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., 07/21/2024
E.g., 07/21/2024

In this Forsyth County case, defendant appealed his convictions for intimidating or interfering with witnesses and obtaining habitual felon status, arguing that the trial court erred by admitting a recording of his phone call. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding no error.

Defendant was indicted for calling a witness while he was being held at the Forsyth County Detention Center and attempting to convince her not to testify, even though she had been subpoenaed. The State offered a disc containing a recording made by the detention center’s PayTel system of a call from defendant to the witness, and authenticated the disc through the testimony of a sergeant familiar with the operation of the system who created the disc. The system automatically recorded calls and matched them with a number assigned to each detainee. The State then offered the testimony of two other officers who were familiar with the voice of defendant to support that it was his voice on the recording.

Reviewing defendant’s argument, the court noted that the exhibit was admitted after being authenticated by the sergeant familiar with its creation. Defendant argued that the State had offered insufficient testimony to identify his voice. This was a confused argument, the court explained, as the recording was admitted, along with PayTel spreadsheet information regarding defendant’s ID number, before the testimony of the officer in question. Because the recording was admitted by the trial court before the testimony attempting to identify defendant’s voice, defendant’s basis for challenging the admission of the recording was irrelevant and had no bearing on the propriety of the trial court’s decision to admit the exhibit. Slip Op. at 10. As such, the trial court did not abuse its discretion admitting the recording, and committed no error.

Judge Tyson concurred in the result by separate opinion, noting defendant did not show “any basis or prejudice to reverse the trial court’s judgment.” Id. at 12.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that an audio recording of a booking-area phone call was properly authenticated under Rule 901 as having been made by the defendant. The State’s authentication evidence showed: (1) the call was made to the same phone number as later calls made using the defendant’s jail positive identification number; (2) the voice of the caller was similar to later calls placed from the jail using the defendant’s jail positive identification number; (3) a witness familiar with the defendant’s voice identified the defendant as the caller; (4) the caller identified himself as “Little Renny” and the defendant’s name is Renny Mobley; and (5) the caller discussed circumstances similar to those involved with the defendant’s arrest. 

State v. Snead, 368 N.C. 811 (Apr. 15, 2016)

Reversing a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, 239 N.C. App. 439 (2015), the court held, in this larceny case, that the State properly authenticated a surveillance video showing the defendant stealing shirts from a Belk department store. At trial Toby Steckler, a regional loss prevention manager for the store, was called by the State to authenticate the surveillance video. As to his testimony, the court noted:

Steckler established that the recording process was reliable by testifying that he was familiar with how Belk’s video surveillance system worked, that the recording equipment was “industry standard,” that the equipment was “in working order” on [the date in question], and that the videos produced by the surveillance system contain safeguards to prevent tampering. Moreover, Steckler established that the video introduced at trial was the same video produced by the recording process by stating that the State’s exhibit at trial contained exactly the same video that he saw on the digital video recorder. Because defendant made no argument that the video had been altered, the State was not required to offer further evidence of chain of custody. Steckler’s testimony, therefore, satisfied Rule 901, and the trial court did not err in admitting the video into evidence.

The court also held that the defendant failed to preserve for appellate review whether Steckler’s lay opinion testimony based on the video was admissible. 

In this New Hanover County case, defendant appealed his convictions for possession of burglary tools and attempted breaking and entering, arguing error in admitting evidence of a 2018 breaking and entering incident. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

In November of 2020, defendant entered the backyard of a Wilmington home and attempted to open the door of a storage shed. The homeowner’s security camera alerted the homeowner, who then called 911. Defendant was later found by police in a neighbor’s yard with bolt cutters and a box cutter with a screwdriver head. During the trial, the prosecution introduced evidence of a 2018 incident where defendant pleaded guilty to breaking and entering a residential shed using a small knife. Despite defendant’s objections, the trial court admitted evidence of defendant’s guilty plea to the 2018 incident, as well as testimony from the investigating officer and surveillance video from the 2018 incident.  

