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., 07/19/2024
E.g., 07/19/2024

In this Wake County case, the Supreme Court affirmed per curiam the unpublished Court of Appeals opinion State v. Johnson, COA19-529-2, 275 N.C. App. 980 (table), 2020 WL 7974001 (Dec. 31, 2020). Previously, the Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion on April 21, 2020, which the Supreme Court remanded for consideration of defendant’s equal protection claims. The current opinion affirms the Court of Appeals’ decision after remand that found no error in the denial of defendant’s motion to suppress. 

The matter arose from an arrest in November of 2017. A police officer noticed defendant, a black man, parked at an apartment complex and approached his vehicle. As the officer approached, defendant left his vehicle, and the officer smelled marijuana. Defendant attempted to flee, and the officer detained him, eventually finding cocaine and marijuana on his person. At trial, defendant moved to suppress the results of the search, arguing the discriminatory intent and violation of his equal protection rights. During the hearing on the motion to suppress for equal protection violations, defendant introduced statistical evidence of the arresting officer’s law enforcement actions to show that the arrest was discriminatory and represented selective enforcement of the law. Defense counsel told the trial court that the burden of proof for the motion to suppress was on the defense, and the trial court agreed, assigning the initial burden to defendant. After the hearing, the trial court denied defendant’s motion.

Taking up the case after the Supreme Court’s remand, the Court of Appeals established that the initial burden was properly placed on defendant after looking to applicable equal protection caselaw under the U.S. and N.C. Constitutions. The Court of Appeals then dispensed with defendant’s statistical analysis evidence as it lacked adequate benchmarks for the data, explaining that “without reliable data indicating the population and demographics in southeast Raleigh and further details on [the officer’s] patrol history, these statistics do not establish a prima facie case that [the officer’s] actions had a discriminatory effect or evinced a discriminatory purpose.” State v. Johnson, COA19-529-2 at 21, 2020 WL 7974001 at *8. 

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Morgan, dissented by separate opinion, and would have held that the data collected under G.S. 143B-903, referenced by defendant’s witnesses when discussing the history of the arresting officer’s actions, could support a claim of discriminatory intent without additional benchmarking statistics. The dissent also would have held that defendant’s evidence represented a prima facie showing of discrimination. 

Justices Berger and Dietz did not participate in consideration or decision of the case. 

In this Polk County case, defendant appealed his convictions for first-degree murder and possession of a stolen vehicle, arguing error in six areas of evidentiary rulings by the trial court. The Court of Appeals found no error.  

In March of 2016, defendant, along with his girlfriend and another man, drove a stolen car from Greenville, SC, to Polk County. Defendant first tried to rob a gas station, but was held back by his girlfriend. Afterwards, defendant pulled up next to a stopped truck and asked the driver for directions. After the exchange became heated, defendant shot and killed the driver. Defendant fled the scene, but was eventually arrested in Tallahassee, FL, and came to trial. 

The Court of Appeals took up each of defendant’s six issues in turn. First, defendant argued that admitting testimony related to a robbery in Gainesville, FL, after the murder was prejudicial; presuming arguendo that admitting the evidence was error, the court held that overwhelming evidence still supported defendant’s conviction. In the second issue, defendant argued that admitting lay opinion testimony from his girlfriend identifying a gun used in the murder was error, and again the court found that even if it was error, it was not prejudicial due to the overwhelming evidence. In the third issue, defendant argued that admitting ten videos and five photographs of him stealing the vehicle in South Carolina was improper under Rule of Evidence 403; the court again disagreed, noting that the evidence was probative to the elements of possessing a stolen vehicle and not unduly prejudicial. Taking up the fourth issue, the court rejected defendant’s argument that the murder and possession of a stolen vehicle charges lacked a transactional connection and should have been severed. The court noted that defendant possessed the stolen vehicle when he shot the victim, and used the same gun in both crimes. 

In the fifth issue, defendant challenged the State’s expert testimony regarding the shell casing found at the scene under Rule of Evidence 702. The court noted “[t]he State’s expert not only explained the standards she had followed, but also explained how she had applied these standards within the context of the cartridges in the present case.” Slip Op. at 14. Defendant also argued that the testimony was “inherently subjective,” but the court rejected this as a reason to exclude the testimony, noting that defense counsel was able to extensively cross examine the expert and the ultimate determination of weight and credibility was for the jury. Id. at 15. Finally, the court considered defendant’s argument that the trial court’s decisions represented cumulative error, explaining that the decisions were “not demonstrated to be abuses of discretion nor prejudicial,” and thus did not deprive defendant of a fair trial. Id. at 16. 

