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., 09/17/2021
E.g., 09/17/2021

In a case where the trial court initially sentenced the defendant correctly but then erroneously thought it had used the wrong sentencing grid and re-sentenced the defendant to a lighter sentence using the wrong grid, the court remanded for imposition of the initial correct but more severe sentence. The court noted that G.S. 15A-1335 did not apply because the higher initial sentence was statutorily mandated.

G.S. 15A-1335 did not apply when on retrial the trial court sentenced the defendant for a different, more serious offense.

The trial court did not violate G.S. 15A-1335 when on remand it sentenced the defendant to a term that was longer than he originally received. The trial court initially imposed an illegal term, sentencing the defendant to a presumptive range sentence of 120 to 153 months; the correct presumptive range sentence for the defendant’s class of offense and prior record level was 135 to 171 months. When the trial court imposed a presumptive range of 135 to 171 months on remand, it was imposing a statutorily mandated sentence that did not run afoul of G.S. 15A-1335. 

No violation of G.S. 15A-1335 occurred on resentencing. A jury found the defendant guilty of felonious breaking and entering, felonious larceny, felonious possession of stolen goods, and for being a habitual felon. The trial court consolidated the offenses for judgment and sentenced the defendant to 125-159 months of imprisonment. The appellate court subsequently vacated the felony larceny conviction and remanded for resentencing. At resentencing the trial court consolidated the offenses and again sentenced the defendant to 125-150 months. The defendant argued that because he received the same sentence even though one of the convictions had been vacated, the new sentence violated G.S. 15A-1335. The court disagreed, concluding that the pursuant to G.S. 15A-1340.15(b), having consolidated the sentences, the trial court was required to sentenced the defendant for the most serious offense, which it did at the initial sentencing and the resentencing.

Citing, State v. Oliver, 155 N.C. App 209 (2002), the court held that no violation of G.S. 15A-1335 occurred when, after the defendant’s two death sentences for murder were vacated, the trial judge imposed two consecutive life sentences.

After being found guilty of first-degree rape and first-degree kidnapping, the defendant was sentenced to consecutive terms of 307-378 months for the rape and 133-169 for the kidnapping. On appeal, the court held that the trial judge erred by allowing the same sexual assault to serve as the basis for the rape and first-degree kidnapping convictions. The court remanded for a new sentencing hearing, instructing the trial judge to either arrest judgment on first-degree kidnapping and resentence on second-degree kidnapping, or arrest judgment on first-degree rape and resentence on first-degree kidnapping. The trial judge chose the first option, resentencing the defendant to 370-453 months for first-degree rape and to a consecutive term of 46-65 months for second-degree kidnapping. The resentencing violated G.S. 15A-1335 because the trial court imposed a more severe sentence for the rape conviction after the defendant’s successful appeal. The court rejected the State’s argument that when applying G.S. 15A-1335, the court should consider whether the aggregated new sentences are greater than the aggregated original sentences.

The defendant was convicted of obtaining property by false pretenses for selling boxes purportedly containing iPhones that contained only lug nuts. The defendant argued that the sentence of 36 months supervised probation was erroneous because the trial judge imposed a community punishment, which has a limit of 30 months probation. The Court of Appeals found that the trial judge imposed an intermediate punishment; the only indication to the contrary was a checkmark in the box for community punishment at the top of the judgment. Considering the sentencing hearing, the conditions imposed by the trial judge in the defendant’s presence, and the written judgment,  the Court concluded that the mark in the community punishment box was a clerical error and remanded the case for correction.

(1) The defendant was convicted of drug offenses in Gaston County on July 5, 2017 and was sentenced to 24 months of supervised probation. After reporting for his intake visit with a Gaston County probation officer, the defendant avoided probation officers for several months. Probation officers attempted on six separate occasions to verify defendant’s residence at the address he provided. He was not present for any of these visits. On two of the visits, individuals who knew the defendant told the officers that the defendant no longer lived at the residence or that he planned to move from the residence.

Despite being on notice to maintain regular contact with probation officers, no probation officer met with the defendant in person following his initial intake visit before the first violation report alleging absconding was filed on September 14, 2017. On the few occasions that a probation officer could reach the defendant by phone, the officer notified the defendant that a home visit was scheduled. The defendant was absent from the home on those occasions and failed to apprise his probation officer of his whereabouts.

Even after the defendant was released from custody after being arrested for alleged probation violations relating to absconding, he failed to report to his probation officer within 24 hours as instructed. After defendant’s case was transferred from Gaston County to Lincoln County in March 2018, officers continued to have difficulty contacting him. And he failed to notify officers upon getting evicted from his listed residence.

An addendum was filed to the defendant’s probation violation report on May 31, 2018 alleging an additional incident of absconding. The trial court found that the defendant violated his probation by absconding and ordered his probation revoked. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in revoking his probation based on its finding that he willfully absconded from supervision.

The Court of Appeals found the State’s allegations and supporting evidence––reflecting defendant’s continuous, willful pattern of avoiding supervision and making his whereabouts unknown––sufficient to support the trial court’s exercise of discretion in revoking defendant’s probation for absconding.

(2) The trial court checked the box on the judgment form stating that the defendant waived a violation hearing and admitted the violations. This was inaccurate, as the record reflects that the defendant was present for his probation hearing and testified as a witness. The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court committed a clerical error when it checked the box indicating otherwise and remanded the case to allow the trial court to correct the error.

The court remanded for correction of two clerical errors. The first error was that the trial court inadvertently checked the box on the Judgment form indicating that it made no written findings because the sentence imposed was within the presumptive range but in fact the trial court sentenced the defendant to an aggravated sentence. The second error was that the form used to arrest judgment mistakenly listed the wrong offense.

Finding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by revoking the defendant’s probation, the court remanded for correction of a clerical error. Specifically, the trial court checked the wrong box on the judgment form indicating the basis for the probation revocation.

The court remanded to the trial court to correct a clerical error in a written order. After the jury convicted the defendant of first-degree felony-murder, armed robbery, and felony possession of a firearm, the trial court rendered an oral ruling arresting judgment on the armed robbery conviction. However the written order arresting judgment reflects the correct file number but incorrectly lists the offense arrested as the weapons charge. The court remanded for correction.

State v. Thompson [Duplicated], ___ N.C. App. ___, 809 S.E.2d 340 (Jan. 2, 2018) vacated on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, 822 S.E.2d 616 (Feb 1 2019)

Where the record was inconsistent and unclear as to whether the defendant pled guilty to felony possession of marijuana, the court vacated a judgment for that offense and remanded, directing the trial court to “take the necessary steps to resolve the discrepancy between the transcript of plea and the written judgment.” The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the issue was simply a clerical error, finding: “on the basis of the record as presently constituted, it is not possible to determine whether judgment was properly entered on the charge of felony possession of marijuana.” A dissenting judge asserted that judgment should “simply be arrested as to [the possession] charge, or the matter should be remanded for correction of the clerical error.”

Over a dissent, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that there was a clerical error in the judgment. Although the trial court stated after the jury returned the verdict that it was “going to arrest judgment” on the trafficking by delivery charge, the trial court did not pronounce the sentence at that time because the defendant failed to appear. At a sentencing hearing held several weeks later, the trial court noted that the defendant had been found guilty on three trafficking counts--including trafficking by delivery--and consolidated the trafficking offenses into one judgment. The judgment form reflects that the three offenses were so consolidated. The trial court’s failure to arrest judgment on the trafficking by delivery offense was not a clerical error.

The defendant was properly required to register as a sex offender and submit to SBM. Although the trial court mistakenly found that the defendant had been convicted of an offense against a minor, the error was clerical where other findings were made that would require the defendant to register and submit to SBM and the defendant did not dispute these findings.

Where a plea agreement contemplated that the defendant would be sentenced to community punishment and the trial court indicated that it was so sentencing the defendant, the court remanded for correction of a clerical error in the judgment stating that the sentence was an intermediate one.

The trial court made clerical errors in sentencing. It made a clerical error when it stated that it was arresting judgment on convictions vacated by the court of appeals; in context it was clear that the trial court meant to state that it was vacating those convictions. The trial court also erred by mentioning that it was arresting another conviction when that conviction had not in fact been vacated by the appellate court. The court remanded for correction of these errors.

Where the judgment form mistakenly contained a reference to “Assault with a Deadly Weapon,” a charge on which the defendant was acquitted, but where the error did not affect the sentence imposed, the court remanded for correction of this clerical error. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the error entitled him to a resentencing. 

Where the trial court miscalculated the defendant’s prior record level but where a correction in points would not change the defendant’s sentence, the court treated the error as clerical and remanded for correction. A dissenting judge would have concluded that the error was judicial not clerical.

The court remanded for correction of a clerical error. Specifically, the trial court found at the sentencing hearing that the defendant was a PRL IV offender and ordered him to pay $6,841.50 in attorney’s fees. However, the judgment incorrectly listed him at PRL II and stated that the defendant owes $13,004.45 in attorney’s fees (the amount owed by his co-defendant).

The court remanded for correction of a clerical error where the defendant was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon but the trial court entered judgment for AWDWIK.

Where the trial court determined that the defendant had 16 prior record points and was a prior record level V but the judgment indicated that he had 5 prior record points and was a prior record level III, the entries on the judgment were clerical errors.

A clerical error occurred where the trial court found that it could revoke the defendant’s probation under the Justice Reinvestment Act because the defendant was convicted of another criminal offense while on probation but checked the box on the form indicating that the revocation was based on the fact that the defendant had twice previously been confined in response to violations. Remanding for correction.

A clerical error occurred in a Fair Sentencing Act case when the trial court found an aggravating factor and went on to sentence the defendant above the presumptive range but failed to check the box on the judgment indicating that the aggravating factor existed. The court remanded for correction of the error.

The court remanded for correction of a clerical error where the trial court announced a fine of $100 but the judgment incorrectly reflected a $500 fine.

State v. Rico, 218 N.C. App. 109 (Jan. 17, 2012) rev’d on other grounds, 366 N.C. 327 (Dec 14 2012)

Where the trial judge erroneously sentenced the defendant to an aggravated term without finding that an aggravating factor existed and that an aggravated sentence was appropriate, a second judge erroneously treated this as a clerical that could be corrected simply by amending the judgment.

In dicta, the court noted that the trial judge was entitled to modify her ruling on a suppression motion because court was still in session.

State v. Ellison, 213 N.C. App. 300 (July 19, 2011) aff'd on other grounds, 366 N.C. 439 (Mar 8 2013)

The court remanded to the trial court for correction of a clerical error in the judgment so that the judgment would reflect the offense the defendant was convicted of committing (trafficking by transportation versus trafficking by delivery).

In a case in which the defendant was sentenced as a Class C habitual felon, the court remanded for correction of a clerical error regarding the felony class of the underlying felony.

State v. Moore, 209 N.C. App. 551 (Feb. 15, 2011) rev’d on other grounds, 365 N.C. 283 (Oct 7 2011)

Trial judge’s failure to mark the appropriate box in the judgment indicating that the sentence was in the presumptive range was a clerical error.

Listing the victim on the restitution worksheet as an “aggrieved party” was a clerical error.

The trial court committed a clerical error when, in a written order revoking probation, it found that the conditions violated and the facts of each violation were set forth in a violation report dated October 20, 2008, which was the date of a probation violation hearing, not a violation report. 

The court treated as a clerical error the trial court’s mistake on the judgment designating an offense as Class G felony when it in fact was a Class H felony. The court remanded for correction of the clerical error.

On the judicial findings and order for sex offender form, the trial court erroneously indicated that the defendant had been convicted of an offense against a minor under G.S. 14-208.6(1i) when in fact he was convicted of a sexually violent offense under G.S. 14-208.6(5). The court remanded for correction of the clerical error.

State v. May, 207 N.C. App. 260 (Sept. 21, 2010)

When the trial court intended to check one box on AOC-CR-615 (judicial findings and order for sex offenders) but another box was marked on the form signed by the judge, this was a clerical error that could be corrected on remand.

The inclusion of an incorrect file number on the caption of a transcript of plea was a clerical error where the plea was taken in compliance with G.S. 15A-1022 and the body of the form referenced the correct file number.

