

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