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., 07/24/2024
E.g., 07/24/2024

In this Alamance County case, defendant appealed his convictions for driving while impaired (DWI), resisting a public officer, and being intoxicated and disruptive, arguing error in (1) excusing potential jurors for cause, (2) denying defendant’s motion to dismiss the DWI charge, and (3) calculating the appropriate sentence. The Court of Appeals found no error in (1) and (2), but in (3) remanded for resentencing for the resisting a public officer and intoxicated and disruptive offenses. 

In April of 2021, police officers noticed a wrecked vehicle in the middle of the road and saw defendant attempting to hide behind a building nearby. Officers eventually arrested defendant, and found a key fob in his pocket that opened the doors of the wrecked vehicle. When defendant came to trial for the charges at superior court, he pleaded guilty to resisting an officer and being intoxicated and disruptive prior to the jury trial. During voir dire, the trial court dismissed two jurors for cause own its own initiative. Defense counsel did not object to either dismissal. Defendant was found guilty of the DWI charge, and the court sentenced defendant for all three charges. 

Taking up defendant’s argument (1), the Court of Appeals noted that the two dismissed jurors “both expressed strong emotions against law enforcement based upon their personal experiences with officers.” Slip Op. at 10. The court noted the defendant also did not use all of his peremptory challenges. Because there was no evidence that the empaneled jury was unfair, the court overruled defendant’s argument. 

Moving to (2), defendant argued that no evidence showed he operated or owned the wrecked vehicle involved in the DWI charge. The court disagreed, noting there was no direct evidence of defendant operating the car while impaired, but sufficient circumstantial evidence to support the conviction. The officers observed defendant near the wrecked vehicle, found a key fob corresponding to the vehicle in his pocket, and observed him at the Cook-Out intoxicated and with a fresh cut on his forehead. 

Finally, in (3) the court noted that defendant was sentenced to 120 days’ confinement for the resisting a public officer and intoxicated and disruptive misdemeanors, while “the maximum, combined sentence allowed by law is 80 days.” Id. at 14. The court remanded to allow resentencing based on the correct calculation of possible confinement. 

In this Buncombe County case, defendant appealed his convictions for driving while impaired and reckless driving, arguing error in (1) denying his motion to dismiss, (2) improperly applying aggravating factors to his impaired driving conviction, and (3) imposing a reckless driving sentence without making specific findings justifying the length of community punishment. The Court of Appeals vacated and remanded for new sentencing hearings on the convictions, but otherwise affirmed. 

Defendant’s driving offenses came for trial at district court in August of 2021. After being found guilty at district court, defendant timely appealed to superior court. However, due to a court system error, defendant’s appeal was not properly entered, and defendant was held in detention for six additional days. While he was in detention, he was not provided with necessary medication, and he suffered a seizure resulting in a concussion. At superior court, defendant filed a motion to dismiss arguing irreparable prejudice to his ability to prepare a defense due to the concussion, a motion denied by the trial court. Defendant was found guilty and during sentencing, the trial court found three aggravating factors: “(1) defendant’s driving was especially reckless; (2) defendant’s driving was especially dangerous; and (3) defendant was convicted of death by motor vehicle in August 2015.” Slip Op. at 3. This led to defendant receiving a sentence at Level III for the impaired driving conviction. 

Considering (1) defendant’s motion to dismiss, the Court of Appeals explained that G.S. 15A-954(a)(4) governed motions to dismiss for flagrant violations of a defendant’s constitutional rights. The court looked for “structural errors” in the framework of the trial process as explained in State v. Hamer, 377 N.C. 502 (2021). Slip Op. at 6. Defendant did not testify at the district court level, and it appeared unlikely he would have testified regardless of his injury at superior court, leading the court to conclude that he could not meet the burden of irreparable prejudice required for dismissal. The court also noted defendant was acquitted of two of the charges against him at superior court, suggesting that he mounted a solid defense.  

Considering (2) the aggravating factors for driving while impaired, the court explained that on December 1, 2006, changes in the applicable law moved the responsibility for consideration of aggravating factors from the trial judge to the jury. The current law in G.S. 20-179(a1) places the responsibility on the state to prove these factors beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury. The court examined the caselaw arising from Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004), and the concept of harmless error review when a judge fails to submit aggravating factors to the jury. Slip Op. at 9. After exploring applicable federal and state precedent on the failure to submit an aggravating factor to the jury and harmless error, the court concluded: 

Since the relevant federal cases provide the bare minimum, and all relevant state cases are distinguishable because they were decided prior to the modification of the statute where it is clear from the timing and language of the statute that the legislature intended to change the standards adopted by our courts, we hold aggravating factors must be decided by the jury or the case must be remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

Id. at 12. As a result, the court vacated the trial court’s judgement and remanded for resentencing. 

Considering the final issue, (3) defendant’s reckless driving sentence, the court explained that G.S. 15A-1343.2(d)(1) requires a trial court to make specific findings if they sentence a defendant to a community punishment longer than 18 months for a misdemeanor like reckless driving, and here defendant received a 36-month community punishment without specific findings. The state conceded this was error, and the matter was also vacated and remanded for resentencing. 

Judge Gore dissented by separate opinion, and would have found the trial court’s error as harmless under the harmless error standard. Id. at 14. 

The defendant was charged with driving while license revoked, operating a motor vehicle without displaying a current approved inspection certificate (G.S. 20-183.8(a)(1)), and displaying an expired registration plate (G.S. 20-111(2)) after being pulled over for driving his truck without a license plate. He was convicted of all three offenses, first in district court and then by a jury in superior court. (1) On appeal, the State conceded and the Court of Appeals agreed that the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the charge of displaying an expired registration plate. The defendant’s truck had no plate whatsoever, and so he was not displaying an expired one. (The court noted that the evidence would have supported a conviction under G.S. 20-111(1), driving without a current registration plate.) (2) As to the inspection certificate infraction, the defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction when the jury was instructed on a theory of guilt—here, display of an expired inspection certificate—that did not apply in his case when, again, he did not display any certificate. The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that display of an expired inspection is not one of multiple theories of guilt for this offense. As such, the jury instruction referencing display was erroneous, but the defendant did not object on that basis, and the issue was therefore not properly before the appellate court. (3) Finally, the State conceded and the Court of Appeals agreed that the defendant’s sentence was erroneous. Despite being Prior Conviction Level I with no prior convictions, the defendant received a 10-day suspended sentence with probation for this Class 3 misdemeanor. Under G.S. 15A-1340.23(d), unless otherwise provided for a specific offense, a Class 3 misdemeanor sentence for a defendant with no more than three prior convictions may consist of a fine only. The appellate court remanded for resentencing.

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