Inadvertent listing of the wrong criminal action number on the judgment was a clerical error.

The trial court’s mistake of ordering SMB for a period of ten years (instead of lifetime registration) after finding that the defendant was a recidivist was not a clerical error. 

The trial judge committed a clerical error when he entered judgment for a violation of G.S. 14-34.1(a), the Class E version of discharging a firearm into occupied property. The record showed that, based on the defendant’s prior record level, the judge’s sentence reflected a decision to sentence the defendant to the Class D version of this offense (shooting into occupied dwelling) and at sentencing the judge stated that the defendant was being sentenced for discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling, the Class D version of the offense.

In 1992, the defendant pled guilty to second-degree murder for the killing of a gas station attendant during a robbery. In 2016, after learning that an informant implicated another person in the crime, the defendant filed a motion to test the DNA and fingerprints on evidence found at the scene. The trial court denied the motion and the defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed. As a threshold matter the court said that the defendant was not barred from seeking testing under G.S. 15A-269 because he pled guilty. It rejected the State’s argument that the statute’s reference to the defendant’s “defense” and the requirement for a “verdict” meant that the law only applied to defendants found guilty after a trial. On the merits, though, the court concluded that the defendant failed to meet his burden of showing that the results of the requested testing would be material to his defense. With the “high bar” required to establish materiality after a guilty plea, even the presence of another’s DNA on the evidence would not necessarily exclude the defendant’s involvement in the crime in light of the substantial evidence of his guilt. A judge concurring in the result would have concluded that the Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Sayre, 255 N.C. App. 215 (2017), aff’d per curiam, 371 N.C. 468 (2018), bars a defendant who pled guilty from post-conviction DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269.

The trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enter an order denying the defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing pursuant to G.S. 15A-269 while the defendant’s appeal from the original judgment of conviction was pending. The defendant was convicted of an attempted sexual offense and sentenced on 10 November 2014. The defendant gave notice of appeal that day. On 6 April 2016, while his appeal was pending in the court of appeals, the defendant filed a pro se motion for post-conviction DNA testing pursuant to G.S. 15A-269. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion. The defendant timely filed notice of appeal from this denial. Then, on 16 August 2016, the court of appeals issued an opinion in defendant’s original appeal, vacating his sentence and remanding the case to the trial court for re-sentencing. The mandate issued on 6 September 2016. The court noted that once a notice of appeal has been filed, the trial court retains jurisdiction only over matters that are ancillary to the appeal. The trial court’s order on the defendant’s post-conviction motion was not such a matter. The court concluded:

In the instant case, the trial court was divested of jurisdiction when defendant filed notice of appeal from the judgment entered on his conviction . . . on 10 November 2014. Because defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing opened an inquiry into a case that this Court was already reviewing, the trial court lacked jurisdiction to rule on it until after the case was returned to the trial court by way of mandate, which issued on 6 September 2016. We therefore must vacate the trial court’s order denying defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing.

The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing and discovery pursuant to G.S. 15A-269. The defendant was tried for burglary, kidnapping, assault by strangulation, rape, sex offense, and attaining habitual felon status. Evidence at trial included, among other things, testimony from the State’s expert in forensic DNA analysis concerning DNA evidence recovered from the victim. The DNA analyst concluded that defendant’s DNA “cannot be excluded as a contributor to the DNA mixture” that was recovered, and that “the chance of selecting an individual at random that would be expected to be included for the observed DNA mixture profile” was approximately, “for the North Carolina black population, 1 in 14.5 million[.]” The defendant was convicted and his conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. He then filed a pro se motion with the trial court under G.S. 15A-269 and included a sworn affidavit maintaining his innocence. The trial court treated the motion as a Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR) and denied the motion. It determined that the defendant had not complied with the service and filing requirements for MARs, did not allege newly discovered evidence or other genuine issues that would require a hearing, and that the claims were procedurally barred under the MAR statute. The Court of Appeals granted the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari and reversed. The court noted that the procedures for post-conviction DNA testing pursuant to G.S. 15A-269 are distinct from those that apply to MARs. Thus, when a defendant brings a motion for post-conviction DNA testing pursuant to G.S. 15A-269, the trial court must rule on the motion in accordance with the statutes that apply to that type of motion. The trial court may not supplant those procedures with procedures applicable to MARs. The court vacated and remanded for the trial court’s review consistent with the relevant statutes.

In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court held that a convicted state prisoner seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence may assert a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. However, the Court noted that District Attorney’s Office for Third Judicial Dist. v. Osborne, 557 U.S. 52 (2009), severely limits the federal action a state prisoner may bring for DNA testing. It stated: “Osborne rejected the extension of substantive due process to this area, and left slim room for the prisoner to show that the governing state law denies him procedural due process.” Slip Op. at 2 (citation omitted).

District of Attorney’s Office v. Osborne, 557 U.S. 52 (June 18, 2009)

A defendant whose criminal conviction has become final does not have a substantive due process right to gain access to evidence so that it can be subjected to DNA testing to attempt to prove innocence. Additionally, the Court rejected the holding below that Alaska’s procedures for post-conviction relief violated the defendant’s procedural due process rights.

Considering an issue of first impression, the court held that the pro se indigent defendant made an insufficient showing that post-conviction DNA testing “may be material to [his] claim of wrongful conviction” and consequently the trial court did not err by denying his motion for DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269 before appointing him counsel.  The court explained that the showing a defendant must make to be entitled to appointment of counsel under G.S. 15A-269(c) is a lesser burden than that required to obtain DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269(a) because subsection (a) requires a showing that the testing “is material” to the defendant’s defense while subsection (c) requires a showing that testing “may be material” to the defense. The term “material,” the meaning of which the court discussed extensively in its opinion, maintains the same definition under both statutory provisions, but the showing differs due to the varying use of the modifiers “is” and “may be.”  Here, in light of the overwhelming evidence at trial of the defendant’s guilt, the dearth of evidence at trial implicating a second perpetrator, and the unlikelihood that DNA testing would establish the involvement of a third party, the defendant failed to satisfy his burden of showing that DNA testing may be material to his claim of wrongful conviction.

State v. Sayre, 371 N.C. 468 (Sept. 21, 2018)

On appeal from the unpublished decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 803 S.E.2d 699 (2017), the court affirmed per curiam. In the opinion below, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s pro se motion to locate and preserve evidence and motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The defendant pleaded guilty to multiple counts of indecent liberties, 2 counts of second-degree sexual offense and 2 counts of felony child abuse. He did not appeal. Nearly 2 years later he filed a pro se motion to locate and preserve evidence and motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The motion listed 12 pieces of physical evidence that the defendant alleged needed to be tested and preserved because they would prove that he was not the perpetrator. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion concluding that he had not made a showing that DNA testing may be material to his claim of wrongful conviction. As a result, the trial court declined to either appoint counsel or conduct an evidentiary hearing on the motion. The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant’s burden of showing materiality under the post-conviction DNA statute requires more than a conclusory statement that the ability to conduct the testing is material to the defense. Rather, the defendant must provide specific reasons why the requested test would be significantly more accurate or probative of the identity of the perpetrator or accomplice or that there is a reasonable probability of contradicting previous test results. Here, the defendant’s bare assertion that the DNA testing would prove he is not the perpetrator is not sufficiently specific to establish that the requested DNA testing would be material to his defense. Accordingly, the trial court did not err by summarily denying his request for post-conviction DNA testing and court-appointed counsel to prosecute the motion.

(1) The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing without appointing counsel. The statute requires appointment of counsel only on a showing that the DNA testing may be material to the defendant’s claim of wrongful conviction. The burden of establishing materiality is on the defendant. To meet this burden, the defendant must do more than make a conclusory statement that the ability to conduct the requested testing is material to the defense. Where—as here--the case involves a guilty plea, the defendant has a heightened burden to show materiality. Here, the defendant’s justifications for DNA testing are merely conclusory statements. In a footnote, the court noted that the trial court did not address materiality and that “a specific finding or conclusion of materiality” by the trial court “would be helpful to our appellate review.”

(2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by summarily denying his motion for a complete inventory of evidence under G.S. 15A-268. That statute provides that upon written request by the defendant the custodial agency shall prepare an inventory of biological evidence relevant to the case that is in the custodial agency’s custody. However, a request for location and preservation of evidence, as occurred here, is not a request for an inventory of evidence. Thus, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing prior to obtaining an inventory of biological evidence which the defendant never requested. Even if the defendant had requested an inventory of biological evidence from the trial court, it would have been improper for the trial court to grant such a request where there was no evidence that the defendant had requested the inventory from the custodial agency.

(3) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by summarily denying his motion for an inventory of evidence under G.S. 15A-269. That statute provides that upon receipt of a motion for post-conviction DNA testing the custodial agency shall inventory the evidence and provide an inventory list to, among others, the defendant. Under the statute, a defendant need not make a request for an inventory of physical evidence. Instead, the custodial agency’s obligation to do the inventory is triggered upon receipt of a motion for post-conviction DNA testing. Here, the record lacks proof that either the defendant or the trial court served the custodial agency with the motion for inventory. Assuming arguendo that the trial court had the burden to do so, any error that occurred is harmless because the defendant failed to meet his burden of showing materiality.

In this child sexual assault case, the trial court did not err by refusing to appoint counsel to litigate the defendant’s pro se motion for post-conviction DNA testing. Under G.S. 15A-269(c), to be entitled to counsel, the defendant must establish that the DNA testing may be material to his wrongful conviction claim. The defendant’s burden to show materiality requires more than a conclusory statement. Here, the defendant’s conclusory contention that testing was material was insufficient to carry his burden. Additionally, the defendant failed to include the lab report that he claims shows that certain biological evidence was never analyzed. The court noted that the record does not indicate whether this evidence still exists and that after entering a guilty plea, evidence need only be preserved until the earlier of 3 years from the date of conviction or until the defendant is released.

(1) The trial court did not err by denying defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269. Defendant’s motion contained only the following conclusory statement regarding materiality: “The ability to conduct the requested DNA testing is material to defendant[’]s defense[.]” That conclusory statement was insufficient to satisfy his burden under the statute. (2) The court rejected defendant’s argument that the trial court erred in failing to consider defendant’s request for the appointment of counsel pursuant to G.S. 15A-269(c), concluding that an indigent defendant must make a sufficient showing of materiality before he or she is entitled to appointment of counsel.

The trial court did not err by failing to appoint counsel to represent the defendant on a motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The trial court is required to appoint counsel for a motion under G.S. 15A-269 only if the defendant makes a showing of indigence and that the DNA testing is material to defendant’s claim of wrongful conviction. Here, the defendant did not make a sufficient showing of materiality, which requires more than a conclusory statement that the evidence is material. 

On appeal from the unpublished decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 803 S.E.2d 699 (2017), the court affirmed per curiam. In the opinion below, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s pro se motion to locate and preserve evidence and motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The defendant pleaded guilty to multiple counts of indecent liberties, 2 counts of second-degree sexual offense and 2 counts of felony child abuse. He did not appeal. Nearly 2 years later he filed a pro se motion to locate and preserve evidence and motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The motion listed 12 pieces of physical evidence that the defendant alleged needed to be tested and preserved because they would prove that he was not the perpetrator. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion concluding that he had not made a showing that DNA testing may be material to his claim of wrongful conviction. As a result, the trial court declined to either appoint counsel or conduct an evidentiary hearing on the motion. The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant’s burden of showing materiality under the post-conviction DNA statute requires more than a conclusory statement that the ability to conduct the testing is material to the defense. Rather, the defendant must provide specific reasons why the requested test would be significantly more accurate or probative of the identity of the perpetrator or accomplice or that there is a reasonable probability of contradicting previous test results. Here, the defendant’s bare assertion that the DNA testing would prove he is not the perpetrator is not sufficiently specific to establish that the requested DNA testing would be material to his defense. Accordingly, the trial court did not err by summarily denying his request for post-conviction DNA testing and court-appointed counsel to prosecute the motion.

