State v. Robinson, 2022-NCSC-60, ___ N.C. ___ (May. 6, 2022)

In this Buncombe County case, the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ determination that the trial court lacked a factual basis to accept the defendant’s guilty plea, but modified the holding of the Court of Appeals by vacating the plea arrangement and remanding for further proceedings.

Defendant pled guilty to four charges resulting from his assault and strangulation of his then-girlfriend over the course of a single evening after reportedly holding the victim captive in her home for three days. As provided by the plea agreement between the defendant and the State, the trial judge sentenced the defendant to four consecutive sentences for the four offenses charged: assault on a female, violation of a domestic violence protective order, assault inflicting serious bodily injury, and assault by strangulation. The defendant subsequently petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which was granted by the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals filed a divided opinion reversing the trial court’s judgment and sentence, and the State appealed.

Applying its ruling in State v. Dew, 379 N.C. 64 (2021), that a single assaultive episode will support multiple assault charges only when there is a clear break delineating the end of one assault and the beginning of another, such as an intervening event, significant lapse of time, or change in location, the Supreme Court concluded that the facts presented at the defendant’s plea hearing did not establish such a distinct interruption. Instead, the factual statements provided at that hearing described a confined and continuous attack in which the defendant choked and punched the victim in rapid succession and without interruption. Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ ruling that the trial court erred when it accepted the plea and entered judgment on the three different assault charges (assault on a female, assault inflicting serious bodily injury, and assault by strangulation).

The Supreme Court disagreed, however, with the Court of Appeals’ prescribed remedy of arresting judgment on the lesser assault charges (assault on a female and assault by strangulation) and remanding for resentencing on assault inflicting serious bodily injury and violation of a DVPO. Noting that it is not the role of an appellate court to accept certain portions of a plea arrangement while rejecting others, the Supreme Court modified the holding of the Court of Appeals by vacating the entire plea arrangement.

Chief Justice Newby, joined by Justice Barringer, dissented on the basis that the prosecutor’s factual summary and testimony from the victim tended to show there was a distinct interruption between each assault.