State v. Melton, COA23-411, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May. 21, 2024)

In this Forsyth County case, defendant appealed his convictions for possession of methamphetamine and habitual felon status, arguing structural error in denying his court-appointed counsel’s motion to withdraw. The Court of Appeals majority found no error. 

In July of 2022, defendant was represented by court-appointed counsel, and requested a trial on his charges. A trial date was set for September 12, 2022. On September 9, an attorney who was not the court-appointed counsel contacted the State to negotiate a plea deal or continuance for defendant’s case. The State did not agree to the continuance, but offered a plea deal, which defendant rejected. Court-appointed counsel learned of this negotiation on September 11, and subsequently filed a motion to withdraw. The trial court heard and denied the motion to withdraw on September 12. The next day, the case came for trial, and defense counsel informed the trial court (who was a different superior court judge) that defendant wished to be heard on the motion again; after hearing from both parties, the trial court repronounced the motion to withdraw. Defendant was subsequently convicted, and filed notice of appeal. 

The Court of Appeals first noted the framing of defendant’s argument, that depriving him of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel was structural error, and explored the proper standard for reviewing an indigent defendant’s request to substitute appointed counsel with counsel of his choice. Looking to applicable precedent, the court noted that a trial court should only deny a motion like defendant’s when “granting the motion would ‘result in significant prejudice to the defendant or in a disruption of the orderly processes of justice unreasonable under the circumstances[.]’” Slip Op. at 7, quoting State v. Goodwin, 267 N.C. App. 437, 440 (2019). Although the majority opinion noted possible issues with Court of Appeals precedent around the Goodwin standard, it proceeded to apply this reasoning to the present case, holding that “the trial court conducted an inquiry which revolved around issues concerning the further disruption and delay of trial.” Id. at 12. As a result, the court found no structural error with the trial court’s initial denial of the motion. 

The court then moved to defendant’s request for reconsideration of the motion on September 13. Normally a superior court judge is not authorized to overrule another, but when the order is (1) interlocutory, (2) discretionary, and (3) subject to a substantial change of circumstances, an exception to this rule applies. The court held that while the order was both (1) and (2), “the record does not reflect a substantial change in circumstances” and the trial court did not err in repronouncing the denial of the motion.  Id. at 14. 

Judge Stroud concurred by separate opinion, and concurred with the majority opinion except as to the citation of certain unpublished cases that were not argued by the parties. 

Judge Thompson dissented, and would have held that the trial court committed a structural error by denying defense counsel’s motion to withdraw.