State v. Collington, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Sept. 25, 2020)

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision below, 259 N.C. App. 127 (2018), the court reversed the Court of Appeals and held that appellate counsel was not ineffective for failing to cite a particular line of cases because the facts of this case were distinguishable from those in the line of cases the Court of Appeals would have had appellate counsel cite.  The Court of Appeals had held that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to make the argument under State v. Pakulski, 319 N.C. 562 (1987) that a trial court commits plain error when it instructs a jury on disjunctive theories of a crime, one of which is erroneous, and it cannot be discerned from the record the theory upon which the jury relied.  Noting that its opinion in Pakulski “lacks clarity” with respect to the standard of review applied there, the court explained that Pakulski applied the harmless error rather than plain error standard, as evidenced by subsequent precedent.  Because the defendant in this case did not object to the trial court’s jury instructions, the court explained that Pakulski “would have had little precedential value in the instant case, and appellate counsel’s failure to cite it was not objectively unreasonable.”  The court went on to explain that the arguments made by appellate counsel were appropriate for plain error review as counsel argued that the jury was presented with multiple theories of guilt, one of which was erroneous, and the error had a probable impact on the jury’s verdict.

Justice Ervin, joined by Justice Newby, concurred, agreeing with the court’s interpretation of Pakulski and its determination that appellate counsel was not ineffective, but writing separately to clarify the general matter that a defendant may be convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon under an acting in concert theory.  Noting that neither the North Carolina Supreme Court nor the Court of Appeals has ever directly held that a defendant can be convicted of that offense on the basis of an acting in concert theory, Justice Ervin described the “general availability of the acting in concert doctrine in possession-related cases” and stated that he was not persuaded that the theory is inapplicable to the offense of possession of a firearm by a felon.

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Davis, dissented, expressing the view that the majority opinion’s explanations of Pakulski and appellate counsel’s arguments were inaccurate.  In Justice Earls’ view, Pakulski applied the plain error standard of review and appellate counsel did not meet the obligation to argue to the Court of Appeals that the defendant could not be convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon based on someone else’s possession.