State v. Taylor, COA23-423, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Apr. 2, 2024)

In this Columbus County case, defendant appealed her conviction for second-degree murder based on driving while impaired (DWI) and reckless driving, arguing error in (1) denying her motion to suppress the results of a blood sample, (2) admitting a lab report prepared by an expert who did not testify, and (3) admitting evidence under Rule of Evidence 404(b) of previous DWIs and bad driving. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

In February of 2018, defendant caused a tractor-trailer to crash because she was driving very slowly in the right-hand lane of a highway. The driver of the tractor-trailer was killed when the cab caught fire after the accident. Several witnesses noted defendant’s slow responses and movements, and a State Highway Patrol trooper noticed cans of aerosol duster in her purse. The trooper took defendant to a hospital and she consented to a blood draw. Before trial defendant filed a motion to suppress the blood draw based on violations of G.S. 20-16.2, and a motion to limit Rule 404(b) evidence of prior DWIs and bad driving, but the trial court denied both motions. During the trial, the State offered two lab reports based on the blood sample, showing defendant had Difluoroethane (a substance from aerosol dusters), Xanax, and several other prescription drugs in her blood. Defense counsel objected to the lab reports on Sixth Amendment grounds as the testifying expert was not the scientist who authored the reports, but the trial court admitted them into evidence.

Reviewing (1), the Court of Appeals first noted that defendant’s objection to the blood sample at trial was based upon G.S. 20-16.2 (implied consent to chemical analysis), not on Fourth Amendment constitutional grounds. Here, the court pointed to State v. Davis, 364 N.C. 297 (2010), for the proposition that defendant’s failure to raise the constitutional issue by objection at trial resulted in her waiving the argument. Because defendant also did not renew the statutory argument on appeal, the court declined to address either issue. 

Moving to (2), the court explained “this case is not one in which the expert witness testifying in court did not personally participate in the testing.” Slip Op. at 14. Instead, the expert witness called by the State had participated in the lab analysis even though she was not listed as the author of the report, and she had reviewed the results as if she had conducted the tests herself. The court held that defendant’s Confrontation Clause rights were not violated because “[a]s an expert with personal knowledge of the processes involved and personal participation in the testing, [the State’s expert] was the witness whom Defendant had a right to cross-examine, and she was indeed subject to cross-examination at trial.” Id. at 15. 

Reaching (3), the court explained defendant’s argument rested upon the Rule 404(b) evidence failing the Rule of Evidence 403 balancing test, arguing the probative value did not outweigh the prejudicial nature of the evidence. The court noted each of the incidents were probative of malice and knowledge of the danger of defendant’s actions. When considering prejudice, the court explained that “[n]one of the prior incidents related to any particularly shocking or emotional facts that would have inflamed the jurors” and held the trial court properly denied defendant’s motion. Id. at 18.