State v. Crooks, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Nov. 17, 2020)

(1) The State and the defendant’s version of events were inconsistent. For purposes of determining the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a jury instruction on justification, the Court of Appeals recounted the defendant’s version of events. The defendant was in David Harrison’s trailer drinking bourbon when Harrison suddenly stood up while only a few feet from the defendant, pulled a pistol out of his pocket, pointed it toward the wall near the defendant, and fired a shot at the wall. Before pulling out the gun, Harrison had not threatened the defendant in any way, nor did he appear angry or upset. As soon as Harrison fired the shot at the wall, the defendant grabbed the pistol from Harrison and left the trailer. The defendant went to look for Karen Tucker, who was dating his father, and who he believed would be sober and safely able to take the gun from him. When the defendant did not find Karen in her trailer, he waited with the gun in his possession, in the presence of Karen’s daughters, until Karen arrived. The defendant then gave Karen the gun.

Law enforcement officers who later arrived on the scene did not find bullet holes inside of Harrison’s trailer but did find a shell casing sitting on a coffee table. The defendant was charged with a number of offenses, including possession of a firearm by a felon. At trial, the defendant requested a jury instruction on the defense of justification. The trial court denied the request, and the jury found the defendant guilty.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by denying his request for a jury instruction on the defense of justification. Using the test outlined in State v. Mercer, 373 N.C. 459, 463 (2020), the Court of Appeals determined that the evidence at trial was insufficient to establish the first factor of the test, which requires “that the defendant was under unlawful and present, imminent, and impending threat of death or serious bodily injury.” The Court concluded that even assuming Harrison’s drunken act of firing his pistol into the wall or ceiling of his house represented an “impending threat of death or serious bodily injury” to the defendant, that threat was gone once the defendant left Harrison’s trailer with the gun, and the defendant did not take advantage of other opportunities, described in the opinion, to dispose of the gun.

(2) The State conceded that the trial court erred in imposing attorneys’ fees without providing the defendant with notice and an opportunity to be heard. At the time of sentencing, the defendant’s court-appointed counsel had not yet calculated the number of hours worked on the case. The trial court explained to the defendant that those would be calculated later and submitted to the court. The court advised the defendant that it would sign what it felt to be a reasonable fee. The court later entered a civil judgment for $2,220 without first informing the defendant of the amount. The Court of Appeals held that the defendant was not provided sufficient opportunity to be heard before entry of that civil judgment. It thus vacated the civil judgment and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings on that issue.