The court held that trial court was not required to hold an evidentiary hearing on the defendant’s motion, noting:

[A] trial court is not required to conduct an evidentiary hearing where it can determine from the trial record and the information in the motion that the defendant has failed to meet his burden of showing any evidence resulting from the DNA testing being sought would be material. A trial court is not required to conduct an evidentiary hearing on the motion where the moving defendant fails to describe the nature of the evidence he would present at such a hearing which would indicate that a reasonable probability exists that the DNA testing sought would produce evidence that would be material to his defense.

The rules of evidence apply to proceedings related to post-conviction motions for DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269. 

(1) The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing without appointing counsel. The statute requires appointment of counsel only on a showing that the DNA testing may be material to the defendant’s claim of wrongful conviction. The burden of establishing materiality is on the defendant. To meet this burden, the defendant must do more than make a conclusory statement that the ability to conduct the requested testing is material to the defense. Where—as here--the case involves a guilty plea, the defendant has a heightened burden to show materiality. Here, the defendant’s justifications for DNA testing are merely conclusory statements. In a footnote, the court noted that the trial court did not address materiality and that “a specific finding or conclusion of materiality” by the trial court “would be helpful to our appellate review.”

(2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by summarily denying his motion for a complete inventory of evidence under G.S. 15A-268. That statute provides that upon written request by the defendant the custodial agency shall prepare an inventory of biological evidence relevant to the case that is in the custodial agency’s custody. However, a request for location and preservation of evidence, as occurred here, is not a request for an inventory of evidence. Thus, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing prior to obtaining an inventory of biological evidence which the defendant never requested. Even if the defendant had requested an inventory of biological evidence from the trial court, it would have been improper for the trial court to grant such a request where there was no evidence that the defendant had requested the inventory from the custodial agency.

(3) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by summarily denying his motion for an inventory of evidence under G.S. 15A-269. That statute provides that upon receipt of a motion for post-conviction DNA testing the custodial agency shall inventory the evidence and provide an inventory list to, among others, the defendant. Under the statute, a defendant need not make a request for an inventory of physical evidence. Instead, the custodial agency’s obligation to do the inventory is triggered upon receipt of a motion for post-conviction DNA testing. Here, the record lacks proof that either the defendant or the trial court served the custodial agency with the motion for inventory. Assuming arguendo that the trial court had the burden to do so, any error that occurred is harmless because the defendant failed to meet his burden of showing materiality.

(1) The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The defendant, who pleaded guilty to multiple sexual assaults, filed a pro se motion seeking DNA testing of evidence he alleged was collected by law enforcement, including vials of blood and saliva, a bag of clothes, and a rape kit. The court found that the post-conviction DNA testing statute was not intended to “completely forestall” the filing of such a motion when the defendant enters a guilty plea. It continued, noting that when such a motion is filed “[t]he trial court is obligated to consider the facts surrounding a defendant’s decision to plead guilty in addition to other evidence, in the context of the entire record of the case, in order to determine whether the evidence is ‘material’” within the meaning of the post-conviction DNA testing statute. A defendant’s burden to show materiality requires more than a conclusory statement that the ability to conduct the requested testing is material to the defense. Here, the defendant’s assertion in his motion that his DNA would not be found in the rape kit essentially amounts to a statement that testing would show he was not the perpetrator. The court noted that it has previously held that such a statement is insufficient to establish materiality. The court thus found that the defendant failed to show the DNA testing would have been material to his defense. Specifically, the record indicates that the defendant was convicted of multiple counts of statutory rape for encounters with a single victim which took place over many months; the defendant confessed to the crimes; and the victim reported that the defendant had sexually abused her. The defendant’s motion requested that DNA testing be performed on certain items recovered from the victim over a month after the defendant’s last alleged contact with the victim. The lack of DNA on those items, recovered well after the alleged crimes, would not conclusively prove that the defendant was not involved in the conduct at issue. Additionally, the Sheriff’s office indicated that the only relevant evidence it had—or ever had—was a computer that an officer searched for child pornography with the defendant’s consent.

(2) The court found that the defendant’s challenge to the trial court’s denial of his request for an inventory of biological evidence pursuant to G.S. 15A-268 was not properly before it. The defendant asserted that he requested an inventory from a hospital and DSS, whom he alleged had clothing, hair and blood samples, and other items. However, there was no evidence of these requests in the record. Without any evidence that the defendant made a proper request pursuant to the statute and without any indication that the trial court considered this issue, the court found that there was no ruling for it to review.

(1) The court dismissed the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to order an inventory of biological evidence under G.S. 15A-269(f). Under the statute, a request for post-conviction DNA testing triggers an obligation for the custodial agency to inventory relevant biological evidence. Thus, a defendant who requests DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269 need not make any additional written request for an inventory of biological evidence. However, the required inventory under section 15A-269 is merely an ancillary procedure to an underlying request for DNA testing. Where, as here, the defendant has abandoned his right to appellate review of the denial of his request for DNA testing, there is no need for the inventory required by G.S. 15A-269(f). (2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to order preparation of an inventory of biological evidence under G.S. 15A-268 where the defendant failed to make a written request as required by G.S. 15A-268(a7). The defendant’s motion asked only that certain “physical evidence obtained during the investigation of his criminal case be located and preserved.” 

On appeal from the unpublished decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 803 S.E.2d 699 (2017), the court affirmed per curiam. In the opinion below, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s pro se motion to locate and preserve evidence and motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The defendant pleaded guilty to multiple counts of indecent liberties, 2 counts of second-degree sexual offense and 2 counts of felony child abuse. He did not appeal. Nearly 2 years later he filed a pro se motion to locate and preserve evidence and motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The motion listed 12 pieces of physical evidence that the defendant alleged needed to be tested and preserved because they would prove that he was not the perpetrator. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion concluding that he had not made a showing that DNA testing may be material to his claim of wrongful conviction. As a result, the trial court declined to either appoint counsel or conduct an evidentiary hearing on the motion. The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant’s burden of showing materiality under the post-conviction DNA statute requires more than a conclusory statement that the ability to conduct the testing is material to the defense. Rather, the defendant must provide specific reasons why the requested test would be significantly more accurate or probative of the identity of the perpetrator or accomplice or that there is a reasonable probability of contradicting previous test results. Here, the defendant’s bare assertion that the DNA testing would prove he is not the perpetrator is not sufficiently specific to establish that the requested DNA testing would be material to his defense. Accordingly, the trial court did not err by summarily denying his request for post-conviction DNA testing and court-appointed counsel to prosecute the motion.

State v. Lane, 370 N.C. 508 (Mar. 2, 2018)

In this capital case, the court held that the defendant failed to prove materiality in connection with his request for post-conviction DNA testing of hair samples. The hair samples were found in a trash bag in which the victim’s body had been placed. Before the trial court the defendant argued that the requested testing was material for two reasons. First, the evidence at trial showed two separate crimes, a rape and murder; acknowledging that DNA evidence implicated him in the rape, the defendant asserted that the hairs could relate to another perpetrator, and potentially the only perpetrator of the murder. Second, the defendant argued that the State’s closing argument relied in part on the forensic analysis of hairs recovered from the defendant’s residence that were found to be microscopically consistent with the victim’s hair; the defendant asserted that if those hairs were material to the State, the hairs found in the bag were material to the defense. The trial court denied the testing motion, finding that the defendant failed to establish materiality. The trial court considered, among other things, the evidence presented at trial and prior post-conviction DNA testing that was done on vaginal and rectal swabs from the victim’s body that ultimately implicated the defendant. The court began by adopting the following standard of review of the denial of the motion for post-conviction DNA testing: findings of fact are binding if supported by competent evidence and may not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion; conclusions of law are reviewed de novo. The court further determined that the post-conviction DNA statute adopted the Brady materiality standard. It went on to conclude that taken together, the overwhelming evidence of guilt at trial, the dearth of trial evidence pointing to a second perpetrator, and “the inability of forensic testing to determine whether the hair samples at issue are relevant to establish a third party was involved”, created an “insurmountable hurdle” to the defendant’s materiality argument with respect to either the conviction or sentence. Finally, the court denied the defendant’s request that the court exercise its constitutional supervisory or inherent authority to order testing. 

(1) The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing without appointing counsel. The statute requires appointment of counsel only on a showing that the DNA testing may be material to the defendant’s claim of wrongful conviction. The burden of establishing materiality is on the defendant. To meet this burden, the defendant must do more than make a conclusory statement that the ability to conduct the requested testing is material to the defense. Where—as here--the case involves a guilty plea, the defendant has a heightened burden to show materiality. Here, the defendant’s justifications for DNA testing are merely conclusory statements. In a footnote, the court noted that the trial court did not address materiality and that “a specific finding or conclusion of materiality” by the trial court “would be helpful to our appellate review.”

(2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by summarily denying his motion for a complete inventory of evidence under G.S. 15A-268. That statute provides that upon written request by the defendant the custodial agency shall prepare an inventory of biological evidence relevant to the case that is in the custodial agency’s custody. However, a request for location and preservation of evidence, as occurred here, is not a request for an inventory of evidence. Thus, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing prior to obtaining an inventory of biological evidence which the defendant never requested. Even if the defendant had requested an inventory of biological evidence from the trial court, it would have been improper for the trial court to grant such a request where there was no evidence that the defendant had requested the inventory from the custodial agency.

(3) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by summarily denying his motion for an inventory of evidence under G.S. 15A-269. That statute provides that upon receipt of a motion for post-conviction DNA testing the custodial agency shall inventory the evidence and provide an inventory list to, among others, the defendant. Under the statute, a defendant need not make a request for an inventory of physical evidence. Instead, the custodial agency’s obligation to do the inventory is triggered upon receipt of a motion for post-conviction DNA testing. Here, the record lacks proof that either the defendant or the trial court served the custodial agency with the motion for inventory. Assuming arguendo that the trial court had the burden to do so, any error that occurred is harmless because the defendant failed to meet his burden of showing materiality.

(1) The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The defendant, who pleaded guilty to multiple sexual assaults, filed a pro se motion seeking DNA testing of evidence he alleged was collected by law enforcement, including vials of blood and saliva, a bag of clothes, and a rape kit. The court found that the post-conviction DNA testing statute was not intended to “completely forestall” the filing of such a motion when the defendant enters a guilty plea. It continued, noting that when such a motion is filed “[t]he trial court is obligated to consider the facts surrounding a defendant’s decision to plead guilty in addition to other evidence, in the context of the entire record of the case, in order to determine whether the evidence is ‘material’” within the meaning of the post-conviction DNA testing statute. A defendant’s burden to show materiality requires more than a conclusory statement that the ability to conduct the requested testing is material to the defense. Here, the defendant’s assertion in his motion that his DNA would not be found in the rape kit essentially amounts to a statement that testing would show he was not the perpetrator. The court noted that it has previously held that such a statement is insufficient to establish materiality. The court thus found that the defendant failed to show the DNA testing would have been material to his defense. Specifically, the record indicates that the defendant was convicted of multiple counts of statutory rape for encounters with a single victim which took place over many months; the defendant confessed to the crimes; and the victim reported that the defendant had sexually abused her. The defendant’s motion requested that DNA testing be performed on certain items recovered from the victim over a month after the defendant’s last alleged contact with the victim. The lack of DNA on those items, recovered well after the alleged crimes, would not conclusively prove that the defendant was not involved in the conduct at issue. Additionally, the Sheriff’s office indicated that the only relevant evidence it had—or ever had—was a computer that an officer searched for child pornography with the defendant’s consent.

(2) The court found that the defendant’s challenge to the trial court’s denial of his request for an inventory of biological evidence pursuant to G.S. 15A-268 was not properly before it. The defendant asserted that he requested an inventory from a hospital and DSS, whom he alleged had clothing, hair and blood samples, and other items. However, there was no evidence of these requests in the record. Without any evidence that the defendant made a proper request pursuant to the statute and without any indication that the trial court considered this issue, the court found that there was no ruling for it to review.

In this child sexual assault case, the trial court did not err by refusing to appoint counsel to litigate the defendant’s pro se motion for post-conviction DNA testing. Under G.S. 15A-269(c), to be entitled to counsel, the defendant must establish that the DNA testing may be material to his wrongful conviction claim. The defendant’s burden to show materiality requires more than a conclusory statement. Here, the defendant’s conclusory contention that testing was material was insufficient to carry his burden. Additionally, the defendant failed to include the lab report that he claims shows that certain biological evidence was never analyzed. The court noted that the record does not indicate whether this evidence still exists and that after entering a guilty plea, evidence need only be preserved until the earlier of 3 years from the date of conviction or until the defendant is released.

