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., 09/26/2021
E.g., 09/26/2021

The defendant attempted to cash a forged check at a bank in Burke County. He submitted his driver’s license and social security card along with the check through the tube system at the bank’s drive-through. The bank teller handling the transaction became suspicious upon seeing the check and contacted the account owner. The account owner informed the bank employee that she had not authorized the check, did not know the defendant, and that the check had been recently taken from her mailbox. The defendant left the scene without recovering his documents and was later indicted for uttering a forged instrument. He was convicted at trial and appealed.

(1) Sufficient evidence existed for the jury to determine that the defendant was the perpetrator. The State introduced the defendant’s driver’s license and social security card, which had been left with the bank teller. A detective established the chain of custody of those items from the bank teller to the police. The bank teller testified that the defendant was the person who initially passed those documents to at the bank window, and that he verified at the time that the defendant was the person on the license. In the light most favorable to the State, this was sufficient evidence to show that the defendant was the person responsible for the crime.

(2) The defendant’s attorney testified that he had 28 hours in the case, and the trial judge awarded attorney fees as a condition of probation in the amount of $1,680.00. The defendant complained that he was not provided an opportunity to be heard on the award. Because the attorney fees were ordered as a condition of probation and not as a civil judgment, the defendant was not entitled to be heard. “[T]his Court has only required notice and an opportunity to be heard when the court has imposed a civil judgment against an indigent defendant for attorney fees pursuant to [G.S. 7A-]455(b).” Gibson Slip op. at 10 (citing State v. Jacobs, 172 N.C. App. 220 (2005) and State v. Friend, 257 N.C. App. 516 (2018)). G.S. 15A-1343(b)(10) authorizes payment of attorney fees as a condition of probation, and the trial court correctly calculated the rate for appointed attorney fees for the class of offense ($60 x 28 hours) to arrive at the award. Because the award was authorized as a matter of probation and no civil judgment was involved, the award would only be reversed for an abuse of discretion. Finding none, the award of attorney fees was affirmed. Judges Dietz and Collins concurred.

The defendant was convicted of armed robbery and resisting a public officer in Columbus County. Immediately before trial, the defendant moved to continue the case. He argued that he had only just received and reviewed recorded statements of the robbery victim and needed time to subpoena the victim’s wife to provide exculpatory evidence and to impeach the victim’s credibility. The trial court declined to continue the case. (1) Defense counsel had been involved in the case for more than nine months and the victim’s wife was listed in discovery materials provided to the defense as a potential witness for the State. Despite being on notice of her potential value as a witness before trial, defense counsel made no effort to locate or interview her. Further, the oral motion to continue did not specifically describe what testimony the witness would provide other than calling it “exculpatory” and “impeaching,” nor was it supported by affidavit. According to the court:

[T]he oral motion for continuance is not supported by affidavit or other proof. In fact, the record suggests only a natural reluctance to go to trial . . . [and] [w]e are left with the thought that defense counsel suffered more from lack of a defense than from lack of time. McMillian Slip op. at 9 (citation omitted).

The denial of the motion to continue therefore did not violate the defendant’s constitutional rights nor amount to an abuse of discretion.

(2) At the conclusion of the case, defense counsel was not able to provide the numbers of hours he had in the case and only later provided a fee application to the judge. This was done outside the presence of the defendant, who was in custody at the time. Attorney fees were awarded without the defendant being notified or present, and there was no other evidence in the record that the defendant had notice or waived his right to be heard. The defendant sought review on the issue.

Attorney fee awards are civil judgments that must be appealed in accordance with appellate rules for civil cases. Because the defendant failed to give written notice of appeal, his appeal was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. However, the defendant also filed a petition for writ of certiorari on the issue. The Court of Appeals granted the petition to reach the merits of the issue. The State agreed that the defendant did not receive an opportunity to be heard on attorney fees, and the court vacated the order for attorney fees. The matter was remanded the matter for a hearing to be conducted on the issue with the defendant having notice and an opportunity to be heard.

