State v. Arrington, 371 N.C. 518 (Oct. 26, 2018)

On appeal from a decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 803 S.E.2d 845 (2017), the court reversed, holding that as part of a plea agreement a defendant may stipulate on his sentencing worksheet that a second-degree murder conviction justified a B1 classification. In 2015 the defendant entered into a plea agreement with the State requiring him to plead guilty to two charges and having attained habitual felon status. Under the agreement, the State consolidated the charges, dismissed a second habitual felon status count, and allowed the defendant to be sentenced in the mitigated range. As part of the agreement, the defendant stipulated to the sentencing worksheet showing his prior offenses, one of which was a 1994 second-degree murder conviction, designated as a B1 offense. Over a dissent, the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment and set aside the plea, holding that the defendant improperly stipulated to a legal matter. The Court of Appeals reasoned that because the legislature divided second-degree murder into two classifications after the date of the defendant’s second-degree murder offense, determining the appropriate offense classification would be a legal question inappropriate for a stipulation. Reversing, the Supreme Court noted that the crime of second-degree murder has two potential classifications, B1 and B2, depending on the facts. It continued: “By stipulating that the former conviction of second-degree murder was a B1 offense, defendant properly stipulated that the facts giving rise to the conviction fell within the statutory definition of a B1 classification. Like defendant’s stipulation to every other offense listed in the worksheet, defendant’s stipulation to second-degree murder showed that he stipulated to the facts underlying the conviction and that the conviction existed.” The court went on to reject the defendant’s argument that he could not legally stipulate that his prior second-degree murder conviction constituted a B1 felony. It noted that before 2012, all second-degree murders were classified at the same level for sentencing purposes. However, in 2012 the legislature amended the statute, elevating second-degree murder to a B1 offense, except when the murder stems from either an inherently dangerous act or omission or a drug overdose. Generally, a second-degree murder conviction is a B1 offense which receives nine sentencing points; when the facts of the murder meet one of the statutory exceptions thereby making it a B2 offense, it receives six points. It is undisputed that the State may prove a prior offense through a stipulation. “Thus,” the court continued “like a stipulation to any other conviction, when a defendant stipulates to the existence of a prior second-degree murder offense in tandem with its classification as either a B1 or B2 offense, he is stipulating that the facts underlying his conviction justify that classification.” Here, the defendant could properly stipulate to the facts surrounding his offense by either recounting the facts at the hearing or stipulating to a general second-degree murder conviction that has a B1 classification. By stipulating to the worksheet, the defendant simply agreed that the facts underlying his second-degree murder conviction fell within the general B1 category because the offense did not involve either of the two factual exceptions recognized for B2 classification.

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