State v. Womble, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-150 (Apr. 20, 2021)

In this Chatham County case, the State appealed from an order suppressing DNA evidence. The defendant was serving a life sentence for felony murder stemming from a robbery and killing in 1975. In 2008, the Court of Appeals ruled that inmates serving life under the Fair Sentencing Act were entitled to certain credits towards their sentence, which would have allowed the inmates (including the defendant) to be released. See State v. Bowden, 193 N.C. App. 597 (2008). In response, the Department of Public Safety began collecting DNA blood samples from inmates impacted by the Bowden decision to comply with the mandate of G.S. 15A-266.4 (requiring DNA samples before release from prison) and took the defendant’s sample. The North Carolina Supreme Court later reversed Bowden, and the defendant remained in prison.

In 2013, a codefendant contacted the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission and asserted that the defendant had not been involved in the 1975 murder. Investigation into the defendant’s background revealed that he had significant intellectual limitations and mental health issues and was functionally illiterate. Other evidence showed that the defendant’s confession at the time was unconstitutionally obtained. The Innocence Commission recommended release, and a three-judge panel found the defendant innocent and ordered him released from prison in 2014.

In 2017, law enforcement discovered a woman murdered in her apartment in Pittsboro. The defendant lived in the apartment complex at the time. Blood found on the crime scene matched to the defendant, but the SBI did not initially alert police to the match. Because the underlying murder conviction had been set aside, the SBI believed that the defendant’s DNA sample should not have been in the database. Months later, the SBI alerted local law enforcement to the DNA match to the defendant. A search warrant was obtained to procure a new sample from the defendant. The affidavit acknowledged that the match was based on a sample provided for the earlier, now-vacated conviction, but noted that the SBI did not receive an order for expunction of that sample. The new sample of the defendant’s DNA matched to the blood on the scene of the Pittsboro murder and the defendant could not be excluded as a source for other forensic evidence at the scene. The defendant was consequently charged with first-degree murder and moved to suppress the DNA results.

The suppression motion alleged that the DNA test results stemmed from the defendant’s illegal confession in 1975 as well as an unjustified warrantless search of the defendant’s DNA in 2017, and that counsel at the defendant’s innocence hearing was ineffective for failing to seek an expunction of the defendant’s DNA sample. The trial court found that the SBI lawfully obtained the defendant’s DNA sample and that defense counsel was not ineffective. It nonetheless granted the motion to suppress. The trial court reasoned that the DNA expunction statute wrongfully placed the burden on the defendant to move for relief, and that the lack of an automatic process for expunction in cases of exoneration violated the Law of the Land clause of the state constitution under Article 1, section 19. Neither party raised this argument. The Court of Appeals reversed.

(1) The State sought to have the suppression order reversed on the basis that the Law of the Land clause argument was not raised in the trial court and was not therefore preserved for appellate review. This was incorrect. According to the court: “Our precedents clearly allow the party seeking to uphold the trial court’s presumed-to-be-correct and ultimate ruling to, in fact, choose and run any horse to race on appeal to sustain the legally correct conclusion of the order appealed from.” Womble Slip op. at 16. The trial court had inherent authority to grant the motion on grounds other than those argued before it and the issue was preserved for review.

(2) G.S. 15A-148 permits a defendant whose conviction is dismissed on appeal or by pardon of innocence to petition for expunction of a DNA sample provided in connection with the case. This statute did not apply to the defendant’s situation because an appellate court did not dismiss his original conviction and he did not receive a pardon. Innocence Commission cases are heard by a three-judge panel. They conduct an evidentiary hearing and sit as finder of fact, unlike an appellate court. While a superior court can in some instances act as an appellate court (reviewing only record evidence), innocence-claim judicial panels are expressly tasked with taking and weighing evidence. G.S. 15A-1469.

G.S. 15A-146 permits expunction when a case is dismissed and may include a request for expunction of the defendant’s DNA sample taken in connection with the case. Under the version of the statute in effect in 2019, a person did not qualify for this type of expunction if they had previously been convicted of a felony. The defendant had felony convictions unrelated to the original murder conviction, and those rendered the defendant ineligible for expunction under G.S. 15A-146 as well. The trial court therefore correctly determined that the SBI lawfully possessed and retained the defendant’s DNA sample.

(3) The court agreed with the trial court that the defendant has the burden to seek expunction under the statutory framework. It further observed that expunctions act prospectively and not retrospectively—the criminal record is only erased after the final order of expunction has been filed. Here, the defendant did not seek expunction and alleged no disability preventing him from doing so. The trial court’s ruling on the Law of the Land clause was incorrect. In determining a violation under that clause, the court asks “(1) Does the regulation have a legitimate objective; and (2) if so, are the means chosen to implement that objective reasonable?” Womble Slip op. at 27. The State has a legitimate interest in maintaining records of convicted felons to assist with solving other crimes, and this is sufficient to satisfy the first prong of the test. The statutes regarding collection of DNA samples from convicted felons and the process by which those records may be expunged were also reasonable. According to the court:

The trial court’s suppression of the DNA evidence based upon the Law of the Land Clause denied the longstanding presumption of validity of legislative policy choices and is error. The application of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-148 is presumed to be, and is, constitutional under the Law of the Land Clause. Id. at 28.