On appeal, defendant first argued error by the trial court in admitting the testimony and video evidence of the 2018 incident. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the testimony and evidence were relevant and admissible under Rule 404(b) and not unfairly prejudicial under Rule 403. The court first examined defendant’s argument that the 2018 incident was not sufficiently similar to the 2020 incident to justify admitting the evidence. Using State v. Martin, 191 N.C. App. 462 (2008) as a guiding example, the court noted that here the similarities of breaking into a shed, after midnight, using similar tools, clearly met the Rule 404(b) requirement of similarity. Slip Op. at 12-13. The court also found the other two elements of Rule 404(b) were satisfied by the 2018 incident, as the prior incident had probative value for defendant’s intent to break into the shed, and the gap in time between the two incidents was not unusually long based on applicable precedent. After establishing admissibility under Rule 404(b), the court performed the Rule 403 analysis, finding no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s weighing of the danger of unfair prejudice verses probative value, and noting that the trial court carefully handled the process. 

Defendant’s second argument on appeal was that the 2018 video surveillance evidence was not properly authenticated. The court again disagreed, noting that under Rule of Evidence 901, tapes from surveillance cameras can be authenticated as “the accurate product of an automated process” as long as “[e]vidence that the recording process is reliable and that the video introduced at trial is the same video that was produced by the recording process” is admitted to support the video. Id. at 21, quoting State v. Snead, 368 N.C. 811, 814 (2016). Here the court found that the investigating officer’s testimony in support of the video satisfied the requirements for authentication. Additionally, the court noted that even if the video was not properly authenticated, defendant could not show prejudice due to the large amount of evidence supporting his conviction. 

Although admission of video evidence was error, it was not prejudicial error. An officer testified that the day after the incident in question he asked the manager of a convenience store for a copy of the surveillance video made by store cameras. The manager allowed the officer to review the video but was unable to copy it. The officer used the video camera function on his cell phone to make a copy of the surveillance footage, which was copied onto a computer. At trial, he testified that the copy of the cell phone video accurately showed the contents of the video that he had seen at the store. The store clerk also reviewed the video but was not asked any questions about the creation of the original video or whether it accurately depicted the events that he had observed on the day in question. The transcript reveals no testimony concerning the type of recording equipment used to make the video, its condition on the day in question, or its general reliability. No witness was asked whether the video accurately depicted events that he had observed, and no testimony was offered on the subject. As such, the State failed to offer a proper foundation for introduction of the video as either illustrative or substantive evidence. The court went on to find that introduction of the video was not prejudicial.

The trial court did not commit plain error by admitting store surveillance video in a safecracking case. Citing State v. Snead, 368 N.C. 811 (2016), the court held that the surveillance video was properly authenticated. The store manager testified that the surveillance system included 16 night vision cameras; he knew the cameras were working properly on the date in question because the time and date stamps were accurate; and a security company managed the system and routinely checked the network to make sure the cameras remained online. The store manager also testified that the video being offered into evidence at trial was the same video he viewed immediately following the incident and that it had not been edited or altered in any way. 

(1) The trial court properly admitted a videotape of a detective’s interview with the defendant for illustrative purposes. The detective testified that the video was a fair and accurate description of the interview. This met the requirements for authentication of a video used for illustrative purposes. (2) Citing the North Carolina Supreme Court’s recent decision in State v. Snead, the court held that a store surveillance video of a theft was properly authenticated. The State’s witness testified that the surveillance video system was functioning properly at the time and that the video introduced at trial was unedited.

State v. Cook, 218 N.C. App. 245 (Jan. 17, 2012)

For reasons discussed in the opinion, the court held that footage from a surveillance video was properly authenticated.

The trial court did not err by admitting a videotape of a controlled buy as substantive evidence where the State laid a proper foundation for the videotape. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State was required to proffer a witness to testify that the tape accurately depicted the events in question.

The trial court erred by allowing the State to introduce three photographs, which were part of a surveillance video, when the photographs were not properly authenticated. However, given the evidence of guilt, no plain error occurred.

In an armed robbery case, the trial court did not err by admitting three photographs of the defendant and his tattoos, taken at the jail after his arrest. The photographs were properly authenticated where the officer who took them testified about the procedure used and that they fairly and accurately depicted the defendant’s tattoo as it appeared when he was in custody.