(1) The trial court did not err by denying defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269. Defendant’s motion contained only the following conclusory statement regarding materiality: “The ability to conduct the requested DNA testing is material to defendant[’]s defense[.]” That conclusory statement was insufficient to satisfy his burden under the statute. (2) The court rejected defendant’s argument that the trial court erred in failing to consider defendant’s request for the appointment of counsel pursuant to G.S. 15A-269(c), concluding that an indigent defendant must make a sufficient showing of materiality before he or she is entitled to appointment of counsel.

(1) The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The defendant was convicted of murdering his wife; her body was discovered in a utility shop behind their home. He sought DNA testing of five cigarettes and a beer can that were found in the utility shop, arguing that Karen Fowler, with whom the defendant had an affair, or her sons committed the murder. He asserted that testing may show the presence of DNA from Fowler or her sons at the scene. The defendant failed to prove the materiality of sought-for evidence, given the overwhelming evidence of guilt and the fact that DNA testing would not reveal who brought the items into the utility shop or when they were left there. The court noted: “While the results from DNA testing might be considered ‘relevant,’ had they been offered at trial, they are not ‘material’ in this postconviction setting.” 

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion for post-conviction DNA testing where the defendant did not meet his burden of showing materiality under G.S. 15A-269(a)(1). The defendant made only a conclusory statement that "[t]he ability to conduct the requested DNA testing is material to the Defendant's defense"; he provided no other explanation of why DNA testing would be material to his defense.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion for post-conviction independent DNA testing. The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder (based on premeditation and deliberation and felony-murder predicated upon discharge of a weapon into occupied property), discharge of a weapon into occupied property, and misdemeanor violation of a domestic violence protective order. The defendant argued that the trial court erred by concluding that DNA testing was not material to the defense. Specifically, he asserted that the State’s theory of the case indicated that the victim was inside the home and the defendant was outside when he discharged his handgun. The defendant further argued that blood on his pants was never tested. He asserted that if DNA evidence indicates the blood belonged to the victim, the defendant could argue that he was in close proximity to the victim, that he did not shoot from outside the residence, and that he would have the basis for a heat-of-passion defense to first-degree murder. The court rejected this argument, concluding that the evidence submitted by defendant in support of his motion supported the jury’s verdict and did not support a jury instruction on the heat-of-passion defense. It noted: “Defendant’s contention that he was in close proximity to the victim at some point, even if supported by DNA evidence, does not  minimize the significance of or otherwise refute the substantial evidence that defendant fired a gun into occupied property and that the victim suffered fatal gunshot wounds as a result.”

The trial court properly denied the defendant’s pro se motion for post-conviction DNA testing where the defendant failed to adequately establish that newer and more accurate tests would identify the perpetrator or contradict prior test results. It reasoned:

Defendant’s mere allegations that “newer and more accurate testing” methods exist, “which would provide results that are significantly more accurate and probative of the identity of the perpetrator [o]r accomplice, or have a reasonable probability of . . . contradicting prior test results” are incomplete and conclusory. Even though he named a new method of DNA testing, he provided no information about how this method is different from and more accurate than the type of DNA testing used in this case. Without more specific detail from Defendant or some other evidence, the trial court could not adequately determine whether additional testing would be significantly more accurate and probative or have a reasonable probability of contradicting past test results. 

The post-conviction DNA testing statute does not require the trial court to make findings of fact when denying a motion. “A trial court’s order is sufficient so long as it states that the court reviewed the defendant’s motion, cites the statutory requirements for granting the motion, and concludes that the defendant failed to show that all the required conditions were met.”

The trial court did not err by failing to make specific findings of fact when denying the defendant’s request for post-conviction DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269. The statute contains no requirement that the trial court make specific findings of fact.

(1) The court held that it had both jurisdiction and authority to decide whether Anders-type review should be prohibited, allowed, or required in appeals from G.S. 15A-270.1. Exercising this discretionary authority, the court held that Anders procedures apply to appeals pursuant to G.S. 15A–270.1. However, it was careful to limit its holding “to the issue before us – appeal pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 15A– 270.1.”

(2) Conducting an Anders review in this appeal from the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to locate and preserve evidence and for post-conviction DNA testing pursuant to G.S. 15A-268 and 269, the court found the appeal wholly frivolous. In this homicide case the defendant argued that he did not act with premeditation and deliberation in killing the victim and did not come to her apartment with intent to commit a felony therein. The court found that these averments bear no relation to the integrity of the DNA evidence presented at trial or to the potential value of additional testing. The court also found that the defendant’s argument was “wholly at odds” with the theory presented in his motion to the trial court, that is, that the testing would prove he was not the perpetrator.

The court adopted the following standard of review of a denial for post-conviction DNA testing: Findings of fact are binding if supported by competent evidence and may not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion; conclusions of law are reviewed de novo. 

A defendant does not have a right to appeal a trial judge’s order denying relief following a hearing to evaluate test results.

Having erroneously arrested judgment on a DWI charge to which the defendant had pleaded guilty, the trial court had authority to correct the invalid judgment and sentence the defendant even after the session ended. Citing State v. Branch, 134 N.C. App. 637 (1999), the court noted in dicta that the trial court’s authority to correct invalid sentences includes sentences that exceed the statutory maximum. For a more detailed discussion of Branch and the trial court’s authority to sua sponte correct errors, see Jessica Smith, Trial Judge’s Authority to Sua Sponte Correct Errors after Entry of Judgment in a Criminal Case, Admin. of Justice. Bull. May 2003 (UNC School of Government) (online here : http://www.sog.unc.edu/sites/www.sog.unc.edu/files/aoj200302.pdf).

State v. Todd, 369 N.C. 707 (June 9, 2017)

The Supreme Court held that it had jurisdiction to decide an appeal from a divided decision of the Court of Appeals reversing a trial court’s ruling denying a MAR. The defendant was convicted of armed robbery. He was unsuccessful on his direct appeal. The defendant then filed an MAR arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction and that his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise this claim on appeal. The trial court denied the defendant’s MAR. A divided Court of Appeals reversed, with instructions to grant the MAR and vacate the conviction. The Supreme Court noted that G.S. 7A-30(2) provides an automatic right of appeal based on a dissent at the Court of Appeals. However, that automatic right of appeal is limited by G.S. 7A-28, which states that decisions of the Court of Appeals upon review of G.S. 15A-1415 MARs (MARs by the defendant filed more than 10 days after entry of judgment) are final and not subject to further review. However, the supervisory authority granted to the court by Article IV, Section 12 of the North Carolina Constitution gave the court a restriction to hear the appeal.

State v. Thomsen, 369 N.C. 22 (Aug. 19, 2016)

The Court of Appeals had subject-matter jurisdiction to review, pursuant to the State’s petition for writ of certiorari, a trial court’s grant of its own motion for appropriate relief (MAR). The defendant pleaded guilty to rape of a child by an adult offender and to sexual offense with a child by an adult offender, both felonies with mandatory minimum sentences of 300 months. Pursuant to a plea arrangement, the trial court consolidated the convictions for judgment and imposed a single active sentence of 300 to 420 months. The trial court then immediately granted its own MAR and vacated the judgment and sentence. It concluded that, as applied to the defendant, the mandatory sentence violated the Eighth Amendment; the court resentenced the defendant to 144 to 233 months. The State petitioned the Court of Appeals for a writ of certiorari to review the trial court’s MAR order. The defendant responded, arguing that under State v. Starkey, 177 N.C. App. 264, the court of appeals lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to review a trial court’s sua sponte grant of a MAR. The Court of Appeals allowed the State’s petition and issued the writ. The Court of Appeals found no Eighth Amendment violation, vacated the defendant’s sentence and the trial court’s order granting appropriate relief, and remanded the case for a new sentencing hearing. See State v. Thomsen, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___, 776 S.E.2d 41, 48 (2015). Before the supreme court, the parties disagreed on whether the trial court’s sua sponte motion was pursuant to G.S. 15A-1415(b) (defendant’s MAR) or G.S. 15A-1420(d) (trial court’s sua sponte MAR). The court found it unnecessary to resolve this dispute, holding first that if the MAR was made under G.S. 15A-1415, State v. Stubbs, 368 N.C. 40, 42-43, authorized review by way of certiorari. Alternatively, if the MAR was made pursuant to G.S. 1420(d), G.S. 7A-32(c) gives the Court of Appeals jurisdiction to review a lower court judgment by writ of certiorari, unless a more specific statute restricts jurisdiction. Here, no such specific statute exists. It went on to hold that to the extent Starkey was inconsistent with this holding it was overruled. 

State v. Stubbs, 368 N.C. 40 (Apr. 10, 2015)

Under G.S. 15A-1422, the court of appeals had subject matter jurisdiction to review the State’s appeal from a trial court’s order granting the defendant relief on his motion for appropriate relief. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that Appellate Rule 21 required a different conclusion. In the decision below, State v. Stubbs, 232 N.C. App. 274 (2014), the court of appeals held, over a dissent that the trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole violated of the Eighth Amendment. 

The defendant was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in Gaston County. The evidence of the case largely consisted of mixtures of “touch” DNA profiles found on the victim’s car along with circumstantial evidence based on the defendant’s presence in the area at the time of the murder. The verdict was affirmed on direct appeal. The defendant later filed a motion for appropriate relief (“MAR”) alleging his innocence based on new evidence, as well as claims for ineffective assistance of counsel and discovery violations. The MAR court conducted an extensive hearing on the motion. Evidence showed that the defendant’s trial counsel was aware of the defendant’s significant medical and psychological issues, some of which may have been relevant to the defendant’s ability to commit the crime. Trial counsel obtained authorization and funding for a psychological evaluation that never occurred and failed to obtain the defendant’s medical records. Trial counsel also obtained the services of a DNA expert for use at trial but failed to review the expert’s professional background or previous testimony. The expert informed trial counsel that the State’s science was “good” and advised counsel not to interview the prosecution’s DNA expert. Defense counsel did not obtain a final report from the expert and failed to question the State’s DNA expert with questions recommended by the defense expert.

At the MAR hearing, the defense presented a new DNA expert who testified that the SBI policies of interpreting mixture DNA at the time were “subjective,” outdated, and inaccurate based on current accepted practices. According to this expert, the DNA mixture relied upon by the State at trial could not be used for “any reliable matching” and that the defendant’s DNA profile was not a match. The trial court granted the MAR and ordered a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel stemming from trial counsel’s failure to investigate the defendant’s medical and psychological conditions, as well as trial counsel’s failure to properly prepare to meet the state’s DNA evidence. The post-conviction court also found that the defendant was entitled to a new trial based on new evidence stemming from the evolution of DNA science since the time of trial, finding that changes in the science rendered the State’s DNA evidence at trial “doubtful at best.” The State appealed.

The State generally does not have the right to appeal a defendant’s successful MAR. An exception exists for an MAR granted based on new evidence. In that case, the State may directly appeal, “but only on questions of law.” G.S. 15A-1445(a)(2). Where there is no appeal of right, the State may petition for writ of certiorari to obtain review of the trial court’s grant of the MAR. G.S. 15A-1422(c)(3). Here, the State argued that it was entitled to appeal the entire MAR order, since the order was based in part on new evidence. The Court of Appeals disagreed. Where a right to appeal exists as to one ground of an order and not others, the appealing party is generally limited to arguing only the issue from which the appeal of right lies. “[A] right to appeal those other issues exists only if this Court finds those issues ‘inextricably intertwined with the issues before this Court as of right.’” Carver Slip op. at 9 (citation omitted). Here, the issues of new evidence and ineffective assistance were not “inextricably intertwined.” According to the court:

The newly discovered evidence claim is based on evidence that was unavailable to the defendant at the time of trial. The ineffective assistance claim is based on other, separate evidence that the trial court found to be available to the defendant had his counsel exercised due diligence. Thus, these two claims are based on entirely separate facts and legal issues. Id. at 10.

