State v. Benitez, ___ N.C. App. ___, 813 S.E. 2d 268 (Mar. 20, 2018)

(1) On an appeal from an adverse ruling on the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) in this murder case, the court held that because the defendant’s attorney made an objectively reasonable determination that the defendant’s uncle would qualify as his “guardian” under G.S. 7B-2101(b) and therefore did not seek suppression of the defendant’s statements on grounds of a violation of that statute, counsel did not provide ineffective assistance. When he was 13 year old, the defendant a signed statement, during an interrogation, that he “shot the lady as she was sleeping on the couch in the head.” The defendant’s uncle, with whom the defendant had been living, was present during the interrogation. Two weeks later, the trial court sua sponte entered an order appointing the director of the County Department of Social Services as guardian of the person for the defendant pursuant to G.S. 7B-2001. The district court found that “the juvenile appeared in court with no parent, guardian or custodian but he lived with an uncle who did not have legal custody of him” and “[t]hat the mother of the juvenile resides in El Salvador and the father of the juvenile is nowhere to be found and based on information and belief lives in El Salvador.” The defendant was prosecuted as an adult for murder. The defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress his statement and was convicted. He filed a MAR arguing that his lawyer rendered ineffective assistance by failing to challenge the admission of his confession on grounds that his uncle was not his “parent, guardian, custodian, or attorney[,]” and therefore that his rights under G.S. 7B-2101(b) were violated as no appropriate adult was present during his custodial interrogation. The trial court denied the MAR and it came before the court of appeals. Noting that the statute does not define the term “guardian,” the court viewed state Supreme Court law as establishing that guardianship requires a relationship “established by legal process.” The requirement of “legal process” means that the individual’s authority is “established through a court proceeding.” But, the court concluded, it need not precisely determine what the high court meant by “legal process,” because at a minimum the statute “requires authority gained through some legal proceeding.” Here, the defendant’s uncle did not obtain legal authority over the defendant pursuant to any legal proceeding. Thus, there was a violation of the statute when the defendant was interrogated with only his uncle present. However, to establish ineffective assistance, the defendant must establish that his counsel’s conduct fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. Here, the trial court found--based on the lawyer’s actions and in the absence of any expert or opinion testimony that his performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness--that defense counsel appropriately researched the issue and acted accordingly. Although the defendant’s counsel made a legal error, it was not an objectively unreasonable one. In the course of its holding, the court noted that expert evidence “is not necessarily required for every claim of [ineffective assistance of counsel],” though “some evidence from practicing attorneys as to the standards of practice is often helpful, particularly in cases such as this where the issue is the interpretation of case law rather than a more blatant error such as a failure to prepare for a hearing at all.” Because the court held the counsel’s conduct did not fall below an objective standard of reasonableness, it did not address the prejudice prong of the ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

(2) The court remanded to the trial court for further findings of fact on the defendant’s claim that he did not make a knowing and intelligent waiver of rights during the police interrogation. G.S. 7B-2101(d) provides that “Before admitting into evidence any statement resulting from custodial interrogation, the court shall find that the juvenile knowingly, willingly, and understandingly waived the juvenile’s rights.” To determine if a defendant has knowingly and voluntarily waived his or her rights, the trial court must consider the totality of the circumstances of the interrogation, and for juveniles, this includes the juvenile’s age, experience, education, background, and intelligence, and an evaluation into whether the juvenile has the capacity to understand the warnings given, the nature of his or her Fifth Amendment rights, and the consequences of waving them. Here, competency to stand trial was an issue, although the trial court did ultimately determine that the defendant was competent to stand trial. However, the competency determination was made when the defendant was an 18-year-old adult; because the defendant was 13 years old at the time of the interrogation, a determination of the defendant’s competency at age 18 “has little weight in the analysis of defendant’s knowing and intelligent waiver at age 13.” Nevertheless, the competency order found that the defendant suffered from a mental illness or defect that existed since before age 18. This fact is relevant to the totality of the circumstances analysis regarding the waiver issue. The competency order did not identify the mental illness or defect or describe its impact on the defendant’s abilities or understanding. Although the trial court’s findings of fact in the motion to suppress do address the defendant’s age and the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, they do not address the defendant’s experience, education, background, and intelligence or whether he had the capacity to understand the warnings, the nature of the rights, and the consequences of waving them. The absence of findings on these issues is “especially concerning” since the trial court had found that the defendant suffered from an unnamed mental illness or defect. The court thus remanded to the trial court to make additional findings of fact addressing whether the defendant’s waiver of rights at age 13 was knowing and intelligent. The court added a cautionary note about later evaluations:

Certainly the trial court may consider later evaluations and events in its analysis of defendant’s knowing and intelligent waiver at age 13 but should take care not to rely too much on hindsight. Hindsight is reputed to be 20/20, but hindsight may also focus on what it is looking for to the exclusion of things it may not wish to see. The trial court’s focus must be on the relevant time period and defendant’s circumstances at that time as a 13 year old boy who required a translator and who suffered from a “mental illness or defect” and not on the 10 years of litigation of this case since that time.