State v. Fields, 374 N.C. 629 (Jun. 5, 2020)

The defendant was convicted after a jury trial of habitual misdemeanor assault and felony assault inflicting serious bodily injury for the same assaultive act. The trial court imposed consecutive sentences. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by sentencing him for both habitual misdemeanor assault and the felony assault. The Court of Appeals vacated the habitual misdemeanor assault conviction, holding over a dissent that the defendant could not be sentenced for both crimes when the offenses arose from the same act. State v. Fields, ___ N.C. App. ___, 827 S.E.2d 120 (2019). The State appealed to the Supreme Court of North Carolina based on the dissent, and also sought discretionary review on the issue of whether, even if it was impermissible for the trial judge to sentence the defendant for both convictions, the Court of Appeals erred by vacating one of the convictions instead of arresting judgment on it. (1) On the first issue, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, concluding that the defendant could not be sentenced for both convictions that arose out of the same assaultive act. The misdemeanor assault statute, G.S. 14-33, includes prefatory language saying the law applies “[u]nless the conduct is covered under some other provision of law providing greater punishment”—language the appellate courts have generally interpreted to bar simultaneous punishments for the same act. Though the habitual misdemeanor assault statute, G.S. 14-33.2, does not include that language, the Supreme Court concluded that the principle still applies, as the misdemeanor assault is necessarily a part of the “upgraded” habitual misdemeanor assault conviction. The felony assault conviction based on the same assaultive act was a “provision of law providing greater punishment” that invoked the prefatory language of the misdemeanor assault statute, which in turn meant that the defendant could not be punished for habitual misdemeanor assault. (2) On the second issue, the Court concluded that the proper remedy when such prefatory language bars double punishment for the same act is to arrest judgment on one of the judgments, not to vacate it.