State v. Palacio, COA22-231, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Feb. 21, 2023)

In this Onslow County case, defendant appealed his convictions for statutory rape, incest, and indecent liberties with a child. Defendant argued (1) a missing page of the transcript justified a new trial; (2) error in denying his motion to dismiss the incest charge; (3) error in denying his motion to suppress; and (4) a clerical error in the judgment required remand. The Court of Appeals did not find justification for a new trial or error with denial of the motion to suppress, but did vacate defendant’s incest conviction and remanded the case for correction of the clerical error on the judgment and resentencing. 

In 2018, the 15-year-old victim of defendant’s sexual advances moved in with defendant and his wife in Jacksonville. The victim is the daughter of defendant’s wife’s sister, making her defendant’s niece by affinity, not consanguinity. During several encounters, defendant made sexual advances and eventually engaged in sexual contact with the victim, and she reported this conduct to her father, who called the police. Prior to his trial, defendant moved to suppress statements made to after his arrest by the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office, but the trial court denied the motion. 

Reviewing (1), the Court of Appeals explained that a missing page from a trial transcript does not automatically justify a new trial. Instead, the applicable consideration is whether the lack of a verbatim transcript deprives the defendant of a meaningful right to appeal, and the court looked to the three-part test articulated in State v. Yates, 262 N.C. App. 139 (2018). Because defendant and his counsel “made sufficient reconstruction efforts that produced an adequate alternative to a verbatim transcript, he was not deprived of meaningful appellate review.” Slip Op. at 9.

Turning to (2), the incest charge, the court agreed with defendant that “the term ‘niece’ in [G.S.] 14-178 does not include a niece-in-law for the purposes of incest.” Id. The opinion explored the history of the incest statute and common law in North Carolina in extensive detail, coming to the conclusion that a niece-in-law does not represent a niece for purposes of criminal incest. As an illustration of the “absurd results” under North Carolina law if a niece by affinity were included, “an individual could marry their niece-in-law . . . [but] that individual would be guilty of incest if the marriage were consummated.” Id. at 20. As a result, the court vacated defendant’s incest conviction.

Considering (3), inculpatory statements made by defendant after his arrest, the court considered defendant’s arguments that the findings of fact were incomplete, and that the evidence did not support that he made the statements voluntarily. The court disagreed on both points, explaining that findings of fact “need not summarize all the evidence presented at voir dire,” as long as “the findings are supported by substantial and uncontradicted evidence, as they are here.” Id. at 26. As for the voluntariness of the statements, the court detailed several different points where defendant received Miranda warnings, signed an advisement of rights form, and even made a joke about being familiar with the rights through his work as an active duty marine with a law enforcement role. 

For defendant’s final issue (4), the clerical error, the court agreed with defendant that the trial court had orally dismissed the sexual activity by a substitute parent charge prior to sentencing. Although the jury did convict defendant of this charge, the transcript clearly indicated the trial court dismissed the charge before consolidating the other charges for sentencing. Looking to the rule articulated in State v. Smith, 188 N.C. App. 842 (2008), the court found that remand for correction was the appropriate remedy for the clerical error in the judgment to ensure the record reflected the truth of the proceeding. 

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