State v. Phillips, COA22-866, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Oct. 3, 2023)

In this Cumberland County case, defendant appealed her conviction for assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, arguing error in altering a pattern jury instruction to include language on the prohibition of excessive force. The Court of Appeals majority agreed, vacating the judgment and remanding for a new trial. 

Defendant and another woman got into a verbal altercation in April of 2021, leading to defendant shooting the victim. Defendant was indicted and came to trial in May of 2022. At trial, witnesses testified that the victim came onto defendant’s front porch, ending with the shooting. Defendant requested the trial court provide North Carolina Pattern Jury Instruction-Criminal (NCPJI) 308.80 on self-defense within a defendant’s home. The trial court modified NCPJI 308.80 by including language “prohibiting the use of ‘excessive force.’” Slip Op. at 2. Defendant objected to the modified instruction but the trial court provided it to the jury, and defendant was subsequently convicted. 

Defendant argued on appeal that the state’s “Castle Doctrine” provided a rebuttable presumption that deadly force was necessary, meaning excessive force was impossible unless the presumption that deadly force was necessary was rebutted by the State. Reviewing defendant’s argument, the Court of Appeals noted that in North Carolina, the “Castle Doctrine” in G.S. 14-51.2 does not prohibit the use of excessive force, and “ultimate force is presumed necessary unless the presumption is rebutted.” Id. at 4. Likewise, North Carolina’s “Stand Your Ground” law in G.S. 14-51.3 permits the use of deadly force and does not require the defendant to retreat if they are in a legally occupied place. Id. Summarizing the two overlapping doctrines, the court noted:

The Stand Your Ground Doctrine overlaps with the Castle Doctrine because the Stand Your Ground Doctrine also applies in Castle Doctrine scenarios, i.e., self-defense situations within the home. So if the Castle Doctrine presumption applies, deadly force is presumed necessary, and you need not retreat. Said differently: If you reasonably believe an intruder is unlawfully entering your home, you have a presumed right to use deadly force under the Castle Doctrine, and you need not retreat under the Stand Your Ground Doctrine

Id. at 5 (citations omitted). The court also made a distinction between State v. Benner, 380 N.C. 621 (2022), and the current case, noting that Benner concerned excessive force under the Stand Your Ground doctrine, not the Castle Doctrine. Id. at 5-6. Summarizing applicable precedent, the court concluded “[u]nder the Castle Doctrine, excessive force is impossible unless the State rebuts the Castle Doctrine presumption, but under the Stand Your Ground Doctrine, excessive force is possible if the defendant acts disproportionately.” Id. at 7. 

The court moved on to the instruction in this case, explaining that “[h]ere, when the trial court conclusively stated that ‘defendant does not have the right to use excessive force,’ the trial court concluded that the State rebutted the Castle Doctrine presumption.” Id. at 8. This was error as it removed the jury’s role in determining whether the Castle Doctrine presumption was rebutted by the State. The court also concluded that the instruction was confusing to the jury, and represented prejudice sufficient to overturn the judgment and order a new trial.

Judge Hampson dissented by separate opinion, and would have held that the instruction was appropriate under applicable North Carolina precedent on the use of force in self-defense scenarios.