In this drug case where the defendant denied being the perpetrator and suggested that the drugs were sold by one of his sons, the State failed to properly authenticate two photographs used in photographic lineups as being of the defendant’s sons. An informant involved in the drug buy testified that he had purchased drugs from the people depicted in the photos on previous occasions but not on the occasion in question. The State then offered an officer to establish that the photos depicted the defendant’s sons. However, the officer testified that he wasn’t sure that the photos depicted the defendant’s sons. Given this lack of authentication, the court also held that the photos were irrelevant and should not have been admitted.

The trial court erred by allowing the State to introduce three photographs, which were part of a surveillance video, when the photographs were not properly authenticated. However, given the evidence of guilt, no plain error occurred.

In this violation of a DVPO case, screenshots of Facebook posts were authenticated by sufficient circumstantial evidence showing that the screenshots in fact depicted Facebook posts and that the comments in the post were made by the defendant such that the screenshots were properly admitted into evidence.  Shortly before the defendant was scheduled to be released from prison, the victim renewed a DVPO prohibiting him from contacting her.  Soon after his release, the victim began receiving phone calls from a blocked number and Facebook comments from her daughter’s account that the victim believed were written by the defendant rather than her daughter.  These communications were the basis for the DVPO violation at issue. 

The court first reviewed precedent to determine that the question of whether evidence has been sufficiently authenticated is subject to de novo review on appeal.  The court then held that when screenshots of social media comments are used as they were here – to show both the fact of the communication and its purported author, the screenshots must be authenticated both as photographs and written statements.  The victim’s testimony that she took the screenshots of her Facebook account was sufficient to authenticate the images as photographs.  The victim’s testimony of receiving letters from the defendant while he was in prison and distinctive phone calls from a blocked number after his release, together with evidence of the defendant’s access to the daughter’s Facebook account was sufficient to authenticate the comments as written statements potentially made by the defendant such that admission of the screenshots into evidence was proper.

Judges Bryant and Berger concurred in result only, without separate opinions.

State v. Ford, 245 N.C. App. 510 (Feb. 16, 2016)

In this voluntary manslaughter case, where the defendant’s pit bull attacked and killed the victim, the trial court did not err by admitting as evidence screenshots from the defendant’s webpage over the defendant’s claim that the evidence was not properly authenticated. The State presented substantial evidence that the website was actually maintained by the defendant. Specifically, a detective found the MySpace page in question with the name “Flexugod/7.” The page contained photos of the defendant and of the dog allegedly involved in the incident. Additionally, the detective found a certificate awarded to the defendant on which the defendant is referred to as “Flex.” He also found a link to a YouTube video depicting the defendant’s dog. This evidence was sufficient to support a prima facie showing that the MySpace page was the defendant’s webpage. It noted: “While tracking the webpage directly to defendant through an appropriate electronic footprint or link would provide some technological evidence, such evidence is not required in a case such as this, where strong circumstantial evidence exists that this webpage and its unique content belong to defendant.”

The State adequately authenticated photographs of text messages sent between accomplices to an attempted robbery. A detective testified that he took pictures of text messages on an accomplice’s cell phone while searching the phone incident to arrest. The detective identified the photographs in the exhibit as screen shots of the cell phone and testified that they were in substantially the same condition as when he obtained them. Another accomplice, with whom the first accomplice was communicating in the text messages, also testified to the authenticity of the exhibit. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that to authenticate the text messages, the State had to call employees of the cell phone company.

In a felony larceny after a breaking or entering case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by determining that a text message sent from the defendant’s phone was properly authenticated where substantial circumstantial evidence tended to show that the defendant sent the text message. The defendant’s car was seen driving up and down the victim’s street on the day of the crime in a manner such that an eyewitness found the car suspicious and called the police; the eyewitness provided a license plate number and a description of the car that matched the defendant’s car, and she testified that the driver appeared to be using a cell phone; the morning after the crime, the car was found parked at the defendant’s home with some of the stolen property in the trunk; the phone was found on the defendant’s person the following morning; around the time of the crime, multiple calls were made from and received by the defendant’s phone; the text message itself referenced a stolen item; and by referencing cell towers used to transmit the calls, expert witnesses established the time of the calls placed, the process employed, and a path of transit tracking the phone from the area of the defendant’s home to the area of the victim’s home and back.