The defendant pled guilty to possession of cocaine and possession of methamphetamine pursuant to a plea agreement that required the State to dismiss other charges and to refrain from indicting him as a habitual felon. At the plea hearing, the trial court conducted a plea colloquy and asked defense counsel, “‘How much time do you have in this?’” Counsel replied “‘9.5 hours.’” Slip op. at ¶ 2. The trial court accepted the plea and sentenced the defendant to two consecutive active terms of seven to 18 months. The trial court also entered a civil judgment ordering the defendant to pay $570 in attorney’s fees and a $60 appointment fee.

The defendant appealed the civil judgment for attorney’s fees and petitioned for certiorari review. The Court dismissed the defendant’s pro se appeal based on his failure to specify the judgment from which he was appealing, but granted certiorari review. 

The Court noted that while a trial court may enter a civil judgment against a convicted defendant for the amount of fees incurred by his or her court-appointed attorney, the defendant must be provided notice and an opportunity to heard before such a judgment may be entered. Trial courts must ask defendants personally (not through counsel) whether they wish to be heard on the issue before imposing judgment. The record in the case below demonstrated that the defendant was not provided notice or an opportunity to be heard. Thus, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred by imposing the civil judgment for attorney’s fees, vacated the judgment, and remanded for further proceedings.

(1) In this Buncombe County case, the State prepared the defendant’s prior record level worksheet and calculated that the defendant had fourteen prior record points based on ten out-of-state felony and misdemeanor convictions. The defendant and her counsel stipulated to these prior convictions by signing the sentencing worksheet. At the plea hearing, the state provided “the trial court with copies of each out-of-state misdemeanor statute as evidence that the offenses were ‘substantially similar’ to a North Carolina offense to support their classification as Class 1 misdemeanors.” Slip op. at ¶ 5. Upon accepting the copies, the trial court did not review them further, and only asked the defendant’s counsel whether they objected to the trial court finding that the out-of-state misdemeanors were of similar status in North Carolina. The defendant’s counsel did not respond because of an interruption by the prosecutor, but following the interruption, the defendant and her counsel agreed to “14 prior record points and a prior record level, therefore, of five for felony sentencing purposes.” Id. at ¶ 5.

On appeal, the defendant claimed that the trial court erred by failing to consider whether each conviction was substantially similar to any North Carolina Class A1 or Class 1 misdemeanor, and thus miscalculated her prior sentencing points. The Court of Appeals agreed that the trial court may not accept a stipulation that an out-of-state conviction is “substantially similar” to a particular North Carolina felony or misdemeanor. Instead, the trial court must compare the elements of the out-of-state statute with the elements of the North Carolina statute to determine as a matter of law whether they are substantially similar. The Court of Appeals remanded the case for resentencing.

(2) Prior to sentencing, the defendant’s counsel told the trial court that they were appointed, their hours on the case, and that it totaled to $990 in attorney’s fees. The trial court did not, however, ask the defendant herself about the attorney’s hours or fees. Under State v. Friend, 257 N.C. App. 516 (2018), indigent defendants have a right to notice and the opportunity to be heard before civil judgments are entered against them for court-appointed attorney’s fees. The trial court did not offer the defendant an opportunity to be heard and thus erred. The Court of Appeals vacated the imposed civil judgment for attorney’s fees.

The defendant was charged with first degree burglary after she was found inside the victims’ home in the early morning hours, having taken items from their cars and placed them inside a purse belonging to one of the homeowners. The defendant appeared to be impaired at the time she was arrested. She claimed during the encounter that, alternatively, she was an emergency medical worker, someone had chased her inside the house, and someone had invited her to the house.

(1) Before making an opening statement, defense counsel notified the court that he would be admitting all of the elements of the charged offense besides intent. The trial court asked the defendant whether she understood and agreed with this decision. She said she did. While defense counsel’s express or implied admission of the defendant’s guilt of a charged offense to the jury without the defendant’s consent is per se ineffective assistance of counsel, such an admission may be made with the defendant’s consent. Here, the trial court had an exchange with the defendant where she expressed her understanding and agreed to admit the elements of felony breaking and entering other than intent. Therefore, even assuming, without deciding, that defense counsel impliedly admitted that defendant was guilty of misdemeanor breaking and entering, that admission was consensual and did not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel.