Judge Stroud concurred in the result only. 

In this Cleveland County case, defendant appealed his convictions for first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and attempted robbery, arguing (1) error in denying his motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence based upon the impossibility of a witness’s testimony, and (2) inadequate Batson findings. The Court of Appeals majority found no error in (1), but remanded to the trial court in (2) for further findings under the guidance of State v. Hobbs, 374 N.C. 345 (2020). 

In October of 2016, several people were gathered at a home drinking alcohol and taking drugs. Early in the morning, a hooded gunman entered the house, exchanging gunfire with one of the victims and killing two victims while leaving a third paralyzed. One of the witnesses present at the scene identified defendant as the gunman, and defendant came to trial for the charges in March of 2020. After defendant was convicted, he appealed, and the Court of Appeals held this case in abeyance pending the resolution of State v. Campbell, 384 N.C. 126 (2023). 

In (1), defendant argued that the testimony of the witness identifying him as the gunman was physically impossible. The Court of Appeals first noted that to be “inherently incredible,” the testimony of the witness must be irreconcilable with “basic physical facts or laws of nature.” Slip Op. at 7. The court explained that “evidence is only inherently incredible where the alleged impossibility fundamentally undermines the reliability of the evidence as opposed to creating conflicts at the margins.” Id. at 10. Here, defendant pointed to three different issues with the witness’s testimony, but only one of those, the vantage point of the witness who saw the gunman shoot a victim in the living room, could have qualified as evidentiary impossibility. Defendant’s interpretation required the gunman to maintain a fixed location in the living room after speaking to the witness and subsequently shooting one of the victims. However, the witness’s testimony did not contain a statement that defendant stayed stationary, and nothing else ruled out the idea that the gunman stepped towards the victim before shooting her. Because nothing in the record fundamentally undermined the witness’s testimony, and a plausible explanation existed for the inconsistencies identified by defendant, the court did not find error in denying defendant’s motion. 

Defendant’s Batson challenge in (2) was based upon the State using two peremptory challenges on black female prospective jurors. Under Hobbs, a trial court must conduct the three-step Batson analysis by first deciding whether the defendant has made a prima facie showing of racial discrimination, then proceeding to hear the State’s race-neutral reasons for striking the jurors, and finally ruling on the merits of the Batsonchallenge after weighing the circumstances around the stricken jurors. Here, the trial court immediately requested the State’s input after hearing defendant’s objection and issued a ruling deciding the entire Batsonchallenge, “issuing no preliminary ruling on whether Defendant had made a prima facie case [of racial discrimination],” and rendering the first Batson step moot. Id. at 21-22. The trial court ruled after hearing the State’s race-neutral reasons for striking the jurors, “ma[king] the ruling, in substance, a ruling on the third step of Batson.” Id. at 22. This ruling lacked the analysis required, as “’[T]he trial court did not explain how it weighed the totality of the circumstances surrounding the prosecution’s use of peremptory challenges,’ nor did it conduct a comparative analysis between the stricken African-American jurors and the other jurors alleged to have been similarly situated.” Id. at 24-25, quoting Hobbs at 358. Because defendant did not seek review of the trial court’s substantive ruling, the court did not attempt to perform a comparative-juror analysis, instead reversing and remanding the case for “further proceedings consistent with those set out in Hobbs.” Id. at 25. 

Judge Dillon concurred by separate opinion, noting that the State may be heard during the first step of the Batson analysis and that the trial court could still make a ruling on the prima facie showing of discrimination, but that the court here proceeded to step two. 

Judge Stading concurred to the holding in (1) and dissented to the holding in (2) by separate opinion, and would have held that the trial court committed no error as the step one Batson determination was not moot under the circumstances of the case. 



