State v. Lane, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (May. 5, 2020)

Defendant was convicted in December 2016 of trafficking in opium or heroin and related offenses He appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury that possession pursuant to a valid prescription was a defense to trafficking by possession. The Court of Appeals in State v. Lane, 257 N.C. App. 262 (2017) (unpublished), held the trial court did not commit plain error because defendant could not show that he was prejudiced by the lack of such an instruction. The defendant subsequently filed a motion for relief alleging ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on his trial counsel’s failure to request a jury instruction on the definition of “unlawful” in the context of trafficking by possession or an instruction that possession pursuant to a valid prescription was a defense to trafficking in possession.

The trial court denied relief, concluding that because the defendant was not prejudiced under the plain error standard, his ineffective assistance of counsel claim must also fail. The defendant sought certiorari review, which the Court of Appeals granted.

(1) The Court of Appeals held that the plain error standard and ineffective assistance of counsel test are not so similar that a finding of no plain error precludes a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel. Noting that neither the Court of Appeals nor the North Carolina Supreme Court has thoroughly examined and compared the two standards, the Court of Appeals took the opportunity to do so in Lane II.

Prejudice under plain error requires that the trial court’s error have had a probable impact on the jury’s finding of guilt. The plain error rule requires a defendant to show that the error in question tilted the scales and caused the jury to convict the defendant.

In contrast, prejudice under the ineffective assistance of counsel test requires a showing of reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome. Under the reasonable probability standard, a defendant does not have to show that counsel’s deficient conduct more likely than not altered the outcome in the case. The defendant does need to demonstrate, however, that at least one juror would have struck a different balance. While under the reasonable probability standard the likelihood of a different result must be substantial, not just conceivable, it is something less than that required under plain error.

There are other significant differences between the standards. Plain error is applied to trial court errors. Ineffective assistance of counsel applies to counsel errors and takes into account the objective reasonableness of counsel’s performance. Plain error relief requires there be settled precedent at the time of appellate review; the ineffective assistance standard considers available authority at the time of the allegedly deficient representation and may require that counsel raise material issues even absent decisive precedent.

Thus, the court concluded that when deficient performance by counsel creates a fundamentally unfair trial whose results are unreliable, an ineffective assistance of counsel claim will be successful despite the absence of plain error.

(2) Under the facts of the case, the Court of Appeals determined that trial counsel’s failure to request that the jury be instructed on the definition of “unlawful” and on the defense of possession pursuant to a valid prescription did not undermine confidence in the result and did not create a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different.