State v. Scott, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-314 (Jul. 6, 2021)

On remand from the North Carolina Supreme Court, this Alamance County case involved a medical blood draw from a defendant suspected of driving while impaired and second-degree murder. The Court of Appeals previously determined that the seizure of the defendant’s medical records without a search warrant violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights but found that the defendant failed to prove prejudice and was not entitled to relief (here). A dissent at the Court of Appeals agreed that the warrantless seizure was a Fourth Amendment violation but disagreed that the defendant was required to show prejudice. The North Carolina Supreme Court unanimously reversed, agreeing with the dissent below. It remanded to that court for application of the correct standard, harmless error, whereby the State has the burden to demonstrate that the error did not affect the validity and fairness of the proceedings beyond a reasonable doubt.

Evidence at trial showed that the defendant was driving recklessly at a high speed and passed another car in a no passing zone, and the defendant admitted as much. The defendant also had prior convictions for impaired driving and speeding. The State argued that this was sufficient to show malice for purposes of second-degree murder even without the blood result. However, the blood result was the only evidence of impairment—there were no signs of impairment at the scene, and no witness could attest that the defendant was impaired. The jury was instructed that it could find malice based on impairment, reckless driving, or speeding. It returned a general verdict and did not specify a theory of malice supporting the murder conviction. While the evidence of speeding, recklessness, and prior convictions were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss the murder charge, the State here did not establish that the erroneous admission of the blood evidence was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The conviction for second degree murder was therefore vacated and the matter remanded for a new trial. Judges Gore and Griffin concurred.