State v. Ditenhafer, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Mar. 3, 2020)

Over a dissent, the court held that there was sufficient evidence in this common law obstruction of justice case that the defendant’s obstructive acts were done “with deceit and intent to defraud” such that under G.S. 14-3(b) the offense was punishable as a felony rather than as a misdemeanor.  The defendant was told by another family member that the defendant’s daughter was the victim of sexual abuse by the defendant’s husband, who was the daughter’s adoptive stepfather.  The State’s evidence showed that despite believing that abuse had occurred, the defendant engaged in a course of conduct whereby she denied child protective services and sheriff’s department investigators access to her daughter and otherwise frustrated their investigation.  The defendant intervened in the investigation by remaining within hearing distance or being present during “almost every interview” investigators conducted with her daughter, not permitting her daughter to answer certain questions and answering for her during one interview, sending text messages to her daughter and physically interrupting another interview, “constantly” influencing her daughter’s statements in interviews by verbally abusing and punishing her, instructing her daughter not to speak with investigators, and directing investigators not to speak with her daughter in private.  The defendant also directed her daughter to lie to investigators.  The court stated that this conduct regarding investigative interviews which occurred while the defendant believed her daughter had been the victim of abuse was sufficient to allow a reasonable juror to infer that the defendant’s denial of access to her daughter was committed with deceit and intent to defraud.  The court went on to hold that subsequent similar obstructive actions occurring after the defendant had actually witnessed her daughter being raped by the defendant’s husband was sufficient circumstantial evidence that the defendant had acted with deceit and intent to defraud when she denied investigators access to her daughter while merely under the belief that she had been sexually abused.

Judge Tyson dissented, expressing the view that evidence showing that the defendant “presented her daughter and allowed access every time upon request” by investigators negated the “deceit and intent to defraud” element of the felony version of the offense.  Judge Tyson noted that all of the interactions between investigators and the defendant’s daughter were “voluntary,” in that none of them were supported by a warrant or other court order.