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., 09/21/2021
E.g., 09/21/2021

Officers investigating complaints of drug activity at a home where the defendant lived with several others discovered methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine in a small yellow tin in a dresser in the alcove near defendant’s bedroom, an area that the defendant claimed as his personal space. The defendant had allowed officers to search the area, acknowledging that he had used methamphetamine and prescription pills, and that his bedroom likely contained needles and pipes (which were in fact found by the officers), but telling the officers that he did not think they would find any illegal substances. Without the defendant’s knowledge, another resident of the home, Autumn Stepp, had placed the yellow tin, which she referred to as her “hard time stash,” in the dresser before leaving the home earlier that day.

The defendant was charged with possession with intent to sell and deliver methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine and with maintaining a dwelling house for the sale of controlled substances. He also was indicted for having attained the status of an habitual felon. At the close of the State’s evidence, the trial court dismissed all charges except for simple possession of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine. The State requested, and the judge delivered over the defendant’s objection, a jury instruction on the theory of acting in concert in addition to constructive possession. The jury convicted the defendant of simple possession of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine and determined that he had attained the status of an habitual felon. The trial court imposed two consecutive sentences of 50 to 72 months of imprisonment. Defendant appealed. 

In a divided opinion, the court of appeals determined that the instruction was proper as it was supported by the evidence. The defendant appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

The state supreme court noted that to support a jury instruction on the theory of acting in concert, the State must produce evidence that the defendant acted together with another who did the acts necessary to constitute the crime pursuant to a common plan or purpose to commit the crime. Mere presence at the scene of the crime is insufficient to support such an instruction. The supreme court agreed with the dissent below that there was no evidence that the defendant acted together with Stepp pursuant to a common plan or purpose; therefore, the supreme court concluded that the trial court erred by giving the instruction. The court reasoned that the discovery of the tin in the defendant’s personal area could indicate his capability to maintain dominion and control over it, thereby supporting a theory of constructive possession, but did not show a common plan or purpose in which the defendant acted in concert with Stepp to protect her “hard time stash.” Likewise, defendant’s admission that he had used illegal drugs on the day of the search and with Stepp in the past could support a theory of constructive possession, but did not demonstrate a common plan or purpose between defendant and Stepp as to the substances in the yellow tin.

Because the State’s evidence supporting the theory of constructive possession was controverted and not exceedingly strong and given the prospect of confusion presented by proceeding on a theory of possession by acting in concert and constructive possession, the court concluded there was a reasonable possibility that had the trial court not instructed on acting in concert a different result would have been reached. The state supreme court thus reversed the decision of the court of appeals, vacated the defendant’s convictions and ordered a new trial.

Justice Newby dissented based on his view that the majority failed to consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the State. Through that lens, he would have found sufficient evidence to support the theory of acting in concert.

In this juvenile case, the trial court erred by denying the respondent’s motions to dismiss charges of second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor and first-degree forcible sexual offense but did not err by accepting his admission of attempted larceny in an incident unrelated to the alleged sex crimes.

The State relied on an acting in concert theory in proceeding against the respondent on the second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor charge because all testimony was that a person other than the respondent made a video recording of the respondent apparently engaging in non-consensual sexual contact with the victim.  The court reviewed the evidence presented at trial and found it insufficient to show that the respondent and the person who recorded the video acted with a common plan or scheme to make the recording.  The court stated that the evidence showed that the respondent “did not wish to be recorded and that [the other person’s] decision to record the incident was of his own volition.”

The evidence of penetration was insufficient to support the first-degree forcible sexual offense charge allegedly based on anal intercourse as the victim unambiguously and explicitly denied that anal penetration occurred and the State did not present sufficient other evidence corroborating the allegation of penetration.  The court rejected the State’s argument that a witness’s description of the incident as the respondent and the victim “doing it” was sufficient evidence of penetration and noted that at the adjudicatory hearing the State had conceded “that there was not evidence of penetration.”

