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State v. Hart

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

April 4, 2017


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 13 March 2017.

         Appeal by defendant from judgment entered 5 May 2016 by Judge Jay D. Hockenbury in Onslow County, No. 15 CRS 52257 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Durwin P. Jones, for the State.

          Charlotte Gail Blake for defendant-appellant.

          BRYANT, Judge.

         Where defendant sought to introduce evidence of a testifying officer's text conversations that had very low probative value, the trial court did not err in excluding the evidence. Accordingly, we find no error in the judgment of the trial court.

         On 12 January 2016, a grand jury indicted defendant Kendrick Hart on one count of possession of a firearm by a felon. Defendant was tried between 2 and 5 May 2016. During his trial, defendant stipulated to the fact that he was convicted of felony possession of cocaine on 4 November 2002.

         At trial, Justin Lea, a former officer who had worked with the Jacksonville Police Department during the events relevant to this case, testified to the following facts for the State: On 22 April 2015, Officer Lea and a few other officers went to a housing complex in Jacksonville to arrest an individual with an outstanding arrest warrant. As the officers were in the process of arresting the individual, Officer Lea witnessed a woman, later identified as Amy Brandon, exit the townhouse adjacent to the townhouse of the individual the officers were there to arrest. Upon seeing Officer Lea, Brandon retreated back into her townhouse. Officer Lea smelled "a very strong odor of marijuana" coming from the townhouse.

         Officer Lea and Officer John Clukey then went to Brandon's townhouse and knocked on the door. When Brandon opened the door, Officer Lea explained to her that he had smelled marijuana coming from the townhouse, and asked for her consent to search the townhouse in lieu of the officers seeking a search warrant. Brandon signed a consent form. When Officer Lea asked Brandon if there were any weapons in the house, Brandon replied that her boyfriend, later identified as defendant, "owned a black powder pistol, due to him being a convicted felon." Officer Lea went to search the master bedroom, and upon lifting a mattress discovered a padlocked "Smith & Wesson gun box." Officer Lea returned to Brandon and asked where the key to the padlock was. Brandon replied that defendant had the only key with him. Brandon also stated she had forgotten to mention that she owned a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol, and that she believed it was in the dresser drawer in the bedroom. After an officer returned to the bedroom and was unable to find the pistol, Brandon stated that defendant "must have moved it and put it in the gun case, too." Officers were able to pry open the gun box, wherein they discovered two firearms-a .25-caliber pistol and a revolver fully loaded with .45-caliber rounds.

         The next day, Officer Lea obtained a warrant for defendant's arrest and then returned with other officers to arrest defendant at his townhouse. As defendant was being searched incident to arrest, he informed Officer Lea "that he goes shooting with Ms. Brandon and her father and also cleans the guns afterwards, " and that he had been shooting the day prior.

         Following Officer Lea's testimony on direct examination, the trial court considered the State's motion in limine seeking to prohibit defense counsel from asking Officer Lea about the circumstances surrounding his resignation from the Jacksonville Police Department, which occurred less than three weeks after defendant was arrested. During voir dire, Officer Lea testified that he was going through a divorce at the time and texted a number he found on Craigslist under the heading "women seeking men." Officer Lea and the woman exchanged pictures via text. Upon receiving the woman's photo, Officer Lea realized that she was a prostitute who also served as a police informant, and their conversation ended at that point. On 6 May 2015, Officer Lea learned he was being investigated for this conduct, and he resigned the next day. After hearing arguments from counsel, the trial court allowed the motion in limine, concluding that "the witness' conduct is not probative of truthfulness or untruthfulness, " and that:

[T]he Court has, in the exercise of its discretion, taken into consideration the importance of the witness' testimony to the [S]tate; the lack of relevance of the act of misconduct or truthfulness; the remoteness of the act with respect to the trial date; that an inquiry will lead to time-consuming, distracting explanations not relevant to the case in chief; that there would be an unfair humiliation of the witness; and there would be undue prejudice to the [S]tate which outweighs de minimis probative value for the defendant.

         Brandon's testimony at trial regarding the events of 22 April 2015 contradicted Officer Lea's. Brandon stated that she had informed the officers who were searching her home on 22 April 2015 that both guns belonged to her. Brandon testified that while she usually did not keep the guns in the home due to defendant's felony conviction, she had retrieved the guns from her parents' house the week before because defendant was going to be out of town for several days.

         Defendant testified that he had previously owned black powder guns because he understood it was not illegal for him to possess them as a felon, but that his guns had been stolen out of his residence a couple of years prior to his arrest on the current charge. Defendant further testified that neither of the guns recovered from the gun box in his townhouse ...

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