State v. Taylor, COA22-788, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jul. 5, 2023)

In this Vance County case, defendant appealed his convictions for second-degree murder, felony hit and run, DWI, reckless driving, failure to reduce speed, and failure to comply with license restrictions, arguing improperly admitted expert testimony and evidence of a prior DWI charge, a fatally defective indictment for the license restriction charge, and sentencing errors. The Court of Appeals found no error for the evidence issues but agreed that the indictment for the license restriction charge was defective and the sentencing issues were valid, remanding the matter for resentencing.  

In May of 2018, highway patrol troopers responded to the scene of an accident in Henderson where an SUV ran into the back of a sedan and seriously injured the passengers. The SUV was found several yards away from the sedan, wrecked into a fence, with a cold six-pack in the front seat and no driver inside. After a canine search, defendant was found hiding under a boxcar nearby, with the keys to the SUV in his pocket. When defendant’s blood alcohol level was sampled it was 0.15. At trial, a state trooper who was not one of the investigating officers testified as an expert regarding the speed of the SUV and whether it exceeded the speed limit. The trial court also admitted evidence of a pending 2017 DWI charge against defendant under Rule of Evidence 404(b). Defendant’s objections to both were overruled. 

The Court of Appeals first took up the expert testimony issue, turning to State v. McGrady, 368 N.C. 880 (2016), to explain the wide discretion granted to a trial court under Rule of Evidence 702(a) when determining whether to admit expert testimony. Slip Op. at 7-8. Here, the trooper was unable to use a scientific method for determining speed due to the circumstances of the crash, so he testified using his experience and specialized training. The Court found no issue with the testimony and noted defendant was able to fully cross-examine and challenge the expert testimony.  

Turning to the Rule 404(b) issue, the court noted that evidence of the 2017 DWI charge was admitted “to show his intent, knowledge, or absence of mistake to support malice, an essential element of second-degree murder.” Id. at 11. Finding that the admission was not error, the court pointed to a N.C. Supreme Court decision, State v. Jones, 353 N.C. 159 (2000), where evidence of a previous DWI charge was admitted for just such a purpose. 

For the license restriction charge, the court explained “[t]he State concedes the license restriction violation indictment was facially invalid,” and likewise conceded issues with prior record level and DWI level sentencing. Slip Op. at 13. As a result, the court found no error for all charges except the license restriction violation, which it vacated, and remanded the judgments for resentencing.