The trial court’s order to the contrary was therefore reversed.

(4) While not addressed by the trial court, the Court of Appeals also examined due process arguments under the Fourteenth Amendment as issues likely to recur on remand. North Carolina’s Law of the Land clause is the state counterpart to the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and has been interpreted to provide greater protections than its federal relative. Because no violation occurred under the Law of the Land clause, no federal due process violation occurred either.

The defendant also argued Nelson v. Colorado, 581 U.S. ___, 137 S. Ct. 1249 (2017), as an additional ground to affirm the trial court. That case found Colorado’s process of requiring the defendant to prove by clear and convincing evidence in a new civil action that the person was actually innocent before refunding financial costs imposed in relation to an overturned conviction violated due process. Under Nelson, “a State may not impose anything more than minimal procedures on the refund of exactions dependent upon a conviction subsequently invalidated” to comport with due process. Id. The court assumed without deciding that the defendant’s DNA could be treated like the fees and fines in Nelson. Here though, the defendant never pursued the statutory minimum procedure of filing for an expunction. This precluded review by the Court of Appeals. “Defendant did not argue this basis before the trial court and his failure to request the return of his blood as an exaction of his invalidated conviction prevents us from considering the matter as a violation of his federal Due Process rights.” Womble Slip op. at 31. This claim was therefore dismissed.

(5) The defendant argued that his DNA sample obtained while in prison for his original conviction was the fruit of the poisonous tree as an additional ground to affirm the trial court. According to the defendant, the detective coerced his confession in 1975 and this rendered the DNA sample inadmissible. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument too, finding that the sample was obtained from an independent source. Under the independent source exception to the exclusionary rule, “evidence obtained illegally should not be suppressed if it is later acquired pursuant to a constitutionally valid search or seizure.” Id. at 32. No court had ever ruled that the detective at issue wrongfully obtained the defendant’s confession or that the confession was the fruit of the poisonous tree. Furthermore, the defendant also confessed to other law enforcement agents at the time, and this was an adequate independent source of the DNA sample. This argument was dismissed as well.

(6) The defendant argued his 2009 DNA sample was wrongfully obtained as a warrantless search unsupported by exigent circumstances. In Maryland v. King, 569 U.S. 435 (2013), the Supreme Court approved the taking of a DNA sample by swabbing the inner cheek of a person validly arrested on probable cause, reasoning that the search (the swab) was reasonable under the circumstances. The defendant’s case was different, in that the DNA sample was obtained by way of an intravenous blood-draw. While this process is more invasive than the swab at issue in King, it was not a significant intrusion. As an inmate at the time, the defendant had a reduced (though not nonexistent) expectation of privacy. The defendant was not singled out to provide a sample; he was part of a category of prisoners being prepared for release. “This intrusion is weighted against the government’s interest in preserving an identification record of convicted felons for resolving past or future crimes.” Womble Slip op. at 40. The court determined that the State’s interest outweighed the intrusion upon the defendant’s privacy rights and again affirmed that no Fourth Amendment violation occurred.

(7) The defendant claimed his innocence-claim attorneys were ineffective for failing to expunge his conviction and DNA sample. The State argued that there is no right to an attorney in collateral review and that there was therefore no ineffective assistance claim to be made. The defendant analogized this situation to that of Kentucky v. Padilla, 559 U.S. 356 (holding that the right to counsel requires the client to be correctly informed of clear immigration consequences). He argued that the DNA sample was a similar collateral consequence. The Court of Appeals again disagreed. In the words of the court:

Defendant did not have a statutory right to expungement under either N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 15A-146 or 15A-148. Defendant’s counsel does not have a duty to pursue a remedy unavailable at law. Under Strickland, Defendant’s counsel’s performance cannot be ‘deficient’ for not pursuing a claim that is unavailable to him. Womble Slip op. at 43.

(8) The State argued that the DNA sample was admissible even if the defendant’s rights were violated under the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule. Pursuant to that rule, if State shows by a preponderance of evidence that law enforcement would have discovered the evidence despite their unconstitutional actions, the evidence may still be admitted. See Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984). According to the State, law enforcement had already decided upon the defendant as a prime suspect in the 2017 murder and would have ultimately arrested him even without the DNA sample. The trial court precluded the State from presenting evidence of prior altercations between the defendant and his girlfriend spanning a period of time from the month before the 2017 murder to several months after. The trial court based its ruling on the fact that the detective did not learn of these prior disturbances until after the SBI alerted law enforcement to the DNA match. This was error. “Nowhere does our precedent impose a temporal component to evidence subject to inevitable discovery, only that the evidence ‘would have been inevitably discovered’ by police.” Womble Slip op. at 46.

The case was therefore affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings.