State v. Schmieder, ___ N.C. App. ___, 827 S.E.2d 322 (Apr. 16, 2019)

In a case involving a conviction for second-degree murder following a fatal motor vehicle accident, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting evidence of the defendant’s past driving offenses. The State’s evidence showed that on 23 November 2016, the defendant was stopped for an expired plate and was issued a citation for driving with a suspended license. At the time of the incident in question, the defendant’s license had been suspended since 22 May 2014 for failure to appear for a 2013 infraction of failure to reduce speed. Since the defendant’s driver’s license was originally issued in September 1997, he had multiple driving convictions including: failure to stop for siren or red light, illegal passing, speeding 80 in a 50, and reckless driving in March 1998; speeding 64 in a 55 in September 2000; speeding 64 in a 55 in October 2000; speeding 70 in a 50 in August 2003; driving while license revoked and speeding 54 in a 45 in January 2005; speeding 54 in a 45 in December 2006; failure to reduce speed resulting in accident and injury in February 2007; a South Carolina conviction for speeding 34 in a 25 in March 2011; speeding 44 in a 35 in January 2012; speeding 84 in a 65 in May 2013; and failure to reduce speed in February 2017 (the conviction corresponding to the 2013 charge on which the defendant failed to appear). Six of these prior convictions resulted in suspension of the defendant’s license. On appeal the defendant argued that the trial court erred by admitting his prior driving record without sufficient evidence establishing temporal proximity and factual similarity. The court disagreed. It found that there was no question that his prior driving record was admissible to show malice. It further held that the trial court’s finding of similarity was supported by the fact that the vast majority of prior charges involve the same types of conduct that the defendant was alleged to have committed in the present case—namely speeding, illegal passing, and driving while license revoked. Although the State did not present evidence of the specific circumstances surrounding the prior convictions, the similarity was evident from the nature of the charges.

            The trial court’s finding of temporal proximity was supported by the spread of convictions over the entirety of the defendant’s record, from the year his license was issued up until the year of the accident in question, showing a consistent pattern of conduct including speeding, illegal passing, and driving with a revoked license. The gaps in time between charges, never greater than three or four years, were not significant. Moreover, many of the gaps between charges occurred when the defendant’s license was suspended and he could not legally drive. The trial court properly determined that the time gaps in this pattern of conduct were less significant in light of the likely causes for the gaps, the defendant’s inability to legally drive. Additionally, the trial court properly gave a limiting instruction

            The court further rejected the defendant’s argument that the evidence should have been excluded because of the 10 year time limit under evidence Rule 609. That rule however only applies to evidence used to impeach a witness’s credibility, which is not at issue here.