Further, the exception for a State’s direct appeal of the grant of an MAR based on newly discovered evidence is limited by the “only on questions of law” language in G.S. 15A-1445(a)(2). The State’s argument that it can appeal all issues in the order ignored this limitation.

Finally, even after the defendant moved to dismiss the appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction, the State failed to file a petition for writ of certiorari. The State’s appeal of the ineffective assistance of counsel claim was therefore dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The appeal of the new evidence claim was rendered moot as a result, leaving the trial court’s order intact.

On appeal from the denial of the defendant’s MAR, the court clarified that the appropriate standard of review is de novo with respect to conclusions of law.

 

The State could appeal the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s MAR. 

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State had no avenue to obtain review of a trial court order granting his G.S. 15A-1415 MAR (MAR made more than 10 days after entry of judgment) on grounds that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. The court found that it had authority to grant the State’s petition for writ of certiorari. The court rejected the contention that State v. Starkey, 177 N.C. App. 264, 268 (2006), required a different conclusion, noting that case conflicts with state Supreme Court decisions. 

State v. Lee, 228 N.C. App. 324 (July 16, 2013)

State could appeal an amended judgment entered after the trial court granted the defendant’s MAR. The trial court entered the amended judgment after concluding (erroneously) that the 2009 amendments to the SSA applied to the defendant’s 2005 offenses.

Under G.S. 15A-1445, the State could appeal the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s MAR on the basis of newly discovered evidence. 

(1) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State had no avenue to obtain review of a trial court order granting his G.S. 15A-1415 MAR (MAR made more than 10 days after entry of judgment) on grounds that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. The court found that it had authority to grant the State’s petition for writ of certiorari. The court rejected the contention that State v. Starkey, 177 N.C. App. 264, 268 (2006), required a different conclusion, noting that case conflicts with state Supreme Court decisions. (2) The defendant’s claim that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment was properly asserted under G.S. 15A-1415(b)(4) (convicted/sentenced under statute in violation of US or NC Constitutions) and (b)(8) (sentence unauthorized at the time imposed, contained a type of disposition or a term of imprisonment not authorized for the particular class of offense and prior record or conviction level, was illegally imposed, or is otherwise invalid as a matter of law).

State v. Stubbs, 232 N.C. App. 274 (Feb. 4, 2014) aff'd on other grounds, 368 N.C. 40 (Apr 10 2015)

The trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s 1973 sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole on a conviction of second-degree burglary, committed when he was 17 years old, violated the Eighth Amendment. The defendant brought a MAR challenging his sentence as unconstitutional. The court began by noting that the defendant’s MAR claim was a valid under G.S. 15A-1415(b)(4) (unconstitutional conviction or sentence) and (8) (sentence illegal or invalid). On the substantive issue, the court found that unlike a life sentence without the possibility of parole, the defendant’s sentence “allows for the realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of his life.” In fact, the defendant had been placed on parole in 2008, but it was revoked after he committed a DWI.

The superior court judge erred by “retroactively” applying Structured Sentencing Law (SSL) provisions to a Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) case. The defendant was sentenced under the FSA. After SSL came into effect, he filed a motion for appropriate relief asserting that SSL applied retroactively to his case and that he was entitled to a lesser sentence under SSL. The superior court judge granted relief. The supreme court, exercising rarely used general supervisory authority to promote the expeditious administration of justice, allowed the State’s petition for writ of certiorari and held that the superior court judge erred by modifying the sentence. The court relied on the effective date of the SSL, as set out by the General Assembly when enacting that law. Finding no other ground for relief, the court remanded for reinstatement of the original FSA sentence.

On the State’s petition for writ of certiorari, the court reversed the trial court and held that no significant change in the law pertaining to the admissibility of expert opinions in child sexual abuse cases had occurred and thus that the defendant was not entitled to relief under G.S. 15A-1415(b)(7) (in a motion for appropriate relief, a defendant may assert a claim that there has been a significant change in law applied in the proceedings leading to the defendant's conviction or sentence, and retroactive application of the changed legal standard is required). Contrary to the trial court’s findings and conclusions, State v. Stancil, 355 N.C. 266 (2002),was not a significant change in the law, but merely an application of the court’s existing case law on expert opinion evidence requiring that in order for an expert to testify that abuse occurred, there must be physical findings consistent with abuse. 

The court reversed the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s motion for reconsideration and motion for appropriate relief (MAR), holding that the requirement that counsel advise the defendant of the immigration consequences of a plea agreement established by Padilla does not apply retroactively. The defendant pled no contest to a drug charge in 1997. In 2015 the defendant asserted a MAR claim under Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010), that he was not informed of the impact his conviction would have on his immigration status, particularly the risk of deportation. The trial court initially denied the MAR but subsequently granted a motion to reconsider and entered an order granting the MAR. Reversing, the court noted that it had previously decided, in State v. Alshaif, 219 N.C. App. 162 (2012), that Padilla does not apply retroactively.

Declining to address whether State v. Garris, 191 N.C. App. 276 (2008), applied retroactively, the court held that the defendant’s MAR was subject to denial because the Garris does not constitute a significant change in the substantive or procedural law as required by G.S. 15A-1415(b)(7), the MAR ground asserted by the defendant. When Garris was decided, no reported NC appellate decisions had addressed whether the possession of multiple firearms by a convicted felon constituted a single violation or multiple violations of G.S. 14-415.1(a). For that reason, Garris resolved an issue of first impression. The court continued: “Instead of working a change in existing North Carolina law, Garris simply announced what North Carolina law had been since the enactment of the relevant version of [G.S.] 14-415.1(a).” As a result, it concluded, “a decision which merely resolves a previously undecided issue without either actually or implicitly overruling or modifying a prior decision cannot serve as the basis for an award of appropriate relief made pursuant to [G.S.] 15A-1415(b)(7).” It thus concluded that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to grant relief for the reason requested and properly denied the MAR.

(1) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State had no avenue to obtain review of a trial court order granting his G.S. 15A-1415 MAR (MAR made more than 10 days after entry of judgment) on grounds that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. The court found that it had authority to grant the State’s petition for writ of certiorari. The court rejected the contention that State v. Starkey, 177 N.C. App. 264, 268 (2006), required a different conclusion, noting that case conflicts with state Supreme Court decisions. (2) The defendant’s claim that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment was properly asserted under G.S. 15A-1415(b)(4) (convicted/sentenced under statute in violation of US or NC Constitutions) and (b)(8) (sentence unauthorized at the time imposed, contained a type of disposition or a term of imprisonment not authorized for the particular class of offense and prior record or conviction level, was illegally imposed, or is otherwise invalid as a matter of law).

State v. Stubbs, 232 N.C. App. 274 (Feb. 4, 2014) aff'd on other grounds, 368 N.C. 40 (Apr 10 2015)

The trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s 1973 sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole on a conviction of second-degree burglary, committed when he was 17 years old, violated the Eighth Amendment. The defendant brought a MAR challenging his sentence as unconstitutional. The court began by noting that the defendant’s MAR claim was a valid under G.S. 15A-1415(b)(4) (unconstitutional conviction or sentence) and (8) (sentence illegal or invalid). On the substantive issue, the court found that unlike a life sentence without the possibility of parole, the defendant’s sentence “allows for the realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of his life.” In fact, the defendant had been placed on parole in 2008, but it was revoked after he committed a DWI.

The defendant, who was 14 years old at the time of the offense, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1997. In 2018, the trial court granted a motion for appropriate relief and vacated his conviction based on newly discovered evidence in the form of an affidavit from William McCormick indicating that other young men committed the crime. The Court of Appeals agreed with the State’s arguments that the trial court abused its discretion when it granted the defendant a new trial based on newly discovered evidence, and erred when it determined that the defendant’s due process rights would be violated if he were not allowed to present the evidence at a new trial. (1) As to the first argument, the Court held that the defendant failed to prove the purported newly discovered evidence as required under seven-factor analysis set out in State v. Beaver, 291 N.C. 137 (1976). Based on inconsistencies between McCormick’s testimony and his affidavit and internal inconsistencies in the affidavit itself, the Court could not agree with the trial court’s conclusion that the purported new evidence in it was “probably true.” Moreover, the information in McCormick’s testimony did not meet the requirement in G.S. 15A-1415(c) that newly discovered evidence “must be unknown or unavailable to the defendant at the time of trial in order to justify relief.” To the contrary, the defendant’s trial attorney had indications that McCormick may have had information about the crime but failed to use a subpoena or material witness order to secure his testimony for trial. Furthermore, despite McCormick’s known presence at the defendant’s trial, the defendant’s attorney never alerted the trial court, asked for a continuance or recess, or otherwise took steps to get information from him. As such, the evidence was not unknown or unavailable at the time of trial. The Court also concluded that McCormick’s testimony was not “competent, material, and relevant” as to the statements made by Robert Shaw about the purported true killers because that testimony was inadmissible hearsay. The Court held that the trial court abused its discretion by concluding that the evidence was admissible under the residual exception in Rule 803(24), as there was no indication in the record that the defendant satisfied the requirement to give the State notice of its intent to offer evidence pursuant to the rule. (2) As to the State’s second argument, the Court agreed that the trial court erred in concluding as an independent ground for decision that the defendant’s due process rights would be violated if he were not allowed to present McCormick’s testimony at a new trial. The Court concluded that the Beaver factors set out the test for determining whether the defendant is entitled to a new trial, and the defendant did not satisfy them. A concurring judge noted that the Court’s holding did not bar the defendant from seeking post-conviction relief through a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel.

State v. Rhodes, 366 N.C. 532 (June 13, 2013)

Reversing the court of appeals, the court held that information supporting the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) was not newly discovered evidence. After the defendant was convicted of drug possession offenses, his father told a probation officer that the contraband belonged to him. The trial court granted the defendant’s MAR, concluding that this statement constituted newly discovered evidence under G.S. 15A-1415(c). The court concluded that because the information implicating the defendant’s father was available to the defendant before his conviction, the statement was not newly discovered evidence and that thus the defendant was not entitled to a new trial. The court noted that the search warrant named both the defendant and his father, the house was owned by both of the defendant’s parents, and the father had a history of violating drug laws. Although the defendant’s father invoked the Fifth Amendment at trial when asked whether the contraband belonged to him, the information implicating him as the sole possessor of the drugs could have been made available by other means. It noted that on direct examination of the defendant’s mother, the defendant did not pursue questioning about whether the drugs belonged to the father; also, although the defendant testified at trial, he gave no testimony regarding the ownership of the drugs.

In this murder case, the trial court properly granted the defendant a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence. At trial one of the State’s most important expert witnesses was SBI Agent Duane Deaver, who testified as an expert in bloodstain pattern analysis. Deaver testified that the victim was struck a minimum of four times before falling down stairs. Deaver stated that, based on his bloodstain analysis, the defendant attempted to clean up the scene, including his pants, prior to police arriving and that defendant was in close proximity to the victim when she was injured. The court held that Deaver’s misrepresentations regarding his qualifications (discussed in the opinion) constituted newly discovered evidence entitling the defendant to a new trial. 

Because the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to rule on the defendant’s MAR claim alleging a violation of the post-conviction DNA statutes, the portion of the trial court’s order granting the MAR on these grounds is void. The court noted that the General Assembly has provided a statutory scheme, outside of the MAR provisions, for asserting and obtaining relief on, post-conviction DNA testing claims.

The court vacated and remanded an opinion by the court of appeals in State v. Williamson, 206 N.C. App. 599 (Sept. 7, 2010) (over a dissent, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to enter a written order with findings of fact and conclusions of law when denying the defendant’s MAR; the trial court’s oral order, containing findings of fact and conclusions of law and appearing in the transcript, was sufficient). The court noted that during review it became apparent that a written order actually was entered by the trial court, the existence of which apparently was not known to appellate counsel. The court remanded to the court of appeals to determine: (1) whether to amend the record on appeal to permit consideration of the order; (2) whether to order new briefs and/or oral arguments in light of its ruling on item (1) above; (3) whether to address defendant’s issues on the merits; and (4) whether to enter any other or further relief as it may deem appropriate.

