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., 10/21/2021
E.g., 10/21/2021

In this North Carolina case, the Court held, in a five-to-four decision, that the age of a child subjected to police questioning is relevant to the Miranda custody analysis. J.D.B. was a 13-year-old, seventh-grade middle school student when he was removed from his classroom by a uniformed police officer, brought to a conference room, and questioned by police. This was the second time that police questioned J.D.B. in a week. Five days earlier, two home break-ins occurred, and items were stolen. Police stopped and questioned J.D.B. after he was seen behind a residence in the neighborhood where the crimes occurred. That same day, police spoke to J.D.B.’s grandmother—his legal guardian—and his aunt. Police later learned that a digital camera matching the description of one of the stolen items had been found at J.D.B.’s school and in his possession. Investigator DiCostanzo went to the school to question J.D.B. A uniformed school resource officer removed J.D.B. from his classroom and escorted him to a conference room, where J.D.B. was met by DiCostanzo, the assistant principal, and an administrative intern. The door to the conference room was closed. With the two police officers and the two administrators present, J.D.B. was questioned for 30-45 minutes. Before the questioning began, J.D.B. was given neither Miranda warnings nor the opportunity to speak to his grandmother. Nor was he informed that he was free to leave. J.D.B. eventually confessed to the break-ins. Juvenile petitions were filed against J.D.B. and at trial, J.D.B.’s lawyer moved to suppress his statements, arguing that J.D.B. had been subjected to a custodial police interrogation without Miranda warnings. The trial court denied the motion and J.D.B. was adjudicated delinquent. The N.C. Court of Appeals affirmed. The N.C. Supreme Court held that J.D.B. was not in custody, declining to extend the test for custody to include consideration of the age of the individual questioned. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Miranda custody analysis includes consideration of a juvenile suspect’s age and concluding, in part: “[A] reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go. We think it clear that courts can account for that reality without doing any damage to the objective nature of the custody analysis.” Slip Op. at 8. The Court distinguished a child’s age “from other personal characteristics that, even when known to police, have no objectively discernible relationship to a reasonable person’s understanding of his freedom of action.” Slip Op. at 11. It held: “[S]o long as the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of police questioning, or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, its inclusion in the custody analysis is consistent with the objective nature of that test.” Slip Op. at 14. However, the Court cautioned: “This is not to say that a child’s age will be a determinative, or even a significant, factor in every case.” Id. The Court remanded for the North Carolina courts to determine whether J.D.B. was in custody when the police interrogated him, “this time taking account of all of the relevant circumstances of the interrogation, including J.D.B.’s age.” Slip Op. at 18.

State v. Saldierna, 371 N.C. 407 (Aug. 17, 2018)

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 803 S.E.2d 33 (2017), the court reversed, holding that the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress contained sufficient findings of fact to support its conclusion that the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived his juvenile rights pursuant to G.S. 7B-2101 before making certain incriminating statements. After the trial court denied the defendant’s suppression motion, the defendant entered a negotiated plea reserving his right to seek review of the denial of suppression motion. After sentencing, the defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred by denying the suppression motion because the defendant’s statement, “Can I call my mom,” required the officer to clarify whether the defendant was invoking his right to have a parent present during the interview. The Supreme Court granted the State’s petition seeking discretionary review of that decision, reversed that decision, and remanded to the Court of Appeals for consideration of the defendant’s other challenges to the suppression order. In reversing the Court of Appeals in Saldierna I, the Supreme Court concluded that the statement “Can I call my mom” did not constitute a clear and unambiguous invocation of his right to have his parent or guardian present. On remand in (Saldierna II) the Court of Appeals found that the trial court’s findings of fact did not support its conclusion of law that the State carried its burden of showing that the defendant knowingly, willingly, and understandingly waived his juvenile rights. The Supreme Court granted the State’s petition for discretionary review of the Court of Appeals’ remand decision in Saldierna II. The court noted that the totality of the circumstances analysis requires inquiry into all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, including evaluation of the juvenile’s age, experience, education, background, and intelligence, and into whether the juvenile has the capacity to understand the warnings given, the nature of his or her rights, and the consequences of waiving those rights. In applying this test to the custodial interrogation of juveniles, the record must be carefully scrutinized, with particular attention to both the characteristics of the accused and the details of the interrogation. However, a defendant’s juvenile status does not compel a determination that the juvenile did not knowingly and intelligently waive his or her rights. Instead, the juvenile’s age is a factor to consider in the analysis. Turning to the record before it, the court found that the trial court’s findings of fact have adequate evidentiary support and that those findings support the trial court’s conclusion that the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived his juvenile rights. In reaching a contrary conclusion, the Court of Appeals failed to focus on the sufficiency of the evidence to support the findings of fact that the trial court actually made and to give proper deference to those findings. Thus, the Court of Appeals erred in determining that the record did not support the trial court’s findings to the effect that the defendant understood his juvenile rights. Although the record contains evidence that would have supported a different determination, it was, at most, in conflict. Evidentiary conflicts are a matter for the trial court, which has the opportunity to see and hear the witnesses. The court further found that the trial court’s findings support its conclusion of law that the defendant knowingly, willingly, and understandingly waived his juvenile rights.