There was a sufficient factual basis to support the respondent’s admission to an unrelated charge of attempted misdemeanor larceny of a bicycle where the respondent was found near the crime scene with two people fitting a witness’s description of the suspects, had bolt cutters in his backpack, and denied committing but expressed some knowledge of the larceny to an investigating officer.  Though the trial court did not err by accepting the respondent’s admission to attempted misdemeanor larceny, the court could not remand the matter for a new disposition hearing to account for its rulings related to the sufficiency of the evidence of the sex crimes because the trial court’s juvenile jurisdiction terminated when the respondent turned eighteen years old while the appeal was pending. 

Justice Newby concurred in part and dissented in part, expressing the view that the evidence was sufficient to support the lesser included offense of attempted first-degree forcible sexual offense and that the matter should be remanded for entry of an amended adjudication for that offense.

State v. Waring, 364 N.C. 443 (Nov. 5, 2010)

In a capital case involving two perpetrators, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State should have been obligated to prove that the defendant himself had the requisite intent. The trial court properly instructed on acting in concert with respect to the murder charge, in accordance with State v. Barnes, 345 N.C. 184 (1998).

A longstanding feud and several prior altercations culminated in the defendant and an accomplice ambushing two victims as they were driving away from the home of a woman who helped set the victims up. As the victims’ vehicle left the woman’s home and approached an intersection, the accomplice was standing in the middle of the road and began shooting at the driver’s side of the victims’ car. The defendant was also present and shot at the passenger side of the car.  The diver of the vehicle was killed, but the passenger survived unharmed. The defendant was identified as a suspect, interviewed, and arrested. In the defendant’s first interview with police, he claimed that he had been at home all day when the murder occurred. In his second interview, the defendant admitted he lied in his first interview and admitted that he was present at the scene and fired at the car, but maintained that he was firing in self-defense and not aiming at the vehicle.

The defendant was charged with first-degree murder of the driver, attempted murder of the passenger, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder of the passenger, and discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle in operation. Following a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of all charges. The jury found the defendant guilty of murder based on both lying in wait and felony murder, but acquitted as to malice, premeditation, and deliberation. Judgment on the discharging a firearm offense was arrested, and the defendant was sentenced to life in prison.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the evidence at trial was insufficient to support his convictions for murder, attempted murder, or conspiracy. The Court of Appeals disagreed, and held that there was sufficient evidence to support all the charges. Even though the state offered the defendant’s initial exculpatory statement into evidence, that statement was inconsistent with other evidence of the defendant’s guilt, such as his admissions to being at the scene and firing a gun, and forensic evidence that showed he fired 13 shots at the passenger side of the vehicle. The bullet that killed the driver came from the other side of the car, but there was sufficient evidence to show that the defendant and the other shooter were acting in concert and engaged in the felony of discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle. Evidence cited by the court included the longstanding feud that led to the murder, the close friendship between the defendant and the other shooter, incriminating text messages regarding their plan, the coordinated nature of both the set-up to bring the victims to a specific location and the resulting ambush, and the assailants’ joint flight afterward. Based on all the evidence, a reasonable juror could conclude that the two shooters were lying in wait for the victims, and they were acting in concert when they opened fire on the occupied vehicle. Although the passenger in the vehicle survived, the court held that the evidence was likewise sufficient to find that the defendant and his accomplice intended to murder the passenger, made an agreement to do so, and performed an overt act to carry out that intent, thus supporting the convictions for both attempted murder and conspiracy.

(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.

The defendant, the former District Attorney for Person and Caldwell Counties, was tried for obtaining property by false pretenses, conspiracy to obtain property by false pretenses, aiding and abetting obtaining property by false pretenses, three counts of obstruction of justice, and failure to discharge the duties of his office. The jury acquitted on one count of felony obstruction and the conspiracy count but convicted on the remaining charges (with the exception that the jury returned a verdict of guilty of misdemeanor obstruction on one of the remaining felony obstruction counts). The trial court subsequently arrested judgment on the aiding and abetting obtaining property conviction. The charges stemmed from a scheme whereby the defendant and another elected District Attorney hired each other’s wives to work in each other’s offices. Under this arrangement, both wives were wrongfully paid for working hours that they had not actually worked.

