State v. Hester, 2022-NCCOA-906, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Dec. 29, 2022)

In this Duplin County case, the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing on whether defendant consented to defense counsel’s admissions of guilt.

Defendant was charged with breaking or entering, larceny, and possession of stolen goods after a series of break-ins in 2017 at a power plant that was not operational. At trial, defense counsel exhibited issues with hearing loss. Defendant also noted the issue of hearing loss before testifying in his own defense, although the trial court did not take any action on the information. During closing arguments, defense counsel said “Let me level with you. I agree it’s not good to be caught in the act while being in somebody else’s building without consent,” and mentioned “caught” and “in the act” several times, referring to defendant being on the power plant property. Slip Op. at 5.

Reviewing defendant’s arguments on appeal, the court agreed that defense counsel’s statements that defendant possessed stolen keys from the plant and entered the plant’s warehouse without permission amounted to admissions of guilt for lesser included misdemeanors of breaking or entering and possession of stolen goods. The court noted that under State v. Harbison, 315 N.C. 175 (1985), and subsequent precedent, a violation of the defendant’s constitutional right to counsel occurs whenever defense counsel expressly or impliedly admits guilt without the defendant’s consent, and this violation does not require a showing a prejudice to justify a new trial. Id. at 8-9. Here, defense counsel made admissions of guilt, but the record did not reflect any consent from defendant. As a result, the Court of Appeals remanded to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing on whether defendant consented in advance to these concessions of guilt.