State v. George, COA23-62, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jul. 18, 2023)

In this Wayne County case, defendant appealed judgments for possession of heroin and cocaine and resisting a public officer, arguing error in failing to order a competency hearing sua sponte and ineffective assistance of counsel. Defendant’s appellate counsel also filed a brief under Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967), requesting the Court of Appeals conduct an independent review of the record. After review, the court found no error with the lack of a competency hearing, dismissed the ineffective assistance of counsel argument without prejudice, and remanded the matter to the trial court for review of whether defendant validly waived indictment. 

Defendant’s convictions arose from separate incidents in December 2018 and April 2021, where defendant was found with heroin and cocaine, respectively. In May of 2022 defendant pleaded guilty to the charges. Defendant’s appellate counsel then filed an Anders brief and defendant filed arguments on his own. 

Examining defendant’s first argument, the Court of Appeals disagreed that the trial court committed error by failing to order a competency hearing. The court noted that no party raised the issue of defendant’s capacity, and “the trial court extensively inquired as to Defendant’s mental capacity and understanding of the proceedings.” Slip Op. at 4. The applicable standard from State v. Heptinstall, 309 N.C. 231 (1983), only requires a trial court to order a hearing sua sponte if substantial evidence before the court indicates the defendant is incompetent. Because there was no substantial evidence of defendant’s lack of capacity before the trial court here, there was no error. 

Considering the ineffective assistance of counsel argument, the court explained that generally these claims “should be considered through motions for appropriate relief and not on direct appeal.” Slip Op. at 7. Because the record here was not fully developed to consider defendant’s argument regarding his representation, the court dismissed the claim without prejudice so that defendant could file a motion for appropriate relief with the trial court. 

Conducting the independent review requested by defense counsel’s Anders brief, the court identified one possible error with the information related to the April 2021 charges. On the last page of the information, a file number was crossed out and replaced with a partially illegible handwritten number. The court explained “[w]hile this may be a scrivener’s error, our independent review of the Record at least reveals this potential issue of whether Defendant validly waived his right to indictment by a grand jury specifically in file number 18 CRS 55019.” Id. at 9. Based on this issue, the court remanded to the trial court to ensure the waiver of indictment was valid.