(1) There was insufficient evidence to support the conviction for obtaining property by false pretenses. The State alleged that the defendant acted in concert with the employee who improperly submitted work hours. Acting in concert requires the actual or constructive presence of the defendant at the scene of the crime. “A person is constructively present during the commission of a crime if he is close enough to provide assistance if needed and to encourage the actual execution of the crime.” Slip op. at 15 (citation omitted). Although the employee at issue worked for the defendant, she was allowed to work at her husband’s office in another district. The defendant was therefore not physically present when the fraud of reporting unworked hours occurred. The State argued that the defendant was constructively present, pointing out that the fraudulent hours were approved by a supervisor at the defendant’s direction. The court rejected this argument, noting that the approval of hours occurred at a much later time than when the hours were submitted. While “actual distance is not determinative, . . . the accused must be near enough to render assistance if need be and to encourage the actual perpetration of the crime.” Id. at 19 (citation omitted). Here, the defendant was not in the same county as the employee who submitted the fraudulent hours at the time they were submitted. The fact that the employee could have called the defendant for help with the crime at the time was not enough to satisfy the constructive presence element. “To hold the theory of acting in concert would be satisfied merely where ‘remote assistance’ is possible would broadly expand the universe of criminal conduct under this theory.” Id. at 22. Thus, the defendant’s conviction for acting in concert to obtain property by false pretenses was vacated for insufficient evidence [although the trial court was instructed on remand to reinstate the judgment previously arrested for aiding and abetting obtaining property].

(2) There was also insufficient evidence of felony obstruction of justice. That offense requires the State to prove that the defendant actually impeded the administration of justice. The indictment alleged that the defendant made false statements to an SBI investigator concerning the employee. One of the defendant’s statements at issue was “at most misleading, and not false,” as it was a misrepresentation by omission and not affirmatively a false statement as the indictment charged. There was sufficient evidence that another of the defendant’s statements to the investigator was false, but there was no evidence that this statement actually obstructed the course of the investigation. The defendant responded truthfully to some of the investigator’s questions about the employee, which actually facilitated the investigation. The defendant was never directly asked whether the employee was in fact performing work for the defendant. “To support a conviction for obstruction of justice, the State must establish substantial evidence for every element of the crime, including that the act in question ‘obstructed justice[.]’” Id. at 27 (citation omitted). The motion to dismiss for felony obstruction of justice therefore should have been granted, and that conviction was vacated. 

(3) The defendant argued that the trial court improperly excluded testimony regarding an email sent by an assistant to the Administrative Office of the Courts at the defendant’s direction. At trial, the defendant argued that the email fell within the business records exception to the prohibition on hearsay, that the email was simply not hearsay, and that the State opened the door to the admission of the email through its questions of the witness. On appeal, the defendant argued that the email should have been admitted because it was a directive to his employee, pointing to cases holding that commands are not hearsay because they are not offered for the truth of the matter (rather, they are offered to show that the command was given). It was not apparent from context that the defendant was arguing for the email’s admission as a command, and the parties and trial court did not address that argument. Since this argument was not made at the trial level, it was not preserved and was waived on appeal.

(4) The trial court did not commit plain error by failing to instruct the jury on the specific misrepresentations for the obtaining property by false pretenses offenses. “[A] jury instruction that is not specific to the misrepresentation in the indictment is acceptable so long as the court finds ‘no variance between the indictment, the proof presented at trial, and the instructions to the jury.’” Id. at 34 (citation omitted). The defendant argued that the evidence showed alternative false representations that the jury could have improperly relied on in rending its verdict of guilty for the two offenses. Reviewing the evidence, the court rejected this argument. “We hold the trial court did not err, nor plainly err, in failing to give an instruction about the misrepresentation alleged in the indictment.” Id. at 37.

(1) The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of armed robbery where the evidence showed that he acted in concert with the perpetrator. Although the defendant was not identified as being at the crime scene, it would have been reasonable for the jury to infer that the defendant acted in concert to commit the crime. A crime scene witness saw a car fly by him, hit a speed bump and blow out a tire. The Sheriff’s Department reported a silver car was involved in an armed robbery involving 3 to 4 suspects. An officer testified that less than one minute after receiving the 911 communication, she found the defendant changing a flat tire on his vehicle, along with two other individuals, less than a 1/4 mile from the crime scene. The victim’s debit card--the item stolen in the robbery—was found close to the defendant’s vehicle. Other items identified by the victim—a mask, snubnosed revolver, and red clothing—were located or recovered at or near the defendant’s vehicle.