The defendant was charged with four counts of engaging in sexual acts against a child under 13 and taking indecent liberties with a child. The defendant was alleged to have touched a child, A.M.D., in sexual manner on several occasions over a period of one to two years. The state’s evidence at trial consisted primarily of testimony from the victim, A.M.D., and corroborating testimony from other witnesses to whom she had disclosed the abuse. The state dismissed some of the charges prior to verdict, and the jury ultimately convicted the defendant of one count of sexual offense against a child under age 13.

Defendant filed an MAR seeking a new trial, based on the victim recanting her testimony. At a hearing on the MAR, the victim testified that she lied about the abuse at trial due to bribes and threats from another person. The trial judge denied the MAR, but failed to make sufficient findings of fact resolving the conflicts in the victim’s testimony between the trial and the MAR hearing. The trial court “abused its discretion by failing to expressly find which version of events it believed to be true,” so the matter was remanded with instructions to enter a new order making clear findings. Dissenting as to this part of the decision, J. Bryant would have found that the judge’s order was sufficient, since the defendant had the burden of proof at the hearing and the trial judge made a finding that the defense had not met that burden by stating she was “not satisfied that the testimony given by [A.M.D.] at the trial on this matter in December 2016 was false.”

State v. Rollins, 367 N.C. 114 (Oct. 4, 2013)

The court per curiam affirmed the decision below, State v. Rollins, 224 N.C. App. 197 (Dec. 4, 2012), in which the court of appeals had held, over a dissent, that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s MAR without an evidentiary hearing. The MAR asserted that the defendant “did not receive a fair trial as a result of a juror watching irrelevant and prejudicial television publicity during the course of the trial, failing to bring this fact to the attention of the parties or the Court, and arguing vehemently for conviction during jury deliberations.” Although the MAR was supported by an affidavit from one of the jurors, the court found that the affidavit “merely contained general allegations and speculation.” The defendant’s MAR failed to specify which news broadcast the juror in question had seen; the degree of attention the juror had paid to the broadcast; the extent to which the juror received or remembered the broadcast; whether the juror had shared the contents of the news broadcast with other jurors; and the prejudicial effect, if any, of the alleged juror misconduct.

The trial court erred by failing to conduct an evidentiary hearing before granting the MAR. An evidentiary hearing “is not automatically required before a trial court grants a defendant’s MAR, but such a hearing is the general procedure rather than the exception.” Prior case law “dictates that an evidentiary hearing is mandatory unless summary denial of an MAR is proper, or the motion presents a pure question of law.” Here, the State denied factual allegations asserted by the defendant. The trial court granted the MAR based on what it characterized as “undisputed facts,” faulting the State for failing to present evidence to rebut the defendant’s allegations. However, where the trial court sits as “the post-conviction trier of fact,” it is “obligated to ascertain the truth by testing the supporting and opposing information at an evidentiary hearing where the adversarial process could take place. But instead of doing so, the court wove its findings together based, in part, on conjecture and, as a whole, on the cold, written record.” It continued, noting that given the nature of the defendant’s claims (as discussed in the court’s opinion), the trial court was required to resolve conflicting questions of fact at an evidentiary hearing.

(1) Because the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) alleging ineffective assistance of counsel in this sexual assault case raised disputed issues of fact, the trial court erred by failing to conduct an evidentiary hearing before denying relief. The defendant claimed that counsel was ineffective by failing to, among other things, obtain a qualified medical expert to rebut testimony by a sexual abuse nurse examiner and failing to properly cross-examine the State’s witnesses. The defendant’s motion was supported by an affidavit from counsel admitting the alleged errors and stating that none were strategic decisions. The court concluded that these failures “could have had a substantial impact on the jury’s verdict” and thus the defendant was entitled to an evidentiary hearing. The case was one of “he said, she said,” with no physical evidence of rape. The absence of any signs of violence provided defense counsel an opportunity to contradict the victim’s allegations with a medical expert, an opportunity he failed to take. Additionally, trial counsel failed to expose, through cross-examination, the fact that investigators failed to collect key evidence. For example, they did not test, collect, or even ask the victim about a used condom and condom wrapper found in the bedroom. Given counsel’s admission that his conduct was not the product of a strategic decision, an evidentiary hearing was required. (2) With respect to the defendant’s claim that the trial court erred by denying his motion before providing him with post-conviction discovery pursuant to G.S. 15A-1415(f), the court remanded for the trial court to address whether the State had complied with its post-conviction discovery obligations.

The trial court did not err by rejecting the defendant’s G.S. 15A-1414 MAR without an evidentiary hearing. 

At the MAR hearing, the trial court properly excluded the State’s expert witness, who did not testify at the original trial. The court viewed the State’s position as “trying to collaterally establish that the jury would have reached the same verdict based on evidence not introduced at trial.” It concluded that the trial court properly excluded this evidence:

Defendant’s newly discovered evidence concerned Agent Deaver, arguably, the State’s most important expert witness. Thus, the State could have offered its own evidence regarding Agent Deaver’s qualifications, lack of bias, or the validity of his experiments and conclusions. Furthermore, the State was properly allowed to argue that the evidence at trial was so overwhelming that the newly discovered evidence would have no probable impact on the jury’s verdict. However, the State may not try to minimize the impact of this newly discovered evidence by introducing evidence not available to the jury at the time of trial. Thus, the trial court did not err in prohibiting the introduction of this evidence at the MAR hearing.

 

(1) The trial court gave the State proper notice when it made a sua sponte oral MAR in open court one day after judgment had been entered. (2) The trial court did not violate the MAR provision stating that any party is entitled to a hearing on a MAR where the State did not request a hearing but merely requested a continuance so that the prosecutor from the previous day could be present in court.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) made under G.S. 15A-1414 without first holding an evidentiary hearing. Given that the defendant’s MAR claims pertained only to mitigating sentencing factors and the defendant had been sentenced in the presumptive range, the trial judge could properly conclude that the MAR was without merit and that the defendant was not entitled to an evidentiary hearing.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s post-sentencing motion to withdraw a plea without an evidentiary hearing. The defendant’s motion was a motion for appropriate relief. Evidentiary hearings are required on such motions only to resolve issues of fact. In this case, no issue of fact was presented. The defendant’s statement that he did not understand the trial court’s decision to run the sentences consecutively did not raise any factual issue given that he had already stated that he accepted and understood the plea agreement and its term that “the court will determine whether the sentences will be served concurrently or consecutively.” Furthermore, nothing in the record indicates that the defendant’s plea was not the product of free and intelligent choice. Rather, it appears that his only reason for moving to withdraw was his dissatisfaction with his sentence.

State v. Hyman, 371 N.C. 363 (Aug. 17, 2018)

(1) On review of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 797 S.E.2d 308 (2017), in this murder case, the court affirmed the holding of the Court of Appeals that the defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claim was not procedurally barred under G.S. 15A-1419(a)(3) (a claim asserted in a MAR must be denied if, upon a previous appeal, the defendant was in a position to adequately raise the ground or issue underlying the present motion but did not do so). To be subject to the G.S. 15A-1419(a)(3) procedural default bar, the direct appeal record must contain sufficient information to permit the reviewing court to make all the factual and legal determinations necessary to allow a proper resolution of the claim. Here, the defendant was not in a position to adequately raise the IAC claim on direct appeal. A Strickland IAC claim requires a defendant to show both deficient performance and prejudice. The nature of the defendant’s claim would have required him to establish that his attorney was in a position to provide favorable testimony on his behalf, that her failure to withdraw from representing the defendant in order to testify on his behalf constituted deficient performance, and if she had acted as he asserts she should have, there is a reasonable probability that he would not have been found guilty of murder. Here, the defendant would have been unable to make a viable showing based on the evidentiary record developed at trial.

(2) Reversing the Court of Appeals, the court found that the record contains adequate evidentiary support for the trial court’s findings that the factual basis for the defendant’s IAC claim did not exist. The defendant’s IAC claim alleged that his lawyer should have withdrawn from representing him at trial and testified on his behalf with respect to a conversation that she had with a witness. The trial court found as a fact that the defendant presented no credible evidence during the MAR hearing that the alleged conversation between defense counsel and the witness ever took place. After reviewing the evidence presented before the trial court, the court found that the record contains sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s finding of fact that the alleged conversation never occurred.

State v. Long, 365 N.C. 5 (Feb. 4, 2011)

With one justice taking no part in consideration of the case and with the other members of the court equally divided, the court affirmed, without opinion, a ruling by the trial court on the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief. The case was before the court on writ of certiorari to review the trial court’s order. The question presented, as stated in the defendant’s appellate brief, was: “Whether the trial court erred in finding in a capitally-charged case that failing to disclose exculpatory SBI reports, testifying falsely as to what evidence was brought to the SBI and failing to preserve irreplaceable biological evidence did not violate due process?”

The trial court did not have jurisdiction to resentence the defendant for obtaining property by false pretenses, where the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR), which was granted by the trial court, challenged only his conviction for possession of stolen goods, a separate CRS case that was not consolidated with the fraud conviction. 

The Ninth Circuit erred by concluding that the California “Dixon bar”--providing that a defendant procedurally defaults a claim raised for the first time on state collateral review if he could have raised it earlier on direct appeal—was inadequate to bar federal habeas review. Federal habeas courts generally refuse to hear claims defaulted in state court pursuant to an independent and adequate state procedural rule. State rules are “adequate” if they are firmly established and regularly followed. California’s Dixon bar meets this standard.

Beard v. Kindler, 558 U.S. 53 (Dec. 8, 2009)

A federal habeas court will not review a claim rejected by a state court if the state court decision rests on an adequate and independent state law ground. The Court held that a state rule is not inadequate for purposes of this analysis just because it is a discretionary rule.

(1) On review of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 797 S.E.2d 308 (2017), in this murder case, the court affirmed the holding of the Court of Appeals that the defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claim was not procedurally barred under G.S. 15A-1419(a)(3) (a claim asserted in a MAR must be denied if, upon a previous appeal, the defendant was in a position to adequately raise the ground or issue underlying the present motion but did not do so). To be subject to the G.S. 15A-1419(a)(3) procedural default bar, the direct appeal record must contain sufficient information to permit the reviewing court to make all the factual and legal determinations necessary to allow a proper resolution of the claim. Here, the defendant was not in a position to adequately raise the IAC claim on direct appeal. A Strickland IAC claim requires a defendant to show both deficient performance and prejudice. The nature of the defendant’s claim would have required him to establish that his attorney was in a position to provide favorable testimony on his behalf, that her failure to withdraw from representing the defendant in order to testify on his behalf constituted deficient performance, and if she had acted as he asserts she should have, there is a reasonable probability that he would not have been found guilty of murder. Here, the defendant would have been unable to make a viable showing based on the evidentiary record developed at trial.

(2) Reversing the Court of Appeals, the court found that the record contains adequate evidentiary support for the trial court’s findings that the factual basis for the defendant’s IAC claim did not exist. The defendant’s IAC claim alleged that his lawyer should have withdrawn from representing him at trial and testified on his behalf with respect to a conversation that she had with a witness. The trial court found as a fact that the defendant presented no credible evidence during the MAR hearing that the alleged conversation between defense counsel and the witness ever took place. After reviewing the evidence presented before the trial court, the court found that the record contains sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s finding of fact that the alleged conversation never occurred.

In this child sexual assault case, the court reversed the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR) seeking a new trial for ineffective assistance of counsel related to opinion testimony by the State’s expert. The defendant was convicted of sexual offenses against Kim. On appeal the defendant argued that the trial court should have granted his MAR based on ineffective assistance of both trial and appellate counsel regarding expert opinion testimony that the victim had in fact been sexually abused.

(1) The court began by concluding that the testimony offered by the State’s expert that Kim had, in fact, been sexually abused was inadmissible. The court reiterated the rule that where there is no physical evidence of abuse, an expert may not opine that sexual abuse has in fact occurred. In this case the State offered no physical evidence that Kim had been sexually abused. On direct examination the State’s expert testified consistent with governing law. On cross-examination, however, the expert expressed the opinion that Kim “had been sexually abused.” And on redirect the State’s expert again opined that Kim had been sexually abused. In the absence of physical evidence of sexual abuse, the expert’s testimony was inadmissible.