State v. Saldierna, 369 N.C. 401 (Dec. 21, 2016)

Reversing the Court of Appeals, the court held that the juvenile defendant’s request to telephone his mother while undergoing custodial questioning by police investigators was not a clear indication of his right to consult with a parent or guardian before proceeding with the questioning. The trial court had found that the defendant was advised of his juvenile rights and after receiving forms setting out these rights, indicated that he understood them; that the juvenile informed the officer that he wished to waive his juvenile rights and signed a form to that effect; and that although the defendant unsuccessfully tried to contact his mother by telephone, he did not at any time indicate that he had changed his mind regarding his desire to speak to the officer, indicate that he revoked his waiver of rights, or make an unambiguous request to have his mother present during questioning. The trial court thus found that the defendant’s rights were not violated under G.S. 7B-2101 or the constitution. The Court of Appeals had concluded that a juvenile need not make a clear and unequivocal request in order to exercise his or her right to have a parent present during questioning. Instead, it concluded that when a juvenile between the ages of 14 and 18 makes an ambiguous statement that potentially pertains to the right to have a parent present, an interviewing officer must clarify the juvenile’s meaning before proceeding with questioning. The court granted the State’s petition for discretionary review. It first held that the defendant’s statement--“Um. Can I call my mom?”--was not a clear and unambiguous invocation of his right to have his parent or guardian present during questioning and thus his rights under G.S. 7B-2101 were not violated. The court remanded for a determination of whether the defendant knowingly, willingly, and understandingly waived his rights. 

(1) On an appeal from an adverse ruling on the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) in this murder case, the court held that because the defendant’s attorney made an objectively reasonable determination that the defendant’s uncle would qualify as his “guardian” under G.S. 7B-2101(b) and therefore did not seek suppression of the defendant’s statements on grounds of a violation of that statute, counsel did not provide ineffective assistance. When he was 13 year old, the defendant a signed statement, during an interrogation, that he “shot the lady as she was sleeping on the couch in the head.” The defendant’s uncle, with whom the defendant had been living, was present during the interrogation. Two weeks later, the trial court sua sponte entered an order appointing the director of the County Department of Social Services as guardian of the person for the defendant pursuant to G.S. 7B-2001. The district court found that “the juvenile appeared in court with no parent, guardian or custodian but he lived with an uncle who did not have legal custody of him” and “[t]hat the mother of the juvenile resides in El Salvador and the father of the juvenile is nowhere to be found and based on information and belief lives in El Salvador.” The defendant was prosecuted as an adult for murder. The defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress his statement and was convicted. He filed a MAR arguing that his lawyer rendered ineffective assistance by failing to challenge the admission of his confession on grounds that his uncle was not his “parent, guardian, custodian, or attorney[,]” and therefore that his rights under G.S. 7B-2101(b) were violated as no appropriate adult was present during his custodial interrogation. The trial court denied the MAR and it came before the court of appeals. Noting that the statute does not define the term “guardian,” the court viewed state Supreme Court law as establishing that guardianship requires a relationship “established by legal process.” The requirement of “legal process” means that the individual’s authority is “established through a court proceeding.” But, the court concluded, it need not precisely determine what the high court meant by “legal process,” because at a minimum the statute “requires authority gained through some legal proceeding.” Here, the defendant’s uncle did not obtain legal authority over the defendant pursuant to any legal proceeding. Thus, there was a violation of the statute when the defendant was interrogated with only his uncle present. However, to establish ineffective assistance, the defendant must establish that his counsel’s conduct fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. Here, the trial court found--based on the lawyer’s actions and in the absence of any expert or opinion testimony that his performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness--that defense counsel appropriately researched the issue and acted accordingly. Although the defendant’s counsel made a legal error, it was not an objectively unreasonable one. In the course of its holding, the court noted that expert evidence “is not necessarily required for every claim of [ineffective assistance of counsel],” though “some evidence from practicing attorneys as to the standards of practice is often helpful, particularly in cases such as this where the issue is the interpretation of case law rather than a more blatant error such as a failure to prepare for a hearing at all.” Because the court held the counsel’s conduct did not fall below an objective standard of reasonableness, it did not address the prejudice prong of the ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

