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State v. Price

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

April 1, 2014


Heard in the Court of Appeals December 10, 2013.

Alexander County. No. 10 CRS 52031.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, by Assistant Attorney General Joseph L. Hyde, for the State.

Appellate Defender Staples Hughes, by Assistant Appellant Defendant David W. Andrews, for defendant-appellee.

ELMORE, Judge. Judges McGEE and HUNTER, Robert, C., concur.


Page 310

ELMORE, Judge.

Appeal by the State from orders entered 28 May 2012 by Judge Theodore S. Royster, Jr. in Alexander County Superior Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 10 December 2013.

Page 311

On 14 January 2013, David Keith Price (defendant) was indicted by superseding indictment for possession of a firearm by a felon under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-415.1. Defendant filed three pre-trial motions. First, he filed a motion to dismiss in which he argued, inter alia, that the North Carolina Felony Firearms Act was unconstitutional on its face and as applied to him. Subsequently, he filed two motions to suppress-one to suppress illegally obtained statements and one to suppress illegally obtained evidence. Following a motions hearing on 11 February 2013 in Alexander County Superior Court, Judge Theodore S. Royster, Jr. granted each of defendant's motions. The State now appeals. After careful consideration, we reverse.

I. Background

At the motions hearing, Officer Chad Starbuck (Officer Starbuck), an enforcement officer for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, testified that on 2 December 2010 he was patrolling a portion of Alexander County, investigating reports of trespassing and hunting violations, when he encountered defendant near a deer stand in a pine forest. Defendant was in full camouflage and was carrying a hunting rifle. Officer Starbuck was in uniform, and, upon seeing defendant, he " got out of the vehicle and walked towards [defendant's] direction."

Officer Starbuck identified himself and asked defendant to produce his hunting license. Pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 113-136, wildlife enforcement officers are " authorized to stop temporarily any persons they reasonably believe to be engaging in activity regulated by their respective agencies to determine whether such activity is being conducted within the requirements of the law, including license requirements. " N.C. Gen. Stat. § 113-136(f) (2013) (emphasis added). Officer Starbuck also asked defendant, " how he had got to that location?" Defendant replied that his wife dropped him off on the property.

Officer Starbuck asked defendant if he was a convicted felon? Defendant answered, " yes." After further investigation, Officer Starbuck determined that defendant was in fact a felon, and he called in Officer Michael Bruce (Officer Bruce) of the Alexander County Sheriff's Department as " backup." Officer Bruce took custody of the firearm. Defendant was neither told that he was under arrest nor placed in handcuffs at any point, and he was released from the scene to his wife. He was later arrested on 16 December 2010 on a charge of being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.

At the motions hearing, Judge Royster granted defendant's motion to dismiss:

I'm dismissing it based upon violation of this 4th Amendment rights of the seizure at the time past the point where he said yes, I have a hunting license, here it is, past that point I think the seizure is, or the appellate cases in the U.S Supreme Court have ruled when you stop someone longer than is necessary to initially investigate what you're initially stopping for, and in this case it could only be a violation, possible violation of the wildlife laws, that's what he was there for, and once he determined there was no violation of those laws any further detainment would be a seizure under the 4th Amendment. And that's the reason I'm dismissing it based upon the violation of that.

Judge Royster subsequently instructed defense counsel " to draw me an order to that effect[.]" However, the written dismissal order filed 28 May 2013 does not reference any Fourth Amendment violation; it dismisses the charge on the basis of an unconstitutional application of the Felony Firearms Act to defendant. Specifically, Judge Royster, Jr. concluded in the written order: (1) that the trial court had jurisdiction to hear and determine defendant's motion to dismiss as a violation of his constitutional rights; (2) that the Federal Firearms Act as applied was unconstitutional because defendant did not present a danger to the community; and (3) the

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" 2004 versions of North Carolina General Statute § 14-415.1 is an unconstitutional violation of Article I, Section 30 of the North Carolina Constitution as it is an unreasonable regulation, not fairly related to the preservation of public peace and safety." [1]

II. Standard of Review

When reviewing the trial court's grant of a criminal defendant's motion to dismiss, we are " strictly limited to determining whether the trial judge's underlying findings of fact are supported by competent evidence, in which event they are conclusively binding on appeal, and whether those factual findings in turn support the judge's ultimate conclusions of law." State v. Williams, 362 N.C. 628, 632, 669 S.E.2d 290, 294 (2008) (quotation and citation omitted). We review the trial court's conclusions of law de novo. State v. Biber, 365 N.C. 162, 168, 712 S.E.2d 874, 878 (2011).

" The standard of review for questions concerning constitutional rights is de novo. Furthermore, when considering the constitutionality of a statute or act there is a presumption in favor of constitutionality, and all doubts must be resolved in favor of the act." Row v. Row, 185 N.C.App. 450, 454-55, 650 S.E.2d 1, 4 (2007) (citations, quotations, and ellipses omitted). Under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-954(a)(1) (2013), " [t]he court on motion of the defendant must dismiss the charges stated in a criminal pleading if it determines that: [t]he statute alleged to have been violated is unconstitutional on its face or as applied to the defendant." Id.

III. Constitutional Violation

The State makes three arguments to support its position that the trial court erred in dismissing the charge against defendant. First, the State challenges the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction. Second, the State avers that the trial court's findings of fact do not support its conclusions of law. Third, the State argues that the trial court's conclusions are erroneous as a matter of law. We will address each of these arguments in turn.

A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

The State specifically avers that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, while the case was on appeal, to enter a written order that did not accurately reflect its oral ruling at the motions hearing. The thrust of the State's argument is that because the trial court orally dismissed the charge against defendant based on a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter a written order dismissing the charge due to an unconstitutional application of the Federal Firearms Act. We disagree.

" Whether a trial court has subject-matter jurisdiction is a question of law, reviewed de novo on appeal." McKoy v. McKoy, 202 N.C.App. 509, 511, 689 S.E.2d 590, 592 (2010). N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1448(a) sets forth the guidelines for time for entry of an appeal and jurisdiction over a case. Under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1448(a)(3), " [t]he jurisdiction of the trial court with regard to the case is divested . . . when notice of appeal has been given and the period described in [N.C.G.S. § 15A-1448(a)(1)-(2)] . . . has expired." Subsection (1) of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1448(a) provides that " [a] case remains open for the taking of an appeal to the appellate division for the period provided in the rules of appellate procedure for giving notice of appeal." Id. § 15A-1448(a)(1).

Rule 4 of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure allows two modes of appeal in a criminal case. First, a party may give oral notice of appeal, provided it is spoken at the time of trial. State v. Oates, 366 N.C. 264, 268, 732 S.E.2d 571, 574 (2012). Second, notice of appeal may be in writing and " filed with the clerk of court . . . at any time between the date of the rendition of the judgment or order and the fourteenth day after entry of the judgment or order." Id.

Page 313

In making its argument, the State relies on State v. Davis, where this Court stated that the " general rule is that the jurisdiction of the trial court is divested when notice of appeal is given[.]" 123 N.C.App. 240, 242, 472 S.E.2d 392, 393 (1996) (citation omitted) (holding that the trial court was without jurisdiction to amend the judgment in the course of settling the record on appeal to reflect the intentions ...

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