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

A man owned a trailer containing various catering equipment used for his business and stored the trailer on the business’s property adjacent to Sheetz. In the last week of August 2016, he drove past the property and saw that the trailer was gone. He contacted the police department, and a detective met him at the property. After reviewing footage recorded by Sheetz’s cameras, the detective sent a still image to a DMV agent who was able to identify the defendant as the person in the image. At trial, the man, the detective, the manager at Sheetz, and the DMV agent each identified the defendant as the person in the footage towing the trailer away. The defendant was found guilty of larceny of the trailer.

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court plainly erred by permitting the State’s witnesses to give lay opinion testimony identifying the defendant as the individual pictured in the Sheetz footage. The Court of Appeals held that because the DMV agent testified that he was familiar with and had previous dealings with the defendant, the agent was qualified to give lay opinion testimony identifying the person in the Sheetz footage as the defendant and that the admission of the agent’s testimony was not error. The Court also held that because the other witnesses each had no familiarity with the defendant prior to seeing him in the Sheetz footage, admission of their testimony was error. However, the Court concluded that those admissions did not amount to plain error because the admission of the DMV agent’s identification was not erroneous, the Sheetz footage illustrated the agent’s identification and permitted the jury to assess its accuracy, and the jury had the opportunity to draw its own conclusions based on still images admitted into evidence.

(2) The defendant next argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss because the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for felony larceny. The defendant argued that the evidence admitted at trial established only that the defendant was in the Sheetz store and that there was insufficient evidence to support an inference that the person depicted in the Sheetz surveillance video is the person who stole the trailer. In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals determined that crediting the in-court identifications and giving the State the benefit of every reasonable inference, a rational juror could conclude that the defendant was the sole occupant and driver of the truck and, without consent, hitched the man’s trailer to the truck and drove away with the trailer in tow, intending to deprive the man of it permanently.

(3) The defendant argued that the trial court erred in ordering restitution because it failed to consider the defendant’s ability to pay. Prior to ordering restitution, the trial court was informed that the defendant was near the end of an active sentence and therefore unable to currently earn, the defendant has two children to support upon his release, and the defendant plans to go back to school and get a trade once he leaves from custody. The defendant also filed an affidavit of indigency reflecting that he was in custody and had zero assets and zero liabilities as of the date of the trial. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not fail to consider the defendant’s resources and thus did not abuse its discretion in ordering restitution.

(1) In this murder case, the trial court did not err by instructing the jury on the doctrine of acting in concert where there was evidence that the defendant and another man met together at a store, discussed with the defendant’s brother that the victim owed the brother money, received instructions from the brother to collect the money, traveled together to the scene of the murder, and fled together from the scene after the defendant shot the victim.

(2) The trial court erred in allowing the co-defendant’s aunt, who was present at the scene of the murder but did not witness it directly, to testify that she believed the defendant was holding a gun in surveillance video footage published to the jury.  This lay opinion testimony, which was not based on any personal knowledge, invaded the role of the jury in violation of Rule 602 because the aunt was in no better position to know what the video showed than the jurors.  The error did not prejudice the defendant.

In this felon in possession of a firearm case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing an officer to identify a person depicted in a surveillance video as being the defendant. The officer testified that while he had never had any direct contact with the defendant he knew who the defendant was. On appeal the defendant argued that the officer was in no better position than the jury to identify the defendant in the surveillance footage. Rejecting this argument, the court noted that the officer had seen the defendant in the area frequently and knew who he was. In one instance, the officer saw the defendant coming out of a house that the officer was surveilling; the officer could identify the defendant because he recognized the defendant’s face and the defendant was wearing a leg brace and limping. These encounters would have sufficiently allowed the officer to acquire the requisite familiarity with the defendant’s appearance so as to qualify him to testify to the defendant’s identity. Additionally, the defendant had altered his appearance significantly between the date in question and the date of trial. The length and style of the defendant’s hair was distinctive during the period that the officer became familiar with the defendant and matched that of the individual shown on the surveillance footage. However, the defendant had a shaved head at trial. Thus, by the time of trial the jury was unable to perceive the distinguishing nature of the defendant’s hair at the time of the shooting. Thus the officer was better qualified than the jury to identify the defendant in the videotape. Because the officer was familiar with the defendant’s appearance and because the defendant had altered his appearance by the time of trial, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the officer to testify to his opinion that the defendant was the individual depicted shooting a weapon in the surveillance video.

In this case involving breaking and entering, larceny and other charges, the trial court did not err by failing to exclude the testimony of two law enforcement officers who identified the defendant in a surveillance video. The officers were familiar with the defendant and recognized distinct features of his face, posture, and gait that would not have been evident to the jurors. Also, because the defendant’s appearance had changed between the time of the crimes and the date of trial, the officer’s testimony helped the jury understand his appearance at the time of the crime and its similarity to the person in the surveillance videos.

The trial court did not commit plain error by admitting an officer’s lay opinion testimony identifying the defendant as the person depicted in a videotape. The defendant argued that the officer was in no better position than the jury to identify the defendant in the videotape. However, the officer had contact with the defendant prior to the incident in question; because he was familiar with the defendant, the officer was in a better position than the jury to identify defendant in the videotape.

The trial court did not commit plain error by allowing a detective to identify the defendant as the person shown in a still photograph from a store’s surveillance tapes. The detective observed the defendant in custody on the morning that the photo was taken, affording him the opportunity to see the defendant when his appearance most closely matched that in the video. The detective also located the defendant’s clothes. As such, the detective had more familiarity with the defendant’s appearance at the time the photo was taken than the jury could have

In a sexual exploitation of a minor and indecent liberties case, the trial court did not err by allowing lay opinion testimony regarding photographs of a five-year-old child that formed the basis for the charges. None of the witnesses perceived the behavior depicted; instead they formed opinions based on their perceptions of the photographs. In one set of statements to which the defendant failed to object at trial, the witnesses stated that the photographs were “disturbing,” “graphic,” “of a sexual nature involving children,” “objectionable,” “concerning” to the witness, and that the defendant pulled away the minor’s pant leg to get a “shot into the vaginal area.” As to these statements, any error did not rise to the level of plain error. However the defendant did object to a statement in the Police Incident report stating that the photo “has the juvenile’s female private’s [sic] showing.” At to this statement, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting this testimony as a shorthand statement of fact.

The trial court committed reversible error by allowing a police officer to give a lay opinion identifying the defendant as the person depicted in a surveillance video. The officer only saw the defendant a few times, all of which involved minimal contact. Although the officer may have been familiar with the defendant’s “distinctive” profile, there was no basis for the trial court to conclude that the officer was more likely than the jury correctly to identify the defendant as the person in the video. There was is no evidence that the defendant altered his appearance between the time of the incident and the trial or that the individual depicted in the footage was wearing a disguise and the video was of high quality.

The trial judge erred in allowing a detective to offer lay opinion testimony regarding whether what was depicted in crime scene surveillance videos was consistent with the victim’s testimony. For example, the detective was impermissibly allowed to testify that the videotapes showed a car door being opened, a car door being closed, and a vehicle driving away. The court found that the officer’s testimony was neither a shorthand statement of facts nor based on firsthand knowledge.

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