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., 02/08/2023
E.g., 02/08/2023

In this Guilford County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals majority that found no abuse of discretion by the trial court when declining to adjust defendant’s sentence downward for defendant’s substantial assistance to law enforcement.

Defendant was first arrested in 2016 after a search of his home, leading to charges of trafficking a controlled substance and possession of a firearm by a felon. In 2018, after defendant was released but before the charges reached trial, defendant was arrested and indicted with a second trafficking charge. Defendant ultimately pleaded guilty to two trafficking a controlled substance charges and a firearm possession charge. During sentencing, defense counsel argued that defendant had provided substantial assistance to law enforcement and deserved a downward deviation in the required minimum sentences. The trial court acknowledged that defendant had provided substantial assistance but declined to lower the sentences, instead choosing to consolidate the three offenses to one sentence of 90 to 120 months.

The Supreme Court agreed with the opinion of the Court of Appeals majority that the actions of the trial court did not represent abuse of discretion, explaining that G.S. 90-95(h)(5) granted complete discretion to the trial court. The court noted two decision points, (1) whether the defendant provided substantial assistance, and (2) whether this assistance justified a downward adjustment in the mandatory minimum sentencing. Further, the court noted that this assistance could come from any case, not just the case for which the defendant was being charged; this was the basis of the dissent in the Court of Appeals opinion, but the Supreme Court did not find any evidence that the trial court misinterpreted this discretion. Slip Op. at 15. Instead, the court found that the trial court appropriately exercised the discretion granted by the statute, as well as G.S. 15A-1340.15(b), to consolidate defendant’s offenses.

Justice Earls dissented and would have remanded for resentencing. Id. at 20.

In this Wake County case, defendant petitioned for writ of certiorari after pleading guilty to robbery and trafficking heroin charges, arguing the trial court did not properly consider mitigating factors during his sentencing. The Court of Appeals disagreed, denying the petition for writ. 

Defendant argued that his cooperation and testimony against a co-conspirator represented mitigating factors the trial court should have applied in sentencing. Summarizing why defendant’s petition did not have merit, the court noted that defendant’s appeal was based on precedent related to the Fair Sentencing Act, which was repealed and replaced with the Structured Sentencing Act. Under the Structured Sentencing Act, a trial court is under no obligation to mitigate a sentence, and in the current matter the trial court sentenced defendant within the presumptive range for his offenses. The court explained that “[b]ecause the trial court sentenced defendant within the presumptive range, as this Court has stated many times, it was not required to find mitigating factors or sentence defendant to a mitigated sentence.” Slip Op. at 5. 

(1) In this child sexual assault case, the trial court did not err by failing to find the mitigating factor that the defendant successfully completed a substance abuse program. Because the defendant completed the program prior to his arrest, his participation in it did not meet the requirements of G.S. 15A-1340.16(e)(16). (2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to treat his completion of the program as a non-statutory mitigating factor. (3) The trial court did not err by failing to find the mitigating factor that the defendant had a positive employment history. Even if the defendant’s evidence established that he had a professional bull riding career, he retired from that profession in 2007 and did not present evidence that he was gainfully employed between that date and his arrest in 2014.

State v. Lee, ___ N.C. App. ___, 789 S.E.2d 679 (Aug. 2, 2016) rev’d on other grounds, 370 N.C. 671 (Apr 6 2018)

Because the trial court did not depart from the presumptive range in sentencing the defendant, it was not required to make any findings regarding mitigation. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erroneously failed to “consider” evidence of mitigating factors proved by the State’s own evidence.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to find two statutory mitigating factors with respect to a 17-year-old defendant: G.S. 15A-1340.16(e)(4) (defendant’s “age, or immaturity, at the time of the commission of the offense significantly reduced defendant’s culpability for the offense") and G.S. 15A-1340.16(e)(18) (“defendant has a support system in the community”). 

Trial court did not err by declining to find two statutory mitigating factors: G.S. 15A-1340.16(e)(12) (good character/reputation in the community) and 15A-1340.16(e)(19) (positive employment history). The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the evidence supporting each factor was uncontradicted and manifestly credible.

In a drug trafficking case, the trial court did not err by failing to intervene ex mero motu during the prosecutor’s closing argument. The prosecutor asserted: “Think about the type of people who are in that world and who would be able to testify and witness these type of events. I submit to you that when you try the devil, you have to go to hell to get your witness. When you try a drug case, you have to get people who are involved in that world. Clearly the evidence shows that [the defendant] was in that world. He’s an admitted drug dealer and admitted drug user.” Citing State v. Willis, 332 N.C. 151, 171 (1992), the court concluded that the prosecutor was not characterizing the defendant as the devil but rather was using this phrase to illustrate the type of witnesses which were available in this type of case.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by refusing the defendant’s request for a mitigated sentence despite uncontroverted evidence of mitigating circumstances. The defendant offered uncontroverted evidence of mitigating factors and the trial court considered this evidence during the sentencing hearing. That the trial court did not, however, find any mitigating factors and chose to sentence the defendant in the presumptive range was within its discretion.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to find mitigating factors. As to acceptance of responsibility, the court found that although the defendant apologized for her actions, her statement did not lead to the “sole inference that [s]he accepted [and that] [s]he was answerable for the result of [her] criminal conduct.” Although defense counsel argued other mitigating factors, no supporting evidence was presented to establish them. Finally, although the defendant alleged that a drug addiction compelled her to commit the offenses, the court noted that drug addiction is not per se a statutorily enumerated mitigating factor and in any event, the defendant did not present any evidence on this issue at sentencing.

The trial court did not err by failing to find the G.S. 15A-1340.16(e)(8) mitigating factor that the defendant acted under strong provocation or that the relationship between the defendant and the victim was otherwise extenuating. As to an extenuating relationship, the evidence showed only that the victim (who was the defendant’s wife) repeatedly had extra-marital sexual relationships and that the couple fought about that behavior. As to provocation, there was no evidence that the victim physically threatened or challenged the defendant in any way; the only threat she made was to commit further adultery and to report the defendant as an abuser.

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