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., 09/26/2021
E.g., 09/26/2021

The house leased by the defendant and her mother was destroyed by a fire. The police sergeant who was sent to investigate the fire observed that there was an unusually low number of personal belongings in the home and “not what you would expect in a home that was just lost to a fire.” Slip op. at ¶ 8. The sergeant learned that the defendant had obtained a renter’s insurance policy on her personal property about four months prior to the fire and had filed a claim for items lost in the fire. Several months later, the sergeant learned that the defendant’s mother had rented a nearby storage unit the day before the fire. Upon search of the unit, the sergeant found several personal items belonging to the defendant, many of which matched items listed on the loss inventory form the defendant submitted to her insurance company. Video footage from the storage facility showed the defendant and her mother accessing the storage unit the day before the fire, moving items into the unit, and later moving items out of the unit after the fire. The defendant was charged with and convicted of second degree arson, conspiracy to commit second degree arson, and insurance fraud and was ordered to pay $40,000 in restitution to the homeowner.

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in denying her motion to dismiss the arson and conspiracy charges because the State failed to present sufficient evidence that the house in question was inhabited by “another person,” an essential element of those arson charges. The defendant asserted that the only other inhabitant of the house, her mother, was her alleged co-conspirator and thus the house was not the dwelling of “another.” In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals noted that the elements of the offense and existing precedent do not provide any exception for co-conspirators and require only that “someone other than the defendant lives there.” Slip op. at ¶ 21.

(2) The defendant argued that the trial court erred in admitting expert witness testimony because the court failed to conduct a proper reliability analysis under Rule 702 of the Rules of Evidence and because the expert’s testimony was based on an unreliable method. The trial court heard extensive voir dire testimony from the expert, including information on his background and methods. The trial court allowed the expert’s testimony that he “did not conclude that the fire had an incendiary or human cause, only that he could not rule out the hypothesis of an incendiary cause based on the information gathered in his investigation.” Slip op. at ¶ 31. The Court of Appeals held that in light of the trial record, the trial court’s stated reasoning, and the court’s express pronouncement that it considered the three reliability factors in Rule 702, the trial court’s ruling was within the court’s sound discretion.

(3) The defendant contended that the trial court failed to specify the particular false statement or misrepresentation alleged in the indictment while delivering instructions to the jury. In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals concluded that there was no variance between the allegations in the indictment and the State’s evidence at trial and that the defendant’s statements on record all fell within the scope of the specific misrepresentation alleged in the indictment that her property was destroyed by an accidental fire.

(4) The defendant’s final argument was that the trial court erred in ordering her to pay $40,000 in restitution without a sufficient evidentiary basis of testimony or documentary evidence to support the amount of restitution ordered. The State did not present any testimony or documents to support the requested $40,000 amount except for the restitution worksheet. The State conceded error, and the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded that portion of the defendant’s sentence.

In this burning of personal property case, the trial court did not err by failing to instruct the jury regarding the defendant’s presence at the crime scene. Contrary to the defendant’s argument, presence at the scene is not an element of the offense.

In an arson case, there was sufficient evidence of malice where, among other things, the defendant was enraged at the property owner.

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