Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

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This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.

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

Confronting a question of first impression, the court held that “in narrow and extraordinary circumstances” the common law defense of justification may be an affirmative defense to a charge of possession of a firearm by a felon under G.S. 14-415.1.  Noting that justification is an affirmative defense which a defendant carries the burden of proving at trial, the court joined the Court of Appeals in adopting an analysis from United States v. Deleveaux, 205 F.3d 1292 (11th Cir. 2000) andheld that a defendant invoking justification as a defense to a violation of G.S. 14-415.1 must show: 

(1) that the defendant was under unlawful and present, imminent, and impending threat of death or serious bodily injury; (2) that the defendant did not negligently or recklessly place himself in a situation where he would be forced to engage in criminal conduct; (3) that the defendant had no reasonable legal alternative to violating the law; and (4) that there was a direct causal relationship between the criminal action and the avoidance of the threatened harm.

Having established that justification is a defense to a violation of G.S. 14-415.1, the court examined whether the defendant in this case was entitled to a jury instruction on the defense.  Such an instruction is required, the court explained, when each of the four “Deleveaux factors” is supported by evidence taken in the light most favorable to the defendant.  The defendant’s evidence suggested that he was under a qualifying threat as it showed that he and two friends, J and Wardell, arrived to his home to find that a group of fifteen people, some of whom were armed, had assembled at the home intending to fight the defendant.  As tensions elevated towards violence, the defendant took Wardell’s gun as Wardell seemed unfamiliar with it and, in the defendant’s view, would be unable to use it in their defense.  The court concluded that there was evidence of each of the Deleveaux factors under these facts and that the trial court committed prejudicial error by denying the defendant’s request to instruct the jury on the defense.

A dissenting justice, Justice Morgan, “welcom[ed] the establishment of the justification defense” for this criminal offense but did not believe that the evidence in the instant case was sufficient to require the trial judge to give the instruction.

In this Bladen County case, the defendant was convicted of second-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a felon after shooting a man in an altercation between several people at an apartment complex. There were conflicting accounts about which of the people involved had guns, although the defendant testified that he fired his weapon when he believed that one of the men with which he was fighting had a gun, and that he was about to be killed. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in declining his request to instruct the jury on the affirmative defense of justification to possess a firearm as a felon—a defense recently recognized by the Supreme Court in State v. Mercer, 373 N.C. 459 (2020). To be entitled to a jury instruction on justification, a defendant must meet a four-part test: (1) that the defendant was under unlawful and present, imminent, and impending threat of death or serious bodily injury; (2) that the defendant did not negligently or recklessly place himself in a situation where he would be forced to engage in criminal conduct; (3) that the defendant had no reasonable legal alternative to violating the law; and (4) that there was a direct causal relationship between the criminal action and the avoidance of the threatened harm. Id. at 464. Additionally, to be entitled to the justification defense, the defendant must possess the firearm only while under threat. Id. Here, taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant, the Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant presented evidence of all the required elements. As to the imminent threat, the victim had knocked the defendant onto his buttocks and heard others saying someone had a gun and “pop him.” As to the second element, the defendant was not the aggressor and attempted to explain to the victim that he was not there to fight. As to the availability of an alternative, evidence showed that the victim attacked the defendant, and a reasonable jury could have concluded that it was too late to call 911 and that running away would have put the defendant at risk of being shot. And as to the causal relationship between the avoidance of harm and the criminal conduct, testimony indicated that the defendant took possession of the firearm only after he heard others saying the victim had a gun, and that he abandoned it when he was able to run away. Finally, the court concluded that the defendant was prejudiced by the trial judge’s failure to give the instruction, as a reasonable jury may have acquitted the defendant on the firearm charge if it had been permitted to consider whether he was justified in possessing it. Accordingly, the majority reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.

A dissenting judge would have concluded that the required elements for the justification instruction were not met because the defendant intentionally placed himself in a dangerous situation, and because he had many reasonable alternatives to violating the law.

