State v. McMillian, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-145 (Apr. 20, 2021)

The defendant was convicted of armed robbery and resisting a public officer in Columbus County. Immediately before trial, the defendant moved to continue the case. He argued that he had only just received and reviewed recorded statements of the robbery victim and needed time to subpoena the victim’s wife to provide exculpatory evidence and to impeach the victim’s credibility. The trial court declined to continue the case. (1) Defense counsel had been involved in the case for more than nine months and the victim’s wife was listed in discovery materials provided to the defense as a potential witness for the State. Despite being on notice of her potential value as a witness before trial, defense counsel made no effort to locate or interview her. Further, the oral motion to continue did not specifically describe what testimony the witness would provide other than calling it “exculpatory” and “impeaching,” nor was it supported by affidavit. According to the court:

[T]he oral motion for continuance is not supported by affidavit or other proof. In fact, the record suggests only a natural reluctance to go to trial . . . [and] [w]e are left with the thought that defense counsel suffered more from lack of a defense than from lack of time. McMillian Slip op. at 9 (citation omitted).

The denial of the motion to continue therefore did not violate the defendant’s constitutional rights nor amount to an abuse of discretion.

(2) At the conclusion of the case, defense counsel was not able to provide the numbers of hours he had in the case and only later provided a fee application to the judge. This was done outside the presence of the defendant, who was in custody at the time. Attorney fees were awarded without the defendant being notified or present, and there was no other evidence in the record that the defendant had notice or waived his right to be heard. The defendant sought review on the issue.

Attorney fee awards are civil judgments that must be appealed in accordance with appellate rules for civil cases. Because the defendant failed to give written notice of appeal, his appeal was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. However, the defendant also filed a petition for writ of certiorari on the issue. The Court of Appeals granted the petition to reach the merits of the issue. The State agreed that the defendant did not receive an opportunity to be heard on attorney fees, and the court vacated the order for attorney fees. The matter was remanded the matter for a hearing to be conducted on the issue with the defendant having notice and an opportunity to be heard.

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