Cell phone records introduced by the State were properly authenticated. At trial the State called Ryan Harger, a custodian of records for Sprint/Nextel, a telecommunications company that transmitted the electronically recorded cell phone records to the police department. The defendant argued that the cell phone records were not properly authenticated because Harger did not himself provide the records to the police and that he could not know for certain if a particular document was, in fact, from Sprint/Nextel. The court noted that Harger, a custodian of records for Sprint/Nextel for 10 years, testified that: he is familiar with Sprint/Nextel records; he has testified in other cases; Sprint/Nextel transmitted records to the police and that he believed that was done by e-mail; the records were kept in the normal course of business; the documents he saw were the same as those normally sent to law enforcement; and the relevant exhibit included a response letter from Sprint, a screen print of Sprint’s database, a directory of cell sites, and call detail records. Although Harger did not send the documents to the police, he testified that he believed them to be accurate and that he was familiar with each type of document. This was sufficient to show that the records were, as the State claimed, records from Sprint/Nextel, and any question as to the accuracy or reliability of such records is a jury question. The court went on to conclude that even if Harger’s testimony did not authenticate the records, any error was not prejudicial, because an officer sufficiently authenticated another exhibit, a map created by the officer based on the same phone records. The officer testified that he received the records from Sprint/Nextel pursuant to a court order and that they were the same records that Harger testified to. He then testified as to how he mapped out cell phone records to produce the exhibit.

An affidavit of indigency sworn to by the defendant before a court clerk was a self-authenticating document under Evidence Rule 902 and thus need not be authenticated under Rule 901.

In this felony breaking or entering and felony larceny case, a store Notice of Prohibited Entry was properly authenticated. After detaining the defendant for larceny, a Belk loss prevention associate entered the defendant’s name in a store database. The associate found an entry for the defendant at Belk Store #329, along with a photograph that resembled the defendant and an address and date of birth that matched those listed on his driver’s license. The database indicated that, as of 14 November 2015, the defendant had been banned from Belk stores for a period of 50 years pursuant to a Notice of Prohibited Entry following an encounter at store #329. The Notice included the defendant’s signature. The defendant was charged with felony breaking or entering and felony larceny. At trial the trial court admitted the Notice as a business record. On appeal, the defendant argued that the Notice was not properly authenticated. The court disagreed, concluding that business records need not be authenticated by the person who made them. Here, the State presented evidence that the Notice was completed and maintained by Belk in the regular course of business. The loss prevention associate testified that she was familiar with the store’s procedures for issuing Notices and with the computer system that maintains this information. She also established her familiarity with the Notice and that such forms were executed in the regular course of business. The court found it of “no legal moment” that the loss prevention officer did not herself make or execute the Notice in question, given her familiarity with the system under which it was made.

In this statutory rape case, the victim’s Honduran birth certificate was properly authenticated. To establish the victim’s age, the State introduced a copy of the victim’s Honduran birth certificate, obtained from her school file. That document showed her date of birth to be September 15, 2003 and established that she was 12 years old when the incidents occurred. The defendant’s objection that the birth certificate was not properly authenticated was overruled and the defendant was convicted. The defendant appealed. The document was properly authenticated. Here, although the birth certificate was not an original, nothing in the record indicates that it was forged or otherwise inauthentic. The document appears to bear the signature and seal of the Honduran Municipal Civil Registrar, and a witness testified that school personnel would not have made a copy of it unless the original had been produced. Additionally, a detective testified that the incident report had identified the victim as having a birthday of September 15, 2003. The combination of these circumstances sufficiently establish the requisite prima facie showing to allow the trial court to reasonably determine that the document was an authentic copy of the victim’s birth certificate.

The trial court properly allowed the jury to consider whether a signature on a pawn shop buy ticket matched the defendant’s signature of his affidavit of indigency. The court compared the signatures and found that there was enough similarity between them for the documents to have been submitted to the jury for comparison.

A rectal swab taken from the victim was properly authenticated. An officer processed evidence at the crime scene, was present for the victim’s autopsy, and obtained evidence from the doctor who performed the autopsy, including the rectal swabs, on 24 June 2004. The swabs were then placed in the custody of the Sheriff’s Office. They were submitted to the SBI for analysis and later returned to the Sheriff’s Office where they were kept until the time of trial. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the chain of custody was insufficient because the swabs were taken on 19 June 2004, but were not picked up by the officer until 24 June 2004, concluding that there was no reason to believe that the evidence was altered and the possibility that it was tampered with is remote.