(1) The State and the defendant’s version of events were inconsistent. For purposes of determining the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a jury instruction on justification, the Court of Appeals recounted the defendant’s version of events. The defendant was in David Harrison’s trailer drinking bourbon when Harrison suddenly stood up while only a few feet from the defendant, pulled a pistol out of his pocket, pointed it toward the wall near the defendant, and fired a shot at the wall. Before pulling out the gun, Harrison had not threatened the defendant in any way, nor did he appear angry or upset. As soon as Harrison fired the shot at the wall, the defendant grabbed the pistol from Harrison and left the trailer. The defendant went to look for Karen Tucker, who was dating his father, and who he believed would be sober and safely able to take the gun from him. When the defendant did not find Karen in her trailer, he waited with the gun in his possession, in the presence of Karen’s daughters, until Karen arrived. The defendant then gave Karen the gun.

Law enforcement officers who later arrived on the scene did not find bullet holes inside of Harrison’s trailer but did find a shell casing sitting on a coffee table. The defendant was charged with a number of offenses, including possession of a firearm by a felon. At trial, the defendant requested a jury instruction on the defense of justification. The trial court denied the request, and the jury found the defendant guilty.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by denying his request for a jury instruction on the defense of justification. Using the test outlined in State v. Mercer, 373 N.C. 459, 463 (2020), the Court of Appeals determined that the evidence at trial was insufficient to establish the first factor of the test, which requires “that the defendant was under unlawful and present, imminent, and impending threat of death or serious bodily injury.” The Court concluded that even assuming Harrison’s drunken act of firing his pistol into the wall or ceiling of his house represented an “impending threat of death or serious bodily injury” to the defendant, that threat was gone once the defendant left Harrison’s trailer with the gun, and the defendant did not take advantage of other opportunities, described in the opinion, to dispose of the gun.

(2) The State conceded that the trial court erred in imposing attorneys’ fees without providing the defendant with notice and an opportunity to be heard. At the time of sentencing, the defendant’s court-appointed counsel had not yet calculated the number of hours worked on the case. The trial court explained to the defendant that those would be calculated later and submitted to the court. The court advised the defendant that it would sign what it felt to be a reasonable fee. The court later entered a civil judgment for $2,220 without first informing the defendant of the amount. The Court of Appeals held that the defendant was not provided sufficient opportunity to be heard before entry of that civil judgment. It thus vacated the civil judgment and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings on that issue.

The defendant was indicted for possession of a firearm—specifically, “a New England Firearms Pardner Model 12 Gauge Shotgun”—by a person previously convicted of a felon. The defendant initially told officers, who were investigating a report of a domestic dispute at the defendant’s home, that he had no knowledge about a shotgun, but he later admitted to one of the deputies that he had thrown the shotgun into the woods and told the deputy where he had thrown it. At trial, the defendant testified that he had been involved in an altercation with his stepson but did not remember taking the shotgun from him. He further testified that he did not take possession of “that gun.” The trial judge gave the pattern instruction on possession of a firearm by a person previously convicted of a felony. There were no objections to the instruction, and the jury found the defendant guilty of the possession charge and of having attained habitual felon status. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial judge committed plain error by failing to instruct the jury on the affirmative defense of justification. The Court of Appeals held that the defendant was not entitled to the instruction.

The Court first recognized that in State v. Mercer, ___ N.C. App. ___, 818 S.E.2d 375 (2018), aff'd ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (2020), it had recognized the defense of justification to possession of a firearm by a person previously convicted of a felony. The Court noted that the North Carolina Supreme Court has granted review in Mercer but stated that it would follow Mercer as it applied when the defendant’s case was before the trial court. Assuming a justification defense as explained in Mercer applies in North Carolina, the Court stated first that it isn’t clear that a justification defense is a “substantial and essential feature” of the possession charge, requiring an instruction by the trial judge, because the possession statute does not describe justification or self-defense as an element of the offense. The Court then ruled that the defendant’s own testimony, in which he denied possessing the gun alleged in the indictment, rendered a justification defense unavailable. The Court stated that a defendant is not entitled to a justification instruction where he testifies that he did not commit the criminal act at all. The Court also rejected the defendant’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel based on counsel’s failure to request a justification instruction, holding that even if counsel had requested such an instruction the trial court should not have granted it.

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