(2) An expert in forensic psychology testified for the defendant that she had diagnosed the defendant with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe alcohol use disorder, severe amphetamine use disorder, and a personality disorder. The expert testified that the defendant admitted to using methamphetamine daily and that such use can result in a methamphetamine-associated psychosis which presents with delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations. The expert characterized the defendant’s symptoms as congruent with this condition.

During closing argument, the prosecutor attacked the expert’s credibility, stating that “‘psychosis is quite convenient as an excuse’” and that the defendant “‘had Dr. James come and testify . . . with the end in mind.’” Slip op. at 14. The prosecutor argued to the jury that the expert was “‘paid by the defense, for the defense, to give good stuff for the defense’” and that “‘[y]ou get what you put out. What you put in, you get out.’” Id. After questioning the utility of Dr. James’s diagnoses of the defendant, the prosecutor remarked to the jury, “‘So I ask you to take that for what it is. At the end of the day, hired by the defense, for the defense, to say good things for the defense . . . .’” Id. The defendant did not object to the remarks. The court of appeals held that the prosecutor’s remarks were improper because they went beyond arguing that the expert witness was potentially biased, which is permissible. Instead, the prosecution impermissibly suggested to the jury that the defendant’s expert was paid to fabricate an excuse for her conduct and acts, regardless of the truth. The court explained:

By arguing that psychosis was an “excuse,” Dr. James testified with an end in mind, Dr. James was paid “to give good stuff for the defense,” and Dr. James was hired “to say good things for the defense,” the prosecutor inappropriately suggested that Dr. James “should not be believed because [s]he would give untruthful or inaccurate testimony in exchange for pay.”

 Slip op. at 14 (quoting, in last clause of last sentence, State v. Huey, 370 N.C. 174, 183 (2017)).

While these remarks were improper, the court of appeals held that in the absence of an objection by the defendant, they were not so grossly improper as to impede the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The court noted that similar remarks had been held not to amount to prejudicial error. Moreover, the court said it could not conclude that the remarks were so prejudicial as to merit a new trial considering the substantial amount of evidence tending to show that the defendant had the requisite intent for first-degree burglary.

(3) The Court vacated the civil judgment for attorney’s fees and remanded the matter to the trial court for a waiver by the defendant or a hearing on the issue. Although at trial the defendant stated she had no objection to the entry of a civil judgment, she did not know at that time the number of hours her appointed counsel planned to submit or what amount she would owe. She was, therefore, deprived of a meaningful opportunity to be heard before the judgment was entered.

The defendant was convicted at trial of driving while impaired and habitual DWI in Guilford County. (1) In its discretion, the Court of Appeals granted the defendant’s petitions for writ of certiorari to review the criminal judgment and civil judgment for attorney fees. Following his conviction for habitual impaired driving, the defendant filed two pro se notices of appeal. Those notices did not contain a certificate of service indicating service on the State and failed to name the court to which the appeals were taken. Appellate counsel was later appointed, who recognized the pro se notices of appeal were potentially defective and filed two petitions for writ of certiorari seeking appellate review. The pro se notices of appeal were an indication that the defendant intended to preserve his right to appellate review, and the Court of Appeals previously held in an unpublished case that the types of defects in the notices of appeal at issue did not require dismissal for lack of jurisdiction. Where (as happened here) the State does not object, the Court of Appeals may exercise jurisdiction by granting the petitions for writ of certiorari. Thus, the Court of Appeals had jurisdiction to consider the defendant’s arguments.

