State v. Adams, 2022-NCCOA-596, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Sept. 6, 2022)

In this Yadkin County case, two defendants, Defendant A and Defendant P, appealed their convictions for misdemeanor child abuse. Both defendants appealed trial court’s (1) denial of their motion to dismiss at the close of evidence and (2) denial of their motion to reopen voir dire of a juror for bias; Defendant A also appealed trial court’s imposition of conditions of probation while the appeal was pending. The Court of Appeals found no error with the denial of motions, but did find error in imposing conditions of probation while an appeal was pending. 

Defendants’ convictions arose from a 2018 incident in the parking lot of the Yadkin County Sheriff’s Office. An officer from the Yadkinville Police Department, located across the street, walked out of the police department to head home when he heard a commotion across the street, and observed Defendant A pulling on something in the back seat of a car. When the officer approached, he observed Defendant A and Defendant P were having a “tug of war” over their child in the back seat of a car; both defendants were tried and eventually convicted of misdemeanor child abuse in 2021.

The court first considered the motion to dismiss, reviewing whether substantial evidence of each element of child abuse under N.C.G.S. § 14-318.2 was present in the record. Because there was no dispute that the defendants were the parents of the child in question, and that the child was less than 16 years old, the only element in dispute was whether defendants “created or allowed to be created a substantial risk of physical injury” for the child. Slip Op. at ¶11, quoting State v. Watkins, 247 N.C. App. 391 (2019). The court noted the “paucity” of caselaw, observing that Watkins appears to be the only reported case on the “substantial risk” theory under N.C.G.S. § 14-318.2. Slip Op. at ¶13. However, after exploring Watkins and unreported caselaw, the court explained that even a brief period of time placing the child at risk of physical harm could represent “substantial risk,” justifying the jury’s consideration of the question. After examining the evidence against both defendants, the court found no error with the trial court. 

Examining the motion to reopen voir dire, the court explained that N.C.G.S. § 15A-1214(g) granted substantial leeway to the trial court when conducting an inquiry into possible juror bias. Here, the trial court directly questioned the juror during a period spanning two days, allowing the juror to consider the instructions overnight. Slip Op. at ¶30. Additionally, the trial court permitted arguments from counsel on both days of questioning the juror. The Court of Appeals found the trial court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to reopen voir dire in these circumstances. 

The Court of Appeals did find error when the trial court ordered Defendant A to enroll and complete co-parenting classes while the appeal in this matter was pending. Slip Op. at ¶34. Under N.C.G.S. § 15A-1451(a)(4), a defendant’s notice of appeal stays probation, meaning trial court’s imposition of the co-parenting condition was error. As a result, the court remanded for resentencing Defendant A only.