(2) For similar reasons the court held that the trial court did not commit plain error by instructing the jury on acting in concert.

State v. Bennett, ___ N.C. App. ___, 821 S.E.2d 476 (Oct. 16, 2018) rev’d on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Jun 5 2020)

In this drug case, the trial court rejected the defendant’s argument that the evidence was insufficient to support an acting in concert instruction. Reviewing the evidence, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that it showed only mere presence.

(1) In this habitual misdemeanor larceny case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court created a fatal variance when it instructed the jury on a theory of acting in concert not alleged in the indictment. Citing prior case law, the court held that the theory of acting in concert need not be alleged in the indictment. (2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that a fatal variance existed between the indictment, the jury instructions, and the verdict sheets because each held him accountable for stealing a different number of items. Neither the jury instructions nor the verdict sheet were required to specify the number of items stolen. (3) The evidence was sufficient to support the trial court’s instruction on the theory of acting in concert. On appeal, the defendant argued that the State’s evidence was insufficient to show that he and his accomplice acted with a common purpose to commit a larceny or that he aided or encouraged his accomplice. According to the defendant, the evidence showed that he was simply present when his accomplice committed the crime. Here, the evidence showed that the defendant rode with his accomplice in the same car to the store; the two entered the store together; they looked at merchandise in the same section of the store; they were seen on surveillance video returning to the same area behind the clothing rack, stuffing shirts into their pants; and the two left the store within seconds of each other and exited the parking lot in a vehicle driven by the accomplice.

The evidence was sufficient to sustain a charge of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury based on a theory of acting in concert. It was undisputed that the victim sustained serious injury; the only real issue was whether the evidence was sufficient to allow a reasonable inference that the defendant was a perpetrator of the crime. Another individual, Mr. Robinson, shot the victim. The evidence showed that the defendant and the victim’s wife drove to the victim’s residence, where the victim and his wife engaged in a dispute over custody of their children until the police arrived and required the defendant and the victim’s wife to leave without the children. The next evening the defendant drove his vehicle, with Robinson and the victim’s wife, back to the victim’s residence, carying with them firearms, bulletproof vests, and walkie-talkie radios that were turned on and set the same channel. The vehicle was waiting in the victim’s apartment parking lot when he arrived home. Robinson, who did not know the victim, shot the victim and asked him if he wanted to die. The defendant assisted Robinson in restraining the victim, placed a handcuff on one of the victim’s wrists, tried to cuff both of the victim’s wrists, searched the victim’s pockets, and escorted the victim’s children from his apartment to the vehicle where the victim’s wife was waiting. After neighbors found the victim bleeding from gunshot wounds, the defendant sped away from the scene with the victim’s wife, Robinson, and the children. This evidence was sufficient to sustain and acting in concert charge. 

In this drug case, the trial court committed plain error by instructing the jury on the theory of acting in concert. The State presented no evidence that the defendant had a common plan or purpose to possess the contraband with his alleged accomplice, McEntire. At most, the evidence showed that the two were acquainted and the defendant was present when the drugs were found at McEntire’s home. Mere presence at the scene of a crime however is insufficient where the State presented no evidence that the two shared any criminal intent.

Reversing the defendant’s convictions for contaminating a public water system, the court held that because the defendant was not constructively present, the evidence was insufficient to support criminal liability under the doctrine of acting in concert. The evidence showed that the defendant offered to pay another person to intentionally break county water lines so that the defendant’s company, which was under contract with the county to repair the lines, would be paid by the county for the necessary repairs. The defendant was never present when the accomplice broke the water lines. The court held that the defendant “was not physically close enough to aid or encourage the commission of the crimes and therefore was not actually or constructively present—a necessary element of acting-in-concert liability.” The court rejected the State’s argument that the defendant was constructively present because she planned the crimes, was accessible if needed by telephone, and later was at the crime scene to repair the broken water lines. In this respect, the court held, in part, that “one cannot be actually or constructively present for purposes of proving acting in concert simply by being available by telephone.” The court noted that the evidence would have supported a conviction based on a theory of accessory before the fact, but the jury was not instructed on that theory of criminal liability, nor was the defendant charged with other offenses, such as conspiracy, that apply to those who help plan a criminal act. 

