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

The defendant pled guilty to two counts of manufacturing methamphetamine after the trial court denied his motion to suppress items seized during a search. The case came back before the court of appeals on remand from the supreme court for reconsideration in light of State v. Ledbetter, ___ N.C. ___, 814 S.E.2 39 (2018), and State v. Stubbs, 368 N.C. 40 (2015). (1) The court of appeals dismissed the defendant’s direct appeal because the defendant failed to provide notice to the State of his intent to do so before plea negotiations were finalized as required under State v. Tew, 326 N.C. 732 (1990). (2) The court of appeals denied the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari, rejecting his contention that it should be granted under State v. Davis, 237 N.C. App. 22 (2014). Davis, the court of appeals concluded, failed to address prior binding court of appeals authority. As a result, the court deemed itself obliged to follow the supreme court’s guidance in State v. Jones, 358 N.C. 473 (2004), that when faced with inconsistent opinions from separate panels, a subsequent panel of the court of appeals must follow the earlier opinion. Following that rule, the court concluded that earlier decisions (including State v. Pimental, 153 N.C. App. 69 (2002) (holding that the court of appeals cannot grant a writ of certiorari when a defendant pleads guilty without first notifying the State of his or her intent to appeal a suppression, because that is not a “failure to take timely action” within the meaning of Appellate Rule 21) compelled it to deny the writ. The court viewed Ledbetter and Stubbs as clarifying the court of appeals’ jurisdiction to hear petitions for writ of certiorari, but not as relieving the court of its obligation to follow binding substantive precedent. A concurring judge would have denied the defendant’s petition for certiorari, but as a matter of discretion, and not pursuant to prior court of appeals cases that the judge did not view as binding after Ledbetter and Stubbs.

Finding itself bound by its prior decision in this felony child abuse case, the Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court committed plain error by improperly instructing the jury on the definition of the term “sexual act.” The defendant was charged under G.S. 14-318.4(a2). That statute does not define the term “sexual act” as used in the proscribed offense. That term is however defined in a separate subchapter of the General Statutes—G.S. 14-27.20(4)--to include various forms of sexual activity but excluding vaginal intercourse. The court noted that in two earlier cases--State v. Lark, 198 N.C. App. 82 (2009), and State v. Stokes, 216 N.C. App. 529 (2011)--it had applied the definition of sexual act found in G.S. 14-27.20(4) to felony child abuse without explaining why it did so. Then, in State v. McClamb, 234 N.C. App. 753 (2014), the court squarely addressed the question of whether the term sexual act as used in the child abuse statute included vaginal intercourse. McClamb distinguished Stokes, explaining that it only addressed the issue of digital penetration and did not hold that the definition of sexual act in the child abuse statute excludes vaginal intercourse. McClamb also distinguished Lark, explaining that it was limited to an analysis of fellatio as a sexual act. The court addressed the issue again in State v. Alonzo, __ N.C. App. __, __, 819 S.E.2d 584, 587 (2018). That decision noted a conflict between McClamb, Stokes, and Lark, and applying In re Civil Penalty, 324 N.C. 373 (1989), declined to follow McClamb, concluding that it was bound by the earlier Lark decision. Because the state Supreme Court later stayed the mandate in Alonzo, that case does not yet have any precedential effect. The court declined the defendant’s invitation to adopt the same reasoning applied in Alonzo and conclude that McClamb is not good law, finding that In re Civil Penalty “does not empower us to overrule precedent in this way.” It explained: 

In re Civil Penalty stands for the proposition that, where a panel of this Court has decided a legal issue, future panels are bound to follow that precedent. This is so even if the previous panel’s decision involved narrowing or distinguishing an earlier controlling precedent—even one from the Supreme Court—as was the case in In re Civil Penalty. Importantly, In re Civil Penalty does not authorize panels to overrule existing precedent on the basis that it is inconsistent with earlier decisions of this Court.

The court went on to note that the Supreme Court has authorized it to disregard its own precedent in certain rare situations, such as when two lines of irreconcilable precedent developed independently. But this is not such a case. The court concluded that under In re Civil Penalty it must follow McClamb “because it is the most recent, controlling case addressing the question.” Thus, the trial court’s instructions were not erroneous.

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