The defendant fired a gun from his car toward a park where over a dozen people were playing basketball and hanging out. He was later found asleep in his car in a ditch by a Highway Patrol officer, who arrested him for driving while impaired. He was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon. The defendant argued that the trial court erred by admitting three phone calls the defendant made from the jail because they contained hearsay and violated the defendant’s confrontation rights. (1) As to the hearsay argument, the court of appeals concluded that any error was harmless in light of the overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt. (2) As to the alleged violation of the Confrontation Clause, the court adopted the reasoning of a case from the Fourth Circuit, United States v. Jones, 716 F.3d 851 (4th Cir. 2013), and concluded that, despite automated warnings indicating that the calls were being recorded and monitored, the statements made by the woman the defendant was talking to on the jail phone were not intended to bear witness against him, and were therefore not testimonial. Because the statements were not testimonial, their admission did not violate the Confrontation Clause. (3) Next, the court declined to consider whether the trial court committed plain error by admitting, without objection, video interviews in which the defendant discussed prior assault and rape charges with the police. Again, in light of the overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt, the defendant failed to show how the admission of the evidence resulted in a miscarriage of justice or an unfair trial. (4) At sentencing, the trial court did not err by sentencing the defendant as a Class B1 felon upon jury’s general verdict of guilty of second-degree murder when no evidence or jury instruction supported the depraved-heart malice that makes the crime a Class B2 felony. As in State v. Lail, 251 N.C. App. 463 (2017), it was readily apparent from the evidence here that the jury found the defendant guilty of a Class B1 second-degree murder. (5) Finally, the court of appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that his stipulation to a prior conviction identified as “M-PUBLIC DISTURBANCE” as a Class 1 misdemeanor was ambiguous in light of the multiple potential classifications of disorderly conduct. To the contrary, under State v. Arrington, 371 N.C. 518 (2018), when a defendant stipulates to a prior conviction of a particular offense classification, he or she also stipulates to the facts underlying that conviction. The trial court has no duty to enquire further in the absence of clear record evidence suggesting the defendant stipulated to an incorrect classification, and there was no such evidence here.

In this common law robbery case, the State laid a proper foundation for the admission of evidence located by a tracking dog, “Carlo.”  Citing precedent, the court stated the four-factor test used to establish reliability of a tracking dog as follows:

[T]he action of bloodhounds may be received in evidence when it is properly shown: (1) that they are of pure blood, and of a stock characterized by acuteness of scent and power of discrimination; (2) that they possess these qualities, and have been accustomed and trained to pursue the human track; (3) that they have been found by experience [to be] reliable in such pursuit; (4) and that in the particular case they were put on the trail of the guilty party, which was pursued and followed under such circumstances and in such way as to afford substantial assurance, or permit a reasonable inference, of identification.

With regard to the first factor, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State failed to lay a proper foundation for the tracking dog evidence because “[t]here was never any testimony as to what kind of dog Carlo was” and the State never proffered any evidence that Carlo was “of pure blood.”  Noting that the four-factor test “has been modified over time,” the court explained that “courts have recently placed less emphasis on the breed of the dog and placed more emphasis on the dog’s ability and training.”  The Court found that by Officer McNeal’s testimony as to Carlo’s ability, training, and behavior during the search, “[t]he State laid a proper foundation for admission into evidence the actions and results by Carlo, the tracking dog.” 

In this impaired driving second-degree murder case, the trial court did not err by excluding evidence that a child victim was not properly restrained in a child seat. Although G.S. 20-127.1 provides that passengers less than 16 years old must be properly secured in a vehicle, the statute also provides that evidence of failure to wear a seatbelt is not admissible in any criminal action, subject to exceptions that do not apply in this case.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to exclude DNA evidence. The alleged crime occurred at a convenience store. An officer collected blood samples from the scene, including blood from cigarette cartons. The defendant argued that the cigarette cartons from which samples were taken should have been preserved. The court noted that the defendant did not argue any bad faith on the part of law enforcement officers, nor did he identify any irregularities in the collection or analysis of the samples that would call into question the results of the analysis. Therefore, the court concluded, the defendant failed to demonstrate any exculpatory value attached to the cigarette cartons from which the blood samples were collected. 

In a murder case, the trial court did not err by allowing law enforcement officers to testify that they had observed a small hair on the wall at the murder scene and that the hair appeared to have tissue attached. The hair was not collected as evidence. The court concluded that the State is not required to collect evidence as a pre-condition to offering testimony about a particular subject.

A victim’s statement to his mother, made in the emergency room approximately 50 minutes after a shooting and identifying the defendant as the shooter, was a present sense impression under Rule 803(1). The time period between the shooting and the statement was sufficiently brief. The court noted that the focus of events during the gap in time was on saving the victim’s life, thereby reducing the likelihood of deliberate or conscious misrepresentation.

In a larceny of motor vehicle case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that testimony by the vehicle owners regarding the value of the stolen vehicles invaded the province of the jury as fact-finder, stating: “the owner of property is competent to testify as to the value of his own property even though his knowledge on the subject would not qualify him as a witness were he not the owner.”

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