(2) During trial, the defendant moved to dismiss for insufficiency of the evidence at the close of the State’s case in chief. The defendant thereafter presented evidence and failed to renew the sufficiency motion at the close of all evidence. Because sufficiency review was therefore not preserved, the defendant requested that the Court of Appeals invoke Rule 2 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure to suspend the preservation rules and review the issue. The court declined to do so and thus affirmed the habitual DWI conviction.

(3) The trial court awarded the defendant’s trial counsel attorney fees as a civil judgment without giving the defendant an opportunity to personally be heard, in violation of G.S. § 7A-455. More than 35 recent cases have reversed the attorney fee award in similar circumstances. Following that line of cases, the majority of the panel vacated the attorney fee order and remanded for a hearing on the matter where the defendant could be personally heard or for “other evidence in the record demonstrating that the defendant received notice, was aware of the opportunity to be heard on the issue, and chose not to be heard.” Slip op. at 11.

Judge Tyson dissented. He would have refused to grant the petitions for writ of certiorari and dismissed all the defendant’s arguments as frivolous.

The defendant was convicted of trafficking in opium or heroin. He argued on appeal that the trial court committed plain error by allowing the State to introduce into evidence the drugs found in his vehicle. The Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant waived appellate review of this claim because he did not move before the trial court to suppress evidence of the hydrocodone tablets and there was no suppression hearing. In such circumstances, the appellate court lacks the fully developed record necessary to conduct plain error review.

The Court of Appeals further held that the trial court improperly imposed attorney’s fees and an attorney-appointment fee against Defendant without providing him with notice and an opportunity to be heard. Thus, the court vacated the civil judgments imposing attorney’s fees and the attorney-appointment fee, and remanded for further proceedings.

The defendant was convicted of financial card theft and sentenced to a suspended sentence of 8 to 19 months imprisonment and 24 months supervised probation. Defendant’s sentence was based on the aggravating factor in G.S. 15A-1340.16(d)(12a), which requires the State to prove that within 10 years before the instant offense, the defendant had been found by a North Carolina court to have been in willful violation of the conditions of probation. G.S. 15A-1340.16(d)(12a).

Outside of Defendant’s presence, the trial court later entered a civil judgment of $2,250.00 against him as recoupment for fees for the attorney appointed to represent him.

The Court of Appeals granted certiorari review to consider the lawfulness of the sentence and the civil judgment entered against the defendant. As to the sentence, the State admitted on appeal that the prosecutor did not present evidence that the defendant violated conditions of probation at any time before he committed the offense of conviction. The court agreed there was insufficient evidence presented at trial to support this aggravating factor, vacated the sentence, and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing.

As to the civil judgment, the State admitted there was no evidence that the defendant was afforded an opportunity to be heard regarding the total amount of hours and fees claimed by his court-appointed attorney. It conceded that if the petition for certiorari was granted, the civil judgment for attorney fees had to be vacated, and the case had to be remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. The court agreed with the State’s concession, noting that the trial court never directly asked the defendant whether he wished to be heard on the issue and that there was no other evidence that the defendant received notice, was aware of the opportunity to be heard on this issue, and chose not to be heard. The trial court’s request that defendant’s counsel “guesstimate [the number of hours worked] so [Defendant] will have an idea as to what the legal fees will be” was insufficient to provide the requisite notice and opportunity to be heard. The court vacated the civil judgment for attorney fees and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

Jamie Markham wrote about the case here.