In this Buncombe County case, the defendant was convicted of possession with intent to sell or deliver cocaine. The defendant sold two white rocks to an undercover officer in a parking lot. When the defendant gave the drugs to the officer, he placed them in the officer’s bare hands without any packaging. The rocks were later tested and found to contain cocaine. (1) At trial, the defendant moved to dismiss for insufficient evidence. He pointed out that the officer had handled other cocaine with his bare hands earlier in the day and had stored other cocaine in his car console where the cocaine obtained from the defendant was later stored. According to the defendant, this rendered the laboratory result unreliable and insufficient to prove possession of cocaine. The court rejected this argument, finding the handling and storing of the rocks was an issue going to the weight of the evidence and not its admissibility. While the jury was free to consider the contamination argument, there was sufficient evidence that the substance was cocaine when viewed in the light most favorable to the State.

(2) The defendant did not object to the authentication of the cocaine at trial but argued on appeal that the trial court plainly erred in admitting the evidence due to the potential contamination issue. The court again disagreed. “The possibility that physical evidence has been contaminated does not, by itself, bar that evidence from being authenticated and admitted.” Slip op. at 6. Just as with the sufficiency issue, the question of the authentication of the cocaine here went to the weight of the evidence and not admissibility.

(3) After one day of deliberations, the jury sent a note to the trial court indicating it was deadlocked. The trial court instructed the jury pursuant to G.S. 15A-1235 before dismissing the jury for the day. The next morning, the trial judge stated that the jury should resume deliberations “with a goal of reaching a unanimous decision as to each charge.” The defendant complained that this language improperly coerced the jury to render a unanimous verdict. The court disagreed:

The trial court properly gave the required Allen instructions to ensure that jurors understood they were not compelled to reach a unanimous verdict. In light of those instructions, the trial court’s decision, when deliberations resumed, to inform the jury that they should have the goal of reaching a unanimous verdict did not compel any juror to surrender his well-founded convictions or judgment to the views of the majority. It simply reinforced that the jury’s charge was to deliberate and reach a unanimous verdict if possible. Jackson Slip op. at 9.

The case was therefore affirmed in all respects.

Using a confidential informant to conduct a controlled buy, law enforcement officers purchased a small crack cocaine rock from the defendant. The rock field-tested positive for the presence of cocaine, and it was subsequently tested at the SBI and confirmed to be cocaine base. The defendant was indicted for sale and delivery of cocaine and possession with intent to sell and deliver cocaine, as well as having attained habitual felon status, and the case went to trial approximately two years later. At trial, the state offered the “rock” purchased from the defendant as State’s Exhibit #6, but the item inside the evidence bag was now a powder. The narcotics detective in the case testified that the substance had been “smashed” but it was otherwise “substantially the same” item he originally recovered from the informant and submitted to the SBI. The SBI analyst likewise testified that the substance in Exhibit #6 was a “rock” at the time she tested it and determined it was crack cocaine, and her lab results and report were admitted as Exhibit #7.

Following his conviction, the defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred by admitting Exhibit #6 because it was not readily identifiable and had been altered, and therefore it could not be authenticated by the state’s witnesses. The appellate court disagreed for several reasons. First, citing case precedent, physical changes to drugs such as smashing or pressing them together “do not amount to material changes raising admissibility concerns.” Second, even if this were a material change, the state presented an adequate chain of custody to show that the substance contained in Exhibit #6 was the same one purchased from the defendant and ultimately tested by the SBI, and the witnesses’ testimony established that whatever caused the rock to be “smashed” must have occurred sometime after it was tested. Third, the defendant failed to demonstrate that any error in admitting Exhibit #6 would be prejudicial, since there was no objection to the introduction of Exhibit #7 or the analyst’s testimony about the testing she performed on that substance, meaning that the same information was before the jury through other evidence. As a result, there was no reasonable possibility that a different verdict would have been reached even if Exhibit #6 had been excluded.

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