State v. Waycaster, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Aug. 14, 2020)

After violating his probation, the defendant was indicted on charges of interfering with an electronic monitoring device and attaining the status of a habitual felon. The habitual felon indictment charged defendant with attaining habitual felon status based on three prior felony convictions in McDowell County: (1) a June 4, 2001 conviction for felonious breaking and entering; (2) a February 18, 2010 conviction for felonious breaking and entering; and (3) a July 22, 2014 conviction for safecracking. At trial, the State admitted into evidence certified copies of the judgments for the latter two convictions to prove their existence.

Although the State could not obtain the original judgment associated with the June 4, 2001 conviction, the State introduced as an exhibit a computer printout from the Automated Criminal/Infraction System (ACIS). The Clerk of Court for McDowell County testified that ACIS is a statewide computer system relied on by courts and law enforcement agencies for accessing information regarding a defendant’s criminal judgments, offense dates, and conviction dates, manually entered into the database by an employee in the Clerk of Court’s office. The ACIS printout offered by the State showed that the defendant had been convicted of felonious breaking and entering on June 4, 2001, and the Clerk testified that the printout was a “certified true copy of the ACIS system.” The trial court admitted the printout into evidence over the defendant’s objection, and the jury found that the defendant had attained the status of a habitual felon.

On appeal, the defendant unsuccessfully argues that the trial court improperly allowed the ACIS printout because G.S. 14-7.4 contained the exclusive methods for proving prior convictions in a proceeding to determine habitual felon status. The Court of Appeals concluded that the statute was permissive and did not exclude methods of proof not specifically delineated in the Habitual Felons Act. The Supreme Court affirmed. The Court relied on the presence of the word “may” in the statute, as well as its prior interpretation of the Fair Sentencing Act, which contained similar language.

The dissenting Court of Appeals judge concluded that the introduction of the printout violated the best evidence rule because the printout was introduced as evidence of the defendant’s prior convictions and was not the original judgment. The majority rejected this argument, noting that the best evidence rule applies only when the contents of a document are at issue. The Court reasoned that here, the issue was not the contents of the conviction but rather the existence of the conviction. However, in a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Beasley noted that the nature of the Habitual Felons Act requires that the State prove that the defendant did, in fact, commit three prior felony offenses, and to do so requires the court to consider the contents of the record to be introduced for the purpose of confirming “that said person has been convicted of former felony offenses.” While the Chief concluded that the best evidence rule did apply to the introduction of the printout, the Chief noted that the State complied with the rule through the printout coupled with the Clerk’s testimony.