State v. Wright, 2022-NCCOA-418, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jun. 21, 2022)

In this Wake County case, defendant appealed on several grounds after being convicted of violating the provisions of the sex offender registry and attaining habitual felon status. In 2015 defendant was residing at a homeless shelter in Raleigh, but in July of 2015 he was taken to a drug treatment program in Goldsboro. Defendant left the program after only two days, but did not update the address where he was residing with the local sheriff. Defendant was arrested in August of 2015, and indicted for violating the requirements of the sex offender registry.

At trial, defendant made motions to dismiss based in the indictment being defective and for insufficiency of the evidence presented. These motions were denied. During sentencing, the trial court did not allow defendant to get his papers in order to make a statement to the court; after a back-and-forth exchange, the court moved on without allowing defendant to make a statement. The trial court imposed a sentence in September of 2019, and defendant appealed.

Defendant argued that (1) the indictment failed to allege three essential elements of the sex offender registry violation; (2) the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury as to an element of the offense and misstated an element of the defense; (3) the trial court improperly denied defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of substantial evidence; (4) the trial court deprived defendant of his right to allocution; and (5) the trial court erred by ordering defendant to pay attorney fees.

The Court of Appeals examined issue (1) of the appeal by defining the three essential elements of the violation: (a) that defendant is a person who must register; (b) that defendant has changed addresses; and (c) that defendant failed to notify the last registering sheriff of the change within three business days. The court concluded that while the indictment could have been more explicit and precise, it was sufficient to support the trial court’s jurisdiction and was not subject to hyper-technical scrutiny.

Taking up issue (2) of the appeal, the court examined the jury instructions contested by defendant. In particular, the Court of Appeals reviewed the instructions regarding (a) whether they adequately put the burden of proof on the State to prove that defendant changed his address, and (b) whether they adequately directed the jury to determine whether the defendant willfully failed to report his change of address (rather than simply that he willfully changed his address). Regarding (a), the court found that the instructions were clear and showed that the standard was beyond a reasonable doubt through repeated portions of the instructions given to the jury. Considering (b), the court examined the language “willfully changed defendant’s address and failed to provide written notice of defendant’s new address” from the instruction given to the jury. When examined with the surrounding language of the instructions that more clearly connected the willfulness requirement with the failure to report, the Court of Appeals found that this language, even if erroneous, did not constitute error because it was not sufficiently prejudicial when considered with the entirety of the instruction.

When considering the existence of substantial evidence for issue (3), the court found testimony in the record showing defendant’s awareness of his obligation to update his address. Additionally, evidence in the record showed that defendant left the drug treatment facility after only two days, and did not return to his registered address, supporting willful failure to update his address with the sheriff. The court also examined the evidence supporting the felonies used to justify habitual felon status, and found sufficient evidence showing the felonies did not overlap and were all committed after defendant turned 18 years old.  

The Court of Appeals found that defendant’s issue (4) had merit; the trial court did not adequately allow defendant to address the court and deprived him of his right to allocution. During the exchange with the trial court, defendant repeatedly asked to get his papers. The trial court refused to allow this, but did not provide an opportunity for defendant to speak after the third time defendant referenced needing his papers. Because defendant was not clearly told he could speak without his papers, and the court did not inquire about defendant’s desire to speak without them, the trial court effectively refused to allow defendant to make a statement. Based upon this failure, the court vacated defendant’s sentence and remanded to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing.

Finally, the court denied the petition underlying issue (5), regarding the judgment for attorney fees, as no civil judgment was entered against defendant. An order for attorney fees appears in the record, but it does not appear to be filed with the Wake County Clerk of Court. As a result, the court dismissed this portion of defendant’s appeal.