State v. McMillan, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Jul. 7, 2020)

The defendant was tried in Guilford County on charges of discharging a weapon into occupied property, firearm by felon, first-degree burglary, trafficking cocaine, possession with intent, and two counts of habitual felon. At the charge conference, the defendant requested an instruction on misdemeanor breaking or entering, which the trial judge agreed to give. The defendant objected to jury instructions on actual and constructive possession for the drug offenses, but the trial court overruled the objection and instructed the jury on both theories of possession. The jury convicted on all counts and the defendant appealed.

(1) In its instruction to the jury on misdemeanor breaking or entering, the trial court deviated from the language of the pattern instruction. While the pattern instruction states the offense need not require felonious intent “so long as the breaking or entering was wrongful, that is, without any claim of right,” the trial court instructed the jury that the defendant could be found guilty of the crime if they believe he lacked felonious intent but acted “without consent of the owner or tenant.” Slip op. at 11-12. This “minor deviation” from the pattern instruction did not amount to error, as the instruction was supported by the evidence and “correct in law.” Id. at 13. Even assuming error, the defendant could not show prejudice—he did not make any claim of right to enter the property and the jury convicted on first-degree burglary in any event.

(2) As to the jury instructions on actual and constructive possession, it was error to instruct the jury on actual possession where no evidence supported that theory. However, the defendant again could not demonstrate prejudice. The evidence of defendant’s constructive possession of the drugs was “exceedingly strong,” and this defeated any claim of prejudice.

(3) At the initial sentencing hearing, the trial court failed to impose a sentence for one of the two habitual felon convictions. The next day, the trial court realized its error and imposed the second habitual sentence. The defendant gave notice of appeal following the first hearing and contended the trial court lacked jurisdiction to sentence the defendant at the second hearing. The trial court normally loses jurisdiction to act once notice of appeal has been given. However, G.S. 15A-1448(a)(3) authorizes the trial court to act to correct a sentencing error within 14 days of the original sentence, even if the defendant has given notice of appeal and even without a motion for appropriate relief. See State v. Lebeau, ___ N.C. App. ___, 843 S.E.2d 317 (April 21, 2020). The trial court was required to sentence the defendant as a habitual felon once the verdict was returned and doing so was not a substantive amendment of the sentence but merely a “statutorily ‘necessary by-product’ of the sentence.” McMillan Slip op. at 20. The trial court therefore retained jurisdiction to correct the sentence, and the convictions were unanimously affirmed.