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State v. Williams

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

May 16, 2017

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
DARYL WILLIAMS, Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 25 January 2017.

         Appeal by defendant from judgment entered 12 August 2015 by Judge Paul L. Jones in Wayne County Nos. 14 CRS 055045, 15 CRS 000551 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Scott A. Conklin, for the State.

          Gilda C. Rodriguez for defendant-appellant.

          ELMORE, Judge.

         Daryl Williams (defendant) was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon after officers found an AK-47 rifle in the back seat of a vehicle and a Highpoint .380 pistol next to the rear tire on the passenger's side. At trial, the State offered evidence of a prior incident in which officers found a Glock 22 pistol in a different vehicle occupied by defendant. The trial court admitted the evidence to show defendant's knowledge and opportunity to commit the crime charged. At the conclusion of trial, the jury found defendant guilty of possession of a firearm by a felon and he pleaded guilty to attaining habitual felon status.

         After his conviction, defendant filed a petition for writ of certiorari, which we allowed. Defendant argues that evidence of the prior incident was not admissible under Rules 404(b) and 403, and that the trial court erred each time it instructed the jury on the limited purpose for which it could consider the evidence. Reviewing for prejudicial error, we hold that the trial court erred in admitting the evidence as circumstantial proof of defendant's knowledge, and the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the evidence as circumstantial proof of defendant's opportunity to commit the crime charged. We need not address defendant's second argument regarding the court's jury instructions. Defendant is entitled to a new trial.

         I. Background

         On 30 November 2014 at 1:45 a.m., Officer Kenneth Prevost responded to a "shots fired" call at the Alpha Arms Apartments in Goldsboro. Upon his arrival, he saw defendant and two unidentified men in the parking lot standing near a Crown Victoria. The front passenger's door was open and he saw defendant put something into the vehicle before shutting the door. The two men walked away as Officer Prevost approached but defendant remained standing on the passenger's side of the vehicle.

         When Officer Prevost asked defendant if he had heard any gunshots, defendant replied that he had not. Defendant also denied having any weapons on him. Officer Prevost frisked defendant and, after confirming he was unarmed, told defendant he was free to go. As defendant walked away, Officer Prevost shined a flashlight inside the Crown Victoria and observed an AK-47 rifle in the back seat. When he saw the rifle, he ordered defendant to stop and placed him under arrest.

         Officer Prevost searched defendant incident to his arrest, finding the keys to the Crown Victoria in his pants pocket. Once backup arrived, the officers proceeded to search the vehicle. Officer Prevost noticed a strong odor of marijuana when he opened the passenger's side door but did not find any marijuana inside the vehicle. The officers did find defendant's debit card, his social security card, and a medication bottle with defendant's name on it. Although the vehicle was not registered to defendant, Officer Prevost testified that he had seen defendant driving it on other occasions.

         Along with the rifle in the back seat, the officers found a Highpoint .380 pistol underneath the vehicle, next to the rear tire on the passenger's side. Officer Prevost seized the firearms and secured them in the trunk of his patrol car. No fingerprint analysis was conducted on the rifle or pistol, and no tests were performed to determine if they had been fired that night.

         Defendant offered evidence at trial tending to show that he had no knowledge of the rifle and pistol recovered at the scene. Tyrik Joyner testified that he was at the apartment complex on 30 November 2014 with his cousin, Ty'rek Mathis. Joyner was visiting with his "homegirl, " Shaniqua Johnson, who lived in one of the apartments. Joyner received a call from his uncle who had recently purchased the AK-47 and asked Joyner to hold onto the rifle while he went to the club. His uncle dropped off the rifle and Joyner, having nowhere else to keep it, placed it in the back seat of the unlocked Crown Victoria. He claimed that the vehicle belonged to Johnson, though she let other people drive it. Joyner testified that no one fired the rifle and the shots he and Mathis heard came from a different direction. Although Joyner had seen defendant walking around the apartment complex earlier that evening, defendant was not at Johnson's apartment and was not present when Joyner placed the rifle in the back seat.

         Mathis also testified that he was with Joyner at the apartment complex that night. Mathis was reluctantly carrying a pistol that belonged to another cousin, who had asked Mathis to hold it for him. Mathis and Joyner planned on going to Johnson's apartment that night to drink and play cards but Mathis knew that Johnson would not allow guns in her apartment. He also testified: "I'm not no guy that, you know, walk around with no gun." When he saw Joyner place the rifle in the back seat of the Crown Victoria, Mathis decided he too would leave the pistol underneath the vehicle before heading inside. As far as he knew, the vehicle belonged to Johnson and was driven by Johnson. Mathis testified that he did not see defendant or the police that night. It was only when he left Johnson's apartment later that he realized the pistol was gone.

         The issues raised in defendant's petition for writ of certiorari are based upon the admission of Rule 404(b) evidence at trial. Officer Prevost and Sergeant Leanne Rabun testified that they had a previous encounter with defendant on 12 July 2013 (the "prior incident"). They responded to a call to investigate a suspected drug transaction between two men in the parking lot of a strip mall. One had since left the parking lot but the other was seen entering a white SUV. Officer Prevost arrived to conduct a K-9 sniff of the vehicle and saw defendant, the sole occupant, sitting in the driver's seat. The sniff led to a subsequent search of the vehicle in which the officers found a Glock 22 pistol with an extended magazine underneath the driver's seat.

         At trial, the State argued that it was not offering the evidence to prove conduct in conformity therewith but as independently relevant circumstantial evidence of motive, knowledge, and identity. Sergeant Rabun testified during voir dire that defendant told her he was carrying the Glock 22 because his house had been robbed which, according to the State, was evidence of his motive to carry a firearm for protection. As to knowledge, the State argued that the prior incident tended to show that defendant knew the rifle and pistol were in and around the Crown Victoria. Finally, the State asserted that the prior incident was relevant to identify defendant as the perpetrator because it shows "that these are his firearms. That's a habit of his modus operandi to have firearms."

         After voir dire, the trial court announced its ruling on the evidence:

THE COURT: Okay. Court's going to allow that evidence in for limited purpose of basically the fact that the officers were familiar with him; and on a prior occasion, that being July 12, 2013, there was a prior incident which defendant was stopped for suspicion of some crime; and they found him in possession of a firearm, and that's going to be the extent of it.

         Although the purpose for which the evidence was initially admitted is not clear, the court subsequently denied the State's request to ask Sergeant Rabun about the reason for which defendant had the Glock 22, indicating that the prior incident was not admitted to show motive.

         After Officer Prevost and Sergeant Rabun testified, the trial court instructed the jury that it could only consider the evidence as proof of defendant's knowledge:

THE COURT: . . . Ladies and Gentlemen, the Court is going to give you a limited instruction regarding prior testimony in this case. Evidence of other crimes is inadmissible if it's only referenced to show the character of the accused.
There are two exceptions, one where a specific mental attitude, state, is an essential element of the crime charged. Evidence may be offered of certain action, declaration of the accused as it tends to establish the requisite mental intent or state even though the evidence disclosed the commission of another offense by the accused. And two, where a guilt[y] knowledge is an essential element of the crime charged. Evidence to be offered of such action and declaration of an accused tend[s] to establish the requisite guilt[y] knowledge even though the evidence reveals commission of another offense by the accused.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the defendant cannot be convicted in this trial for something he has done in the past unless it is an essential element of the charge here.

         Later, during the charge conference, the trial court announced for the first time that the evidence could also be considered as proof of defendant's opportunity to commit the ...


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