(2) The court remanded to the trial court for further findings of fact on the defendant’s claim that he did not make a knowing and intelligent waiver of rights during the police interrogation. G.S. 7B-2101(d) provides that “Before admitting into evidence any statement resulting from custodial interrogation, the court shall find that the juvenile knowingly, willingly, and understandingly waived the juvenile’s rights.” To determine if a defendant has knowingly and voluntarily waived his or her rights, the trial court must consider the totality of the circumstances of the interrogation, and for juveniles, this includes the juvenile’s age, experience, education, background, and intelligence, and an evaluation into whether the juvenile has the capacity to understand the warnings given, the nature of his or her Fifth Amendment rights, and the consequences of waving them. Here, competency to stand trial was an issue, although the trial court did ultimately determine that the defendant was competent to stand trial. However, the competency determination was made when the defendant was an 18-year-old adult; because the defendant was 13 years old at the time of the interrogation, a determination of the defendant’s competency at age 18 “has little weight in the analysis of defendant’s knowing and intelligent waiver at age 13.” Nevertheless, the competency order found that the defendant suffered from a mental illness or defect that existed since before age 18. This fact is relevant to the totality of the circumstances analysis regarding the waiver issue. The competency order did not identify the mental illness or defect or describe its impact on the defendant’s abilities or understanding. Although the trial court’s findings of fact in the motion to suppress do address the defendant’s age and the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, they do not address the defendant’s experience, education, background, and intelligence or whether he had the capacity to understand the warnings, the nature of the rights, and the consequences of waving them. The absence of findings on these issues is “especially concerning” since the trial court had found that the defendant suffered from an unnamed mental illness or defect. The court thus remanded to the trial court to make additional findings of fact addressing whether the defendant’s waiver of rights at age 13 was knowing and intelligent. The court added a cautionary note about later evaluations:

Certainly the trial court may consider later evaluations and events in its analysis of defendant’s knowing and intelligent waiver at age 13 but should take care not to rely too much on hindsight. Hindsight is reputed to be 20/20, but hindsight may also focus on what it is looking for to the exclusion of things it may not wish to see. The trial court’s focus must be on the relevant time period and defendant’s circumstances at that time as a 13 year old boy who required a translator and who suffered from a “mental illness or defect” and not on the 10 years of litigation of this case since that time.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress statements made to an officer while the officer was transporting the defendant to the law enforcement center. It was undisputed that the defendant made the inculpatory statements while in custody and before he had been given his Miranda rights. However, the court held that the defendant was not subjected to interrogation; rather, his statements were spontaneous utterances.

In this robbery case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress statements to a police officer during an interrogation outside of the presence of his parent. Notwithstanding an issue about how the Juvenile Waiver of Rights Form was completed, the court held that because the defendant was advised of his right to have a parent present pursuant to G.S. 7B-2101 and failed to invoke that right, it was waived.