(1) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court considered inadmissible hearsay in finding him in criminal contempt, reasoning that the evidence was admitted not for the truth of the matter asserted but rather for corroboration. At the show cause hearing the trial court found that the defendant was seen by a testifying State’s witness to have made a hand gesture indicating a gun to his head and shaking his head. This interaction interrupted the State’s direct examination of the witness. At the hearing, the State introduced two transcripts into evidence. The first was a one-page excerpt of the witness’s trial testimony. The second reflected an additional interview with the witness taken after the witness’s trial testimony was completed. Over the defendant’s hearsay objection, the trial court admitted the transcripts. The State further called three witnesses to testify to the events in question, one of whom was the ADA who testified that he saw the defendant make the gesture. The trial court found the defendant to be in willful contempt of court and entered a civil judgment for attorney’s fees and costs. The defendant gave oral notice of appeal. He later filed a petition for a writ of certiorari seeking a belated appeal of the civil judgment. On appeal the defendant argued that he was found in criminal contempt based on inadmissible hearsay. The court rejected this argument, noting that the first transcript was used to illustrate the context in which the incident arose and to corroborate other testimony that the witness seemed agitated and distracted on the stand. The second transcript was used to corroborate the ADA’s testimony. The court concluded: “Because [the transcripts] were used to corroborate the testimony of the State’s witnesses, and were not offered into evidence to prove that Defendant was speaking and making a gun gesture, the trial court did not err when admitting them into evidence.”

(2) The trial court’s findings of fact support its conclusion that the defendant’s conduct was willful. The trial court found, in part, that the defendant’s willful behavior committed during court was intended to interrupt the proceedings and resulted in the witness ceasing testimony and challenging the defendant’s action on the stand in front of the jury. The court held that this finding of fact supported the trial court’s conclusion that the defendant willfully interrupted the proceedings.

(3) The court granted the defendant’s petition for certiorari with respect to review of the civil judgment and held that the trial court erred by entering the civil judgment against the defendant for attorney’s fees without first affording the defendant an opportunity to be heard. Before entering a civil judgment under G.S. 7A-455(b) the defendant must be given notice and an opportunity to be heard. Here, after the defendant was convicted of criminal contempt, the trial court asked defense counsel how much time she spent on the case. After counsel responded that she spent about 9½ hours, the court set a civil judgment in the amount of $570. Because the defendant was present in the courtroom when attorney’s fees were imposed, the defendant received notice. However he was not given an opportunity to be heard. The court vacated the judgment and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

State v. Morgan [Duplicated], ___ N.C. App. ___, 814 S.E.2d 843 (Apr. 17, 2018) rev’d in part on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Aug 16 2019)

Because the defendant was not given notice and an opportunity to be heard as to the final amount of attorneys’ fees that would be entered against him, the court vacated the civil judgment entered pursuant to G.S. 7A-455 and remanded to the trial court. At sentencing, the trial court may enter a civil judgment against an indigent defendant for fees incurred by the defendant’s court-appointed attorney. However, before entering judgment the trial court must give the defendant notice and opportunity to be heard regarding the total amount of hours and fees claimed by court-appointed counsel. Although the trial court discussed attorneys fees with the defendant’s appointed attorney in the defendant’s presence, the trial court did not ask the defendant whether he wished to be heard on the issue. Additionally, while the exchange reveals that the appointed lawyer claimed seven hours of work, the record contains no evidence that the defendant was notified of and given an opportunity to be heard regarding the total amount of fees that would be entered.

In this case involving armed robbery and other charges, the trial court erred by assessing a fee against the defendant for the State’s expert witness. The expert medical witness testified regarding treatment he administered to the victim. The trial court ordered that the defendant, as a condition of any early release or post-release supervision, reimburse the State $780 for the expert’s testimony. The court concluded that there was no statutory authority for the trial court to require this payment as a condition of early release or post-release supervision.

The trial court erred in calculating the amount of jail fees due where it used the daily rate provided in the wrong version of G.S. 7A-313. The court rejected the State’s argument that because the defendant failed to object to the fees on this basis at sentencing, the issue was not properly before the court or, alternatively was bared by res judicata because of the defendant’s prior appeals.

State v. Rowe, 231 N.C. App. 462 (Dec. 17, 2013)

The trial court erred by imposing jail fees of $2,370 pursuant to G.S. 7A-313. The trial court orally imposed an active sentence of 60 days, with credit for 1 day spent in pre-judgment custody. The written judgment included a $2,370.00 jail fee. Although the trial court had authority under G.S. 7A-313 to order the defendant to pay $10 in jail fees the statute did not authorize an additional $2,360 in fees where the defendant received an active sentence, not a probationary one.

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