Heard in the Court of Appeals March 20, 2014.
Johnston County. No. 12CRS055655. Thomas H. Lock, Judge.
Attorney General Roy A. Cooper III, by Special Deputy Attorney General Lars F. Nance, for the State.
Michele Goldman, for defendant-appellant.
STROUD, Judge. Judges HUNTER, JR., Robert N. and DILLON concur.
Appeal by defendant from Judgment entered 12 March 2013 and Order entered 26 February 2013 by Judge Thomas H. Lock in Superior Court, Johnston County. Heard in the Court of Appeals 20 March 2014.
Francis Hogan, Jr. (" defendant" ) appeals from the judgment entered 12 March 2013 after he pled guilty to assault by strangulation and from the order entered 26 February 2013 denying in part his motion to suppress statements he made to police. We affirm the trial court's order denying defendant's motion to suppress in part and find no error in sentencing.
Defendant was indicted for assault on a female and assault by strangulation on 3 December 2012. The indictments alleged that defendant had assaulted Karen Teixeira by pushing her against a wall and by putting his hands around her neck and choking her. Defendant moved to suppress statements he made to police when they responded to the home that he and Ms. Teixeira shared.
On 16 September 2012, Deputy Reliford and Deputy Carroll of the Johnston County Sheriff's Office responded to a call reporting a domestic disturbance at a residence in Princeton. After they entered the house, they found defendant hiding in a closet which also contained " an engine and various engine parts" and the deputies were concerned that these objects may contain a hidden weapon. When defendant came out of the closet, Deputy Reliford put handcuffs on him and explained that he was doing this for " officer safety reasons." Defendant began acting " aggressively" toward Ms. Teixeira and her son and " telling them that he was going to have them removed from the home." Deputy Reliford walked defendant out to the back deck to help him calm down and to be able to talk to him " outside the presence of defendant's girlfriend, the victim." While they were on the back deck, Deputy Carroll left to respond to another call, thus leaving Deputy Reliford alone with defendant, the victim, and her son. On the back deck, Deputy Reliford began asking defendant questions about what had happened. Deputy Reliford did not advise defendant of his Miranda rights. Defendant made incriminating statements in response to Deputy Reliford's questions.
Deputy Reliford then asked Ms. Teixeira to come out to the back porch. He observed bruising on her neck and asked how she got the bruises. She stated that defendant put his hand around her neck and picked her up. She also stated that he had pushed her into a wall. Defendant then interjected that he put his hand around Ms. Teixeira's neck and squeezed and that he had pushed her into a
wall. Deputy Reliford then placed defendant under arrest.
The trial court granted the motion in part and denied it in part. It concluded that defendant was in custody during his interactions with Deputy Reliford. It therefore suppressed the statements defendant made in response to Deputy Reliford's direct questions. However, it concluded that defendant's second statement was " spontaneous," and not made in response to any questions posed to him by Deputy Reliford. It further concluded that asking Ms. Teixeira what happened in front of defendant was not the functional equivalent of interrogation. Therefore, the trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress those statements. It entered a written order finding the facts as summarized above on 26 February 2013.
Defendant entered an Alford guilty plea to assault by strangulation on 6 March 2013, but specifically reserved his right to appeal the partial denial of his motion to suppress. The State dismissed the assault on a female charge. On 12 March 2013, the trial court entered judgment sentencing defendant to a mitigated term of 9-20 months imprisonment, suspended for 30 months of supervised probation. That same day, defendant filed written notice of appeal from both the judgment and the order denying his motion to suppress in part.
II. Motion to Suppress
Defendant argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress his second statement to police because he was subjected to custodial interrogation without the benefit of Miranda warnings. He further contends that several of the trial court's findings of fact are unsupported by competent evidence.
A. Standard of Review
It is well-established that the standard of review in evaluating a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress is that the trial court's findings of fact are conclusive on appeal if supported by competent evidence, even if the evidence is conflicting. . . . [However,] the trial court's determination of whether an interrogation is conducted while a person is in custody . . . involves reaching a conclusion of law, which is fully reviewable on appeal.
State v. Crudup, 157 N.C.App. 657, 659, 580 S.E.2d 21, 23 (2003) (citations, quotation marks, and brackets omitted). Thus, we must first determine whether there is competent evidence to support the challenged findings of fact. We will then review de novo the trial court's conclusion of law as to whether defendant was subject to custodial interrogation. See State v. Biber, 365 N.C. 162, 168, 712 S.E.2d 874, 878 (2011) (" Conclusions of law are reviewed de novo and are subject to full review. Under a de novo review, the court considers the matter anew and freely substitutes its own judgment for that of the lower tribunal." (citations and quotation marks omitted)).
B. Findings of Fact
We first address defendant's challenge to the findings of fact. The trial court found that:
1. The defendant is charged with Assault on a Female and Assault by Strangulation.
2. On September 16, 2012, Deputy R.L. Reliford of the Johnston County Sheriff's Office responded to a domestic disturbance at [a residence] in Princeton.
3. The residence was the home of defendant and Karen Tiexeira [sic].
4. Upon entering the home, Deputies Paige Carroll and Reliford found defendant hiding in a closet and detained the defendant by putting him in handcuffs when he came out of the closet.
5. The closet in which defendant was hiding contained an engine and various engine parts. The deputies were concerned these objects ...