(2) The court went on to hold, however, that because the defendant failed to raise the issue on direct appeal, his claim that trial counsel was ineffective by failing to move to strike the expert’s opinion that victim Kim had in fact been sexually abused was procedurally defaulted. The record from the direct appeal was sufficient for the court to determine in that proceeding that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel. Defense counsel failed to object to testimony that was “clearly inadmissible” and the court could not “fathom any trial strategy or tactic which would involve allowing such opinion testimony to remain unchallenged.” And in fact, the trial transcript reveals that allowing the testimony to remain unchallenged was not part of any trial strategy. Moreover trial counsel’s failure to object to the opinion testimony was prejudicial. Because the “cold record” on direct appeal was sufficient for the court to rule on the ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the MAR claim was procedurally barred under G.S. 15A-1419(a)(3).

(3) The court continued, however, by holding that the defendant was denied effective assistance of appellate counsel in his first appeal when appellate counsel failed to argue that it was error to allow the expert’s testimony that Kim had, in fact, been sexually abused. The court noted that the ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim was not procedurally barred. And, applying the Strickland attorney error standard, the court held that appellate counsel’s failure to raise the issue on direct appeal constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. The court thus reversed and remanded for entry of an order granting the defendant’s MAR.

One judge on the panel concurred with the majority “that appellate counsel was ineffective”; concurred in result only with the majority’s conclusion that the claim regarding trial counsel’s ineffectiveness was procedurally barred; but, concluding that the defendant was not prejudiced by the expert’s testimony, dissented from the remainder of the opinion.

(1) On remand from the state Supreme Court, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by concluding that he was procedurally barred from reasserting in his MAR a dual representation conflict of interest ineffective assistance of counsel claim with respect to attorney Smallwood. Because this court on direct appeal addressed the merits and rejected this claim, the trial court properly concluded that it was procedurally defaulted under G.S. 15A-1419(a)(2) (claim previously determined on the merits).

(2) The court then turned to the defendant’s claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel from attorney Warmack at the evidentiary remand hearing because Warmack had a dual representation conflict arising from having previously represented codefendant Swain. The court held that the trial court erred by finding that this claim was procedurally barred under G.S. 15A-1419(a)(3) (failure to raise on appeal), reasoning that the defendant was not in a position to adequately raise the claim on direct appeal. The court further found that the record was insufficient to establish that the defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived Warmack’s potential conflict and that the trial court erred by concluding otherwise.

The trial court erred by summarily denying the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) and accompanying discovery motion. In the original proceeding, the trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress in part because it was not filed with the required affidavit. After he was convicted, the defendant filed a MAR asserting that trial counsel was ineffective in failing to file the required affidavit. The trial court denied the MAR and the court of appeals granted certiorari. The court rejected the State’s argument that because the defendant failed to raise the ineffectiveness claim on direct appeal, he was procedurally defaulted from raising it in the MAR. The court reasoned that the record did not provide appellate counsel with sufficient information to establish the prejudice prong of the ineffectiveness test. Specifically, proof of this prong would have required appellate counsel to show that the defendant had standing to challenge the search at issue. 

The court suggested in dicta that on a motion for appropriate relief (as on appellate review) a defendant may be deemed to have waived errors in jury instructions by failing to raise the issue at trial. However, the court did not decide the issue since it concluded that even when considered on the merits, the defendant’s alleged instructional error lacked merit.

The defendant’s assertions in his MAR, filed more than seven years after expiration of the appeal period, that his plea was invalid because the trial court failed to follow the procedural requirements of G.S. 15A-1023 and -1024 were precluded by G.S. 15A-1027 (“Noncompliance with the procedures of this Article may not be a basis for review of a conviction after the appeal period for the conviction has expired.”).

The defendant was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2003. The defendant challenged his conviction and sentence on direct appeal, but the Supreme Court unanimously found no error. The Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari. Subsequently, the defendant filed a motion for appropriate relief (MAR) in Superior Court in July 2007. Six years later, and before the MAR court ruled on his MAR, the defendant filed a supplemental motion for appropriate relief (SMAR) amending some of his previous claims and adding two additional claims. The MAR court dismissed each of the defendant’s claims, and the defendant appealed to the state Supreme Court.

(1) Of the twelve total claims raised in the defendant’s MAR and SMAR, five of them directly related to his allegation that his trial attorneys rendered unconstitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) during the guilt-innocence phase of his trial by failing to investigate, develop, and utilize various sources of exculpatory evidence. The Supreme Court held that the MAR court erred in summarily dismissing the defendant’s guilt-innocence phase IAC claims without an evidentiary hearing because “some of his asserted grounds for relief required the [MAR] court to resolve questions of fact.” Slip op. at ¶ 3. The Court concluded that because the defendant presented evidence which, if proven true would entitle him to relief, he is entitled to an evidentiary hearing in accordance with statutory mandate.

(2) The Supreme Court held that the trial court erred in summarily ruling that the defendant’s claim alleging he was impermissibly shackled in view of the jury was procedurally barred because the record did not contain facts necessary to a fair resolution of the claim. The Court vacated the relevant portion of the MAR court’s order and remanded for an evidentiary hearing to obtain the facts necessary to determine whether his claim is procedurally barred and, if not, whether it has merit.

The Court affirmed the MAR court’s disposition of all other claims raised in the defendant’s MAR and SMAR.

The court held that the trial court erred by summarily denying the defendant’s MAR alleging ineffective assistance. Because the State did not contest that trial counsel’s failure to attach the requisite affidavit to a suppression motion constituted deficient representation, the focus of the court’s inquiry was on whether the defendant’s MAR forecast adequate evidence of prejudice. On this issue, it concluded that the MAR adequately forecast evidence on each issue relevant to the prejudice analysis: that the defendant had standing to challenge the search and that the affidavit supporting the warrant contained false statements.

The Court held that when a criminal conviction is invalidated by a reviewing court and no retrial will occur, is the State obliged to refund fees, court costs, and restitution exacted from the defendant upon, and as a consequence of, the conviction. Absent conviction of a crime, one is presumed innocent. Under the Colorado law in question, the State retains conviction-related assessments unless and until the prevailing defendant institutes a discrete civil proceeding and proves her innocence by clear and convincing evidence. The Court held that this scheme offends the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process. It concluded: “To comport with due process, a State may not impose anything more than minimal procedures on the refund of exactions dependent upon a conviction subsequently invalidated.”

Confronting the question in a habeas case of whether the holding in Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. ___, ___ S. Ct. ___ (2020) that a state jury must be unanimous to convict a criminal defendant of a serious offenses applies retroactively under the framework of Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), the Court held that while Ramos announced a “new” procedural rule it was not a “watershed rule” that applies retroactively. The Court further held that the Teague exception for watershed rules is moribund as no new rules of criminal procedure can satisfy the “purported exception” for watershed rules.  Writing for the majority, Justice Kavanaugh first conducted the traditional analysis of retroactivity under Teague, finding that while Ramos announced a new procedural rule that was “momentous and consequential” it was not a “watershed” rule and therefore did not apply retroactively to cases on collateral review.  Characterizing the “purported exception” for watershed rules as an “empty promise,” the Court said that “[c]ontinuing to articulate a theoretical exception that never actually applies in practice offers false hope to defendants, distorts the law, misleads judges, and wastes the resources of defense counsel, prosecutors, and courts.”  The Court said it was time to say explicitly what had been apparent for years: “New procedural rules do not apply retroactively on federal collateral review.” 

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, concurred in full but wrote separately to explain that the case could have been resolved under the AEDPA because a Louisiana state court had considered Edwards’s argument that he was entitled to a unanimous jury verdict and had reasonably relied on federal law as it was prior to Ramos in rejecting that claim.  Thomas explained that in such circumstances the AEDPA directs that a writ of habeas corpus shall not be granted.

Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas, concurred by canvassing the history of the writ of habeas corpus, explaining developments in the law in the middle of the twentieth century leading to Teague, and expressing his agreement with the decision to explicitly state that the “watershed rule” exception was illusory.

Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented, stating her view that the holding of Ramos “fits to a tee Teague’s description of a watershed procedural rule” and criticizing the majority’s overturning of the watershed exception as following “none of the usual rules of stare decisis.”

Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), holding that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(ii), was void for vagueness was a substantive decision that is retroactive in cases on collateral review.

Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ___ (2012) (holding that a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole absent consideration of the juvenile’s special circumstances), applied retroactively to juvenile offenders whose convictions and sentences were final when Miller was decided. A jury found defendant Montgomery guilty of murdering a deputy sheriff, returning a verdict of “guilty without capital punishment.” Under Louisiana law, this verdict required the trial court to impose a sentence of life without parole. Because the sentence was automatic upon the jury’s verdict, Montgomery had no opportunity to present mitigation evidence to justify a less severe sentence. That evidence might have included Montgomery’s young age at the time of the crime; expert testimony regarding his limited capacity for foresight, self-discipline, and judgment; and his potential for rehabilitation. After the Court decided Miller, Montgomery, now 69 years old, sought collateral review of his mandatory life without parole sentence. Montgomery’s claim was rejected by Louisiana courts on grounds the Miller was not retroactive. The Supreme Court granted review and reversed. The Court began its analysis by concluding that it had jurisdiction to address the issue. Although the parties agreed that the Court had jurisdiction to decide this case, the Court appointed an amicus curiae to brief and argue the position that the Court lacked jurisdiction; amicus counsel argued that the state court decision does not implicate a federal right because it only determined the scope of relief available in a particular type of state proceeding, which is a question of state law. On the issue of jurisdiction, the Court held:

[W]hen a new substantive rule of constitutional law controls the outcome of a case, the Constitution requires state collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that rule. Teague’s conclusion establishing the retroactivity of new substantive rules is best understood as resting upon constitutional premises. That constitutional command is, like all federal law, binding on state courts. This holding is limited to Teague’s first exception for substantive rules; the constitutional status of Teague’s exception for watershed rules of procedure need not be addressed here.

Turning to the issue of retroactivity, the Court held that Miller announced a new substantive rule that applies retroactively to cases on collateral review. The Court explained: “Miller … did more than require a sentencer to consider a juvenile offender’s youth before imposing life without parole; it established that the penological justifications for life without parole collapse in light of ‘the distinctive attributes of youth.’” The Court continued:

Even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects “‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity.’” Because Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but “‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,’” it rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for “a class of defendants because of their status”—that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth. As a result, Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law. Like other substantive rules, Miller is retroactive because it “‘necessarily carr[ies] a significant risk that a defendant’”—here, the vast majority of juvenile offenders—“‘faces a punishment that the law cannot impose upon him.’” (citations omitted).

The Court went on to reject the State’s argument that Miller is procedural because it did not place any punishment beyond the State’s power to impose, instead requiring sentencing courts to take children’s age into account before sentencing them to life in prison. The Court noted: “Miller did bar life without parole, however, for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” It explained: “Before Miller, every juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could be sentenced to life without parole. After Miller, it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence.” Noting that Miller “has a procedural component,” the Court explained that “a procedural requirement necessary to implement a substantive guarantee” cannot transform a substantive rule into a procedural one. It continued, noting that the hearing where “youth and its attendant characteristics” are considered as sentencing factors “does not replace but rather gives effect to Miller’s substantive holding that life without parole is an excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity.”

In this federal habeas case, the Court held that the Michigan Court of Appeals did not unreasonably apply clearly established federal law when it retroactively applied to the defendant’s case a state supreme court decision rejecting the diminished capacity defense for first-degree murder. The defendant was convicted in Michigan state court of first-degree murder. When the crime was committed, Michigan’s intermediate appellate court had repeatedly recognized diminished capacity as a defense negating the mens rea required for first-degree murder. However, by the time the defendant’s case was tried, the Michigan Supreme Court, in a decision called Carpenter, had rejected the defense and he thus was precluded from offering it at trial. In the Michigan Court of Appeals, the defendant unsuccessfully argued that retroactive application of Carpenter denied him due process of law. He then sought federal habeas relief. The Court noted that judicial changes to a common law doctrine of criminal law violate the principle of fair warning and thus must not be given retroactive effect only where the change “is unexpected and indefensible by reference to the law which had been expressed prior to the conduct in issue.” Slip Op. at 7 (quotation omitted). Judged against this standard, the Court held that the Michigan court’s rejection of the defendant’s due process claim was not an unreasonable application of federal law.

Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U. S. 356 (2010) (criminal defense attorneys must inform non-citizen clients of the risks of deportation arising from guilty pleas), does not apply retroactively to cases that became final before Padilla was decided. Applying the Teague retroactivity analysis, the Court held that Padilla announced a new rule. The defendant did not assert that Padilla fell within either of the Teague test’s exceptions to the anti-retroactivity rule. 

The court reversed the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s motion for reconsideration and motion for appropriate relief (MAR), holding that the requirement that counsel advise the defendant of the immigration consequences of a plea agreement established by Padilla does not apply retroactively. The defendant pled no contest to a drug charge in 1997. In 2015 the defendant asserted a MAR claim under Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010), that he was not informed of the impact his conviction would have on his immigration status, particularly the risk of deportation. The trial court initially denied the MAR but subsequently granted a motion to reconsider and entered an order granting the MAR. Reversing, the court noted that it had previously decided, in State v. Alshaif, 219 N.C. App. 162 (2012), that Padilla does not apply retroactively.

The court held that Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (Mar. 31, 2010), dealing with ineffective assistance of counsel in connection with advice regarding the immigration consequences of a plea, did not apply retroactively to the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief. Applying Teague retroactivity analysis, the court held that Padilla announced a new procedural rule but that the rule was not a watershed one. [Author’s note: for the law on retroactivity and the Teague test, see my paper here]

A district attorney’s office may not be held liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for failure to train based on a single Brady violation. The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office conceded that, in prosecuting the defendant for attempted armed robbery, prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that should have been turned over under Brady. The defendant was convicted. Because of that conviction, the defendant chose not to testify in his own defense in his later murder trial. He was again convicted and spent 18 years in prison. Shortly before his scheduled execution, his investigator discovered the undisclosed evidence from his armed robbery trial. The reviewing court determined that the evidence was exculpatory and both convictions were vacated. The defendant then sued the district attorney’s office for damages under § 1983, alleging that the district attorney failed to train prosecutors adequately about their duty to produce exculpatory evidence and that the lack of training had caused the nondisclosure at issue. The jury awarded the defendant $14 million, and Fifth Circuit affirmed. Reversing, the Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Thomas, clarified that the failure-to-train claim required the defendant to prove both that (1) the district attorney, the policymaker for the district attorney’s office, was deliberately indifferent to the need to train prosecutors about their Brady disclosure obligation with respect to the type of evidence at issue and (2) the lack of training actually caused the Brady violation at issue. The Court determined that the defendant failed to prove that the district attorney was on actual or constructive notice of, and therefore deliberately indifferent to, a need for more or different Brady training. The Court noted that a pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is “ordinarily necessary” to demonstrate deliberate indifference for purposes of failure to train. Here, however, no such pattern existed; the Court declined to adopt a theory of “single-incident liability.” Justice Scalia concurred, joined by Justice Alito, writing separately only to address several issues raised by the dissent. Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. For another discussion of this opinion, see the blog post here.

 

In a per curiam opinion the Court held that a Tucson, Arizona police officer was entitled to qualified immunity with respect to his non-fatal shooting of Amy Hughes. Kisela and officer Garcia responded to a police radio report that a woman was hacking a tree with a kitchen knife. Minutes later, they were flagged down by the person who called 911; that person gave a description of the woman with the knife and said she was behaving erratically. About this time another officer arrived at the scene. Garcia saw a woman, later identified as Sharon Chadwick, standing near a car. A chain link fence was between Chadwick and the officers. The officers saw Hughes, who matched the description that had been provided, exit a house carrying a large knife. Hughes walked toward Chadwick and stopped no more than six feet from her. All three officers drew their guns. At least twice they told Hughes to drop the knife. She did not do so. Kisela shot Hughes four times. All three of the officers later said that at the time they believed Hughes to be a threat to Chadwick. The Court of Appeals held that the record, viewed in the light most favorable to Hughes, was sufficient to demonstrate that Kisela violated the Fourth Amendment. That court also held that the violation was clearly established because, in its view, the constitutional violation was obvious and because of Circuit precedent that the court perceived to be analogous. The Supreme Court granted review and reversed. The Court determined that it need not decide whether Kisela violated the Fourth Amendment when he used deadly force against Hughes, because even assuming a Fourth Amendment violation occurred—a proposition the Court found “not at all evident”—Kisela was at least entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. The Court stated:

Kisela says he shot Hughes because, although the officers themselves were in no apparent danger, he believed she was a threat to Chadwick. Kisela had mere seconds to assess the potential danger to Chadwick. He was confronted with a woman who had just been seen hacking a tree with a large kitchen knife and whose behavior was erratic enough to cause a concerned bystander to call 911 and then flag down Kisela and Garcia. Kisela was separated from Hughes and Chadwick by a chain-link fence; Hughes had moved to within a few feet of Chadwick; and she failed to acknowledge at least two commands to drop the knife. Those commands were loud enough that Chadwick, who was standing next to Hughes, heard them. This is far from an obvious case in which any competent officer would have known that shooting Hughes to protect Chadwick would violate the Fourth Amendment.

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented.

Reversing a Ninth Circuit decision that upheld a $4 million award on a §1983 excessive force claim, the Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation doctrine,” which had allowed relief where the officers’ conduct was deemed reasonable. Deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were searching for parolee Ronnie O’Dell. A felony arrest warrant had been issued for O’Dell, who was believed to be armed and dangerous and had previously evaded capture. When law enforcement received a tip that O’Dell had been seen at a home owned by Paula Hughes, officers mapped out a plan for apprehending him. Some officers would approach the residence’s front door, while two Deputies--Conley and Pederson--would search the rear of the property and cover the back door. At the time, officers knew that a man named Angel Mendez lived in the backyard of the Hughes home with a woman named Jennifer Garcia. Upon arriving at the home, three officers knocked on the front door. Meanwhile, Conley and Pederson, with guns drawn, searched the rear. The property included a shack made of wood and plywood, occupied by Mendez and Garcia. Conley and Pederson, without a warrant and without knocking and announcing their presence, opened the door to the shack. Conley saw Mendez with a gun, later determined to be a BB gun Mendez used on rats and other pests, and yelled, “Gun!” Deputies immediately opened fire, discharging 15 rounds. Mendez and Garcia were shot multiple times and suffered severe injuries; Mendez’s right leg was later amputated below the knee. O’Dell was never found on the property. Mendez and Garcia filed a §1983 suit, alleging three Fourth Amendment claims: that the deputies executed an unreasonable search by entering the shack without a warrant; that the deputies performed an unreasonable search because they failed to announce their presence before entering the shack; and that the deputies effected an unreasonable seizure by deploying excessive force in opening fire after entering the shack. With respect to the excessive force claim, the trial court found that the deputies’ use of force was reasonable “given their belief that a man was holding a firearm rifle threatening their lives.” However, the trial court applied the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule. Under that rule, “an officer’s otherwise reasonable (and lawful) defensive use of force is unreasonable as a matter of law, if the officer intentionally or recklessly provoked a violent response, and that provocation is an independent constitutional violation.” Based on this rule, the District Court held the deputies liable for excessive force and awarded respondents around $4 million in damages. The Ninth Circuit did not disagree with the conclusion that the shooting was reasonable; instead, like the District Court, it applied the provocation rule and held the deputies liable for the use of force on the theory that they had intentionally and recklessly brought about the shooting by entering the shack without a warrant in violation of clearly established law. The Court of Appeals also adopted an alternative rationale for its judgment, holding that “basic notions of proximate cause” would support liability even without the provocation rule because it was “reasonably foreseeable” that the officers would meet an armed homeowner when they “barged into the shack unannounced.” The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed. The Court held that the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule was “incompatible” with the Court’s excessive force jurisprudence, stating that the rule’s “fundamental flaw is that it uses another constitutional violation to manufacture an excessive force claim where one would not otherwise exist.” The Court went on to reject the Ninth Circuit’s proximate cause justification, finding that analysis, “like the provocation rule, conflated distinct Fourth Amendment claims and required only a murky causal link between the warrantless entry and the injuries attributed to it.”

Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493 (May. 23, 2011)

In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court affirmed a remedial order issued by a three-judge court directing California to remedy ongoing constitutional violations involving prisoners with serious mental disorders and medical conditions primarily caused by prison overcrowding. The order below leaves the choice of means to reduce overcrowding to the discretion of state officials. But absent compliance through new construction, out-of-state transfers, or other means—or modification of the order upon a further showing by the State—California will be required to release some number of prisoners before their full sentences have been served. The Court held that the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 authorizes the relief afforded and that the court-mandated population limit is necessary to remedy the violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights. 

Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34 (Feb. 22, 2010)

Trial court erred by dismissing the prisoner’s excessive force claim on grounds that his injuries were de minimis. In an excessive force claim, the core inquiry is not whether a certain quantum of injury was sustained but rather whether the force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm. 

This case arose from the cross-border shooting of a 15-year-old Mexican child by a U.S. border patrol agent. The parents of the child sued the agent in federal court for Fourth and Fifth Amendment violations pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). Bivens found an implied cause of action for constitutional violations by federal officers where no statutory authorization for damages exists. The scope of a Bivens claim has been limited by the Supreme Court over time, and separation of powers concerns caution against extending Bivens to new context, a “disfavored judicial activity.” See Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S. Ct. 1843 (2017). In determining whether a Bivens remedy is available, the court first determines whether the claim involves new context. New context is defined broadly. “We regard a context as ‘new’ if it is different in a meaningful way from previous Bivens cases decided by this Court.” Slip op. at 10. If the claim presents new context, the court then determines whether there is a “reason to pause before applying Bivens to new context or to a new class of defendant . . .” Id.

Bivens has been applied to Fourth and Fifth Amendment claims before in the context of illegal search and arrest in New York City, and to sex discrimination by a congressman in Washington, D.C. A cross- border shooting, however, was new context according to the majority. “There is a world of difference between those claims and petitioners’ cross-border shooting claims, where ‘the risk of disruptive intrusion by the Judiciary into the functioning of other branches’ is significant.” Id. at 11. Here, the court found that the foreign policy implications of extending Bivens to a cross-border shooting was factor against extending the remedy. “The political branches, not the Judiciary, have the responsibility and institutional capacity to weigh foreign-policy concerns.” Id. at 12 (citation omitted). National security concerns were another factor against extension of Bivens to this context. “Since regulating the conduct of agents at the border unquestionably has national security implications, the risk of undermining border security provides reason to hesitate . . .” Id. at 17. Further, that Congress has limited the ability to recover damages from the actions of U.S. agents while abroad also indicates the need for caution. It is the role of Congress, not the courts, to fashion damages remedies, and Congress has indicated its intention to limit judicial remedies for acts of federal officers abroad by repeatedly refusing to authorize such causes of action. Concluding, the majority observed:

In sum, this case features multiple factors that counsel hesitation about extending Bivens, but they can all be condensed to one concern—respect for the separation of powers. . .Congress’s decision not to provide a judicial remedy does not compel us to step into its shoes. . .When evaluating whether to extend Bivens, the most important question ‘is who should decide’ whether to provide for a damages remedy, Congress or the courts? The correct ‘answer most often will be Congress.’ That is undoubtedly the answer here. Id. at 22-23.

The Fifth Circuit’s judgment dismissing the suit was therefore affirmed by 5-4 vote. Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined the majority opinion. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, wrote separately to advocate that Bivens be overruled altogether.

Justice Ginsberg authored a dissent, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. According to the dissent, this was not new context and there were no justifications sufficient to deny a Bivens remedy. “Rogue U.S. officer conduct falls within a familiar, not ‘new,’ Bivens setting.” Id. at 30. The plaintiffs have no other possible recourse, and this case was “not an isolated incident.” The dissenting justices would have reversed and allowed the claim to proceed. Justice Ginsberg concluded:

In short, it is all too apparent that to redress injuries like the one suffered here, it is Bivens or nothing. I resist the conclusion that ‘nothing’ is the answer required in this case. Id. at 42 (Ginsberg, J., dissenting).

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