State v. Mercer, 373 N.C. 459 (Feb. 28, 2020)

Confronting a question of first impression, the court held that “in narrow and extraordinary circumstances” the common law defense of justification may be an affirmative defense to a charge of possession of a firearm by a felon under G.S. 14-415.1.  Noting that justification is an affirmative defense which a defendant carries the burden of proving at trial, the court joined the Court of Appeals in adopting an analysis from United States v. Deleveaux, 205 F.3d 1292 (11th Cir. 2000) andheld that a defendant invoking justification as a defense to a violation of G.S. 14-415.1 must show: 

(1) that the defendant was under unlawful and present, imminent, and impending threat of death or serious bodily injury; (2) that the defendant did not negligently or recklessly place himself in a situation where he would be forced to engage in criminal conduct; (3) that the defendant had no reasonable legal alternative to violating the law; and (4) that there was a direct causal relationship between the criminal action and the avoidance of the threatened harm.

Having established that justification is a defense to a violation of G.S. 14-415.1, the court examined whether the defendant in this case was entitled to a jury instruction on the defense.  Such an instruction is required, the court explained, when each of the four “Deleveaux factors” is supported by evidence taken in the light most favorable to the defendant.  The defendant’s evidence suggested that he was under a qualifying threat as it showed that he and two friends, J and Wardell, arrived to his home to find that a group of fifteen people, some of whom were armed, had assembled at the home intending to fight the defendant.  As tensions elevated towards violence, the defendant took Wardell’s gun as Wardell seemed unfamiliar with it and, in the defendant’s view, would be unable to use it in their defense.  The court concluded that there was evidence of each of the Deleveaux factors under these facts and that the trial court committed prejudicial error by denying the defendant’s request to instruct the jury on the defense.

A dissenting justice, Justice Morgan, “welcom[ed] the establishment of the justification defense” for this criminal offense but did not believe that the evidence in the instant case was sufficient to require the trial judge to give the instruction.