State v. Hemingway, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-352 (Jul. 20, 2021)

The defendant was on supervised probation for a conviction of possession with intent to sell or deliver marijuana, and the state alleged that he violated his probation by testing positive for cocaine and committing a new criminal offense. At a hearing held on the violation, the defendant’s probation officer testified about the positive drug screen, and a police officer testified about the alleged new criminal activity. Officers used a confidential informant to conduct two controlled buys of a white powdery substance from the defendant, and then obtained a search warrant for his home where they discovered cash and additional drugs, resulting in new criminal charges against the defendant. The informant did not testify at the probation hearing. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court revoked the defendant’s probation and the defendant appealed.

The trial court’s oral pronouncement only indicated that the revocation was based on the commission of a new criminal offense, but the written findings indicated that the revocation was based on both allegations, so per case precedent the written order was deemed controlling on appeal. The appellate court agreed that pursuant to the Justice Reinvestment Act, the defendant’s probation could not be revoked for using cocaine; instead, the trial court was only authorized to modify his conditions of probation or impose a 90-day CRV, so the order of revocation based on this allegation was reversed. But the state presented sufficient evidence at the hearing that the defendant also committed a new criminal offense by possessing and selling crack cocaine, which would support revoking the defendant’s probation. 

However, rather than affirming the trial court’s order, the appellate court remanded the matter to determine whether the trial court properly exercised its discretion under G.S. 15A-1345(e), which provides that “the probationer may […] confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses unless the court finds good cause for not allowing confrontation.” (Since this was a probation revocation hearing, only the statutory confrontation right was at issue, rather than the confrontation rights under the Sixth Amendment.) The confidential informant did not testify at the hearing, and the defense objected to the admission of her hearsay statements. The trial court overruled those objections based on “the nature of these proceedings,” and the appellate court held that it was unclear whether that ruling reflected an exercise of discretion and finding of good cause. The court distinguished this case from State v. Jones, 269 N.C. App. 440 (2020), where it had previously held that a failure to find good cause was not reversible error, because in Jones the defendant did not challenge the testimony on this basis and did not request findings of good cause as to why confrontation should not be allowed, so no findings were required.

Judge Tyson concurred in part, finding that the defendant waived his statutory confrontation objection and failed to meet his burden of showing prejudice, and the trial court did not err in revoking the defendant’s probation.