In re D.A.C., 225 N.C. App. 547 (Feb. 19, 2013)

The trial court did not err by denying a fourteen-year-old juvenile’s motion to suppress his oral admissions to investigating officers. The motion asserted that the juvenile was in custody and had not been advised of his rights under Miranda and G.S. 7B-2101. The court found that the juvenile was not in custody. Responding to a report of shots fired, officers approached the juvenile’s home. After speaking with the juvenile’s parents, the juvenile talked with the officers and admitted firing the shots. Among other things, the court noted that the juvenile was asked—not instructed—to step outside the house, the officers remained at arm’s length, one of the officers was in plain clothes, and the conversation took place in an open area of the juvenile’s yard while his parents were nearby, it occurred in broad daylight, and it lasted about five minutes. The court rejected the notion that fact that the juvenile’s parents told him to be honest with the officers compelled a different conclusion.

A thirteen-year-old juvenile was not in custody within the meaning of G.S. 7B-2101 or Miranda during a roadside questioning by an officer. Responding to a report of a vehicle accident, the officer saw the wrecked vehicle, which had crashed into a utility pole, and three people walking from the scene. When the officer questioned all three, the juvenile admitted that he had been driving the wrecked vehicle. Noting that under J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 131 S. Ct. 2394, 2406 (2011), a reviewing court must take into account a juvenile’s age if it was known to the officer or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable officer, the court nevertheless concluded that the juvenile was not in custody. 

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress statements made during a police interrogation where no violation of G.S. 7B-2101 occurred. The defendant, a 17-year-old juvenile, was already in custody on unrelated charges at the time he was brought to an interview room for questioning. When the defendant invoked his right to have his mother present during questioning, the detectives ceased all questioning. After the detectives had trouble determining how to contact the defendant’s mother, they returned to the room and asked the defendant how to reach her. The defendant then asked them when he would be able to talk to them about the new charges (robbery and murder) and explained that the detectives had “misunderstood” him when he requested the presence of his mother for questioning. He explained that he only wanted his mother present for questioning related to the charges for which he was already in custody, not the new crimes of robbery and murder. Although the defendant initially invoked his right to have his mother present during his custodial interrogation, he thereafter initiated further communication with the detectives; that communication was not the result of any further interrogation by the detectives. The defendant voluntarily and knowingly waived his rights.

In Re K.D.L., 207 N.C. App. 453 (Oct. 19, 2010)

The trial court erred by denying a juvenile’s motion to suppress when the juvenile’s confession was made in the course of custodial interrogation but without the warnings required by Miranda and G.S. 7B-2101(a), and without being apprised of and afforded his right to have a parent present. Following In re J.D.B., 363 N.C. 664 (2009), a case that was later reversed, the court concluded that when determining whether in-school questioning amounted to a custodial interrogation, the juvenile’s age was not relevant. The court found that that the juvenile was in custody, noting that he knew that he was suspected of a crime, he was questioned by a school official for about six hours, mostly in the presence of an armed police officer, and he was frisked by the officer and transported in the officer’s vehicle to the principal’s office where he remained alone with the officer until the principal arrived. Although the officer was not with the juvenile at all times, the juvenile was never told that he was free to leave. Furthermore, the court held that although the principal, not the officer, asked the questions, an interrogation occurred, noting that the officer’s conduct significantly increased the likelihood that the juvenile would produce an incriminating response to the principal’s questioning. The court concluded that the officer’s near-constant supervision of the juvenile’s interrogation and “active listening” could cause a reasonable person to believe that the principal’s interrogation was done in concert with the officer or that the person would endure harsher criminal punishment for failing to answer.

The trial court erred by denying the juvenile’s motion to suppress his incriminating statement where the juvenile’s waiver was not made “knowingly, willingly, and understandingly.” The juvenile was not properly advised of his right to have a parent, guardian, or custodian present during questioning. After being told that he had a “right to have a parent, guardian, custodian, or any other person present,” the juvenile elected to have his brother present. The brother was not a parent, guardian or custodian.

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