The evidence was sufficient to support convictions for murder, burglary, and armed robbery on theories of acting in concert and aiding and abetting. The court noted that neither acting in concert nor aiding and abetting require a defendant to expressly vocalize her assent to the criminal conduct; all that is required is an implied mutual understanding or agreement. The State’s evidence showed that the defendant was present for the discussions and aware of the group’s plan to rob the victim Wiggins; she noticed an accomplice’s gun; she was sitting next to another accomplice in a van when he loaded his shotgun; she told the group that she did not want to go up to the house but remained outside the van; she walked toward the house to inform the others that two victims had fled; she told two accomplices “y’all need to come on;” she attempted to start the van when an accomplice returned but could not release the parking brake; and she assisted in unloading the goods stolen from Wiggins’ house into an accomplice’s apartment after the incident.

State v. Rowe, 231 N.C. App. 462 (Dec. 17, 2013)

In an assault inflicting serious injury case, the evidence was sufficient to show that the defendant acted in concert with other assailants and thus that he was guilty of the offense even if the injuries he personally inflicted did not constitute “serious injury.”

State v. Facyson, 227 N.C. App. 576 (June 4, 2013) rev’d on other grounds, 367 N.C. 454 (Jun 12 2014)

The evidence was sufficient to show that the defendant committed second-degree murder either alone or in concert with others. The defendant was present with two men who borrowed a red Ford from David Andrews. The three men did not return the car to Andrews and the defendant was later seen driving the car. Two witnesses said that the men who fired the shots at the victim were in a sedan, and one said that the car was red. Two other witnesses established that the red Ford was parked in an apartment complex parking lot shortly after the shooting. The defendant and the others who borrowed the car went to the lot and one of the men was seen wiping the car. The keys to the car were found in the grass near the parking lot after one of the men fled and was seen throwing an object. A bullet casing consistent with bullets found at the murder scene was found in the car, and particles consistent with gunshot residue were found on all of the men, including one particle on the defendant’s pants.

In a case involving charges of obtaining property by false pretenses arising out of sales to a pawn shop in which another person told the shop that the items were not stolen, the evidence was insufficient to show that the defendant was acting in concert. Assuming that the State sufficiently established the other elements of acting in concert, there was no evidence that the defendant was either actually present or near enough to render assistance as needed to his alleged accomplice.

In a kidnapping and armed robbery case the evidence was sufficient that the defendant acted in concert with an accomplice. Although the defendant argued that the evidence established that he was merely present at the scene, the evidence showed that he aided his co-conspirator.

The trial court did not err by dismissing charges of felony breaking or entering and felony larceny. The State presented evidence that an unknown man, who appeared to be concealing his identity, was seen walking around the victim’s yard carrying property later determined to have been taken from the victim’s home. The man fled when he saw officers and was never apprehended or identified. The defendant was also seen in the yard, but was never seen entering or leaving the home or carrying any stolen property. Although the defendant also fled from officers, no evidence linked him to the unknown man. The defendant’s presence in the yard and his flight was insufficient evidence of acting in concert.

The evidence was sufficient to support a conviction of armed robbery under an acting in concert theory. Although the record did not reveal whether the defendant shared the intent or purpose to use a dangerous weapon during the robbery, this was not a necessary element under the theory of acting in concert.

In a case in which there was a dissenting opinion, the court held that there was sufficient evidence that the defendant acted in concert with another to commit a robbery. The evidence showed that he was not present at the ATM where the money was taken, but was parked nearby in a getaway vehicle.

There was sufficient evidence of acting in concert with respect to a murder and felony assault, notwithstanding the defendant’s exculpatory statement that he “got caught in the middle” of the events in question. Other evidence permitted a reasonable inference that the defendant and an accomplice were shooting at the victims pursuant to a shared or common purpose.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that to convict of burglary by acting in concert the State was required to show that the defendant had the specific intent that one of her accomplices would assault the victim with deadly weapon. The State’s evidence, showing that the defendant forcibly entered the residence accompanied by two men carrying guns and another person, armed with an axe, who immediately asked where the victim was located, was sufficient evidence that an assault on the victim was in pursuance of a common purpose or as a natural or probable consequence thereof.

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