State v. Essick, ___ N.C. App ___, 2022-NCCOA-131 (Mar. 1, 2022)

The defendant was charged with two counts of third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor, a Class H felony offense, and attaining the status of a habitual felon. The defendant entered an Alford plea to the sexual-exploitation charges and stipulated to having attained habitual-felon status. The plea arrangement provided that the charges would be consolidated into one Class H felony judgment, and that the defendant, as a habitual felon and a prior record level III offender, would receive an enhanced, Class D-level sentence of 67 to 93 months’ imprisonment, pursuant to G.S. 14-7.6. 

However, before accepting the plea and entering judgment, the trial court determined that the maximum sentence should be increased from 93 months to 141 months pursuant to the sentencing enhancement provided in G.S. 15A-1340.17(f) for certain “reportable convictions” that require enrollment in the sex-offender registry. The Court of Appeals allowed the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by increasing his maximum sentence from 93 months to 141 months pursuant to G.S. 15A-1340.17(f)’s sentencing-enhancement provision, which he argued does not apply to Class F through I felony reportable convictions enhanced with habitual-felon status. The Court of Appeals agreed, concluding that the defendant’s contemporaneous conviction of being a habitual felon did not reclassify his Class H felony convictions to a Class D felony conviction. Slip op. at ¶ 20. The Court rationalized that the plain language of G.S. 15A-1340.17(f) suggests that the sentencing enhancement only applies to those convicted of certain Class B1 through E felonies, rather than those convicted of lower-level felonies but punished at the higher level of Class B1 through E due to the application of some other sentencing enhancement. The Court thus held that the trial court erred by applying the 15A-1340.17(f) sentencing enhancement in the defendant’s case.