State v. King, COA22-469, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Apr. 18, 2023)

In this Buncombe County case, defendant appealed his convictions for driving while impaired and reckless driving, arguing error in (1) denying his motion to dismiss, (2) improperly applying aggravating factors to his impaired driving conviction, and (3) imposing a reckless driving sentence without making specific findings justifying the length of community punishment. The Court of Appeals vacated and remanded for new sentencing hearings on the convictions, but otherwise affirmed. 

Defendant’s driving offenses came for trial at district court in August of 2021. After being found guilty at district court, defendant timely appealed to superior court. However, due to a court system error, defendant’s appeal was not properly entered, and defendant was held in detention for six additional days. While he was in detention, he was not provided with necessary medication, and he suffered a seizure resulting in a concussion. At superior court, defendant filed a motion to dismiss arguing irreparable prejudice to his ability to prepare a defense due to the concussion, a motion denied by the trial court. Defendant was found guilty and during sentencing, the trial court found three aggravating factors: “(1) defendant’s driving was especially reckless; (2) defendant’s driving was especially dangerous; and (3) defendant was convicted of death by motor vehicle in August 2015.” Slip Op. at 3. This led to defendant receiving a sentence at Level III for the impaired driving conviction. 

Considering (1) defendant’s motion to dismiss, the Court of Appeals explained that G.S. 15A-954(a)(4) governed motions to dismiss for flagrant violations of a defendant’s constitutional rights. The court looked for “structural errors” in the framework of the trial process as explained in State v. Hamer, 377 N.C. 502 (2021). Slip Op. at 6. Defendant did not testify at the district court level, and it appeared unlikely he would have testified regardless of his injury at superior court, leading the court to conclude that he could not meet the burden of irreparable prejudice required for dismissal. The court also noted defendant was acquitted of two of the charges against him at superior court, suggesting that he mounted a solid defense.  

Considering (2) the aggravating factors for driving while impaired, the court explained that on December 1, 2006, changes in the applicable law moved the responsibility for consideration of aggravating factors from the trial judge to the jury. The current law in G.S. 20-179(a1) places the responsibility on the state to prove these factors beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury. The court examined the caselaw arising from Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004), and the concept of harmless error review when a judge fails to submit aggravating factors to the jury. Slip Op. at 9. After exploring applicable federal and state precedent on the failure to submit an aggravating factor to the jury and harmless error, the court concluded: 

Since the relevant federal cases provide the bare minimum, and all relevant state cases are distinguishable because they were decided prior to the modification of the statute where it is clear from the timing and language of the statute that the legislature intended to change the standards adopted by our courts, we hold aggravating factors must be decided by the jury or the case must be remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

Id. at 12. As a result, the court vacated the trial court’s judgement and remanded for resentencing. 

Considering the final issue, (3) defendant’s reckless driving sentence, the court explained that G.S. 15A-1343.2(d)(1) requires a trial court to make specific findings if they sentence a defendant to a community punishment longer than 18 months for a misdemeanor like reckless driving, and here defendant received a 36-month community punishment without specific findings. The state conceded this was error, and the matter was also vacated and remanded for resentencing. 

Judge Gore dissented by separate opinion, and would have found the trial court’s error as harmless under the harmless error standard. Id. at 14. 

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