State v. Hamer, ___ N.C. ___, 2021-NCSC-67 (Jun. 11, 2021)

The defendant was convicted in a bench trial of speeding 94 miles per hour in a 65 mile-per-hour zone. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals determined that even though the trial court failed to follow the procedure set forth in N.C.G.S. § 15A-1201 for waiver of defendant’s right to a jury trial, the defendant was not prejudiced by the trial court’s noncompliance. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in conducting a bench trial because he did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his right to a jury trial.

Counsel for the defendant requested a bench trial in superior court, and the State consented to the request. The trial court granted the request and began the trial without first addressing the defendant and determining whether he fully understood and appreciated the consequences of the jury trial waiver as required by G.S. 15A-1201(d). After the State rested, the trial court asked the defendant if he consented to the waiver of jury trial. In that exchange, the defendant said he consented to the waiver. 

The Supreme Court determined that that the trial court’s failure to conduct the inquiry required by G.S. 15A-1201(d) was a statutory rather than a constitutional violation and that the defendant was required to show prejudice resulting from the violation to be entitled to relief. The Court stated that the pretrial exchange between the trial court, defense counsel, and the State, coupled with defendant’s subsequent answers to questions posed by the trial court demonstrated that he understood he was waiving his right to a trial by jury and the consequences of that decision. In addition, the Court stated there was overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt.

Justice Ervin, joined by Justices Hudson and Earls, dissented. Justice Ervin wrote that he would hold that the defendant did not properly waive his right to trial by jury, that the absence of a proper waiver resulted in a deprivation of his right to trial by jury, that the failure to obtain a proper waiver of defendant’s right to a jury trial constituted error per se, and that defendant was therefore entitled to a new trial.