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State v. Godwin

Supreme Court of North Carolina

June 9, 2017

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
WILLIAM EDWARD GODWIN III

          Heard in the Supreme Court on 22 March 2017.

         On discretionary review pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 786 S.E.2d 34 (2016), finding prejudicial error in a judgment entered on 15 November 2013 by Judge Gary M. Gavenus in Superior Court, Mecklenburg County, and ordering that defendant receive a new trial. On 22 September 2016, the Supreme Court allowed defendant's conditional petition for discretionary review as to an additional issue.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Kristin J. Uicker, Assistant Attorney General, for the State-appellant/appellee.

          Rudolf Widenhouse, by M. Gordon Widenhouse, Jr., for defendant-appellant/appellee.

          JACKSON, Justice.

         In this appeal we consider whether North Carolina Rule of Evidence 702(a1) requires a law enforcement officer to be recognized explicitly as an expert witness pursuant to Rule 702(a) before he may testify to the results of a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test. Because we conclude that such explicit recognition is not required and that the trial court implicitly recognized the law enforcement officer in this case as an expert prior to allowing him to testify as to the issue of defendant's impairment, we reverse that portion of the decision of the Court of Appeals that is inconsistent with this determination. Because we also conclude that the trial court did not err in denying defendant's request for a special jury instruction to explain that results of a chemical breath test are not conclusive evidence of impairment, we affirm that part of the decision of the Court of Appeals holding there was no error in the trial court's decision to deny defendant's request for special jury instructions.

         The State's evidence at trial tended to show the following: On the evening of 18 January 2011, Officer Daniel R. Kennerly of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department initiated a traffic stop of a vehicle once he confirmed by radar that the vehicle was travelling fourteen miles per hour faster than the posted speed limit. The driver of the vehicle, defendant William Edwin Godwin III, subsequently pulled over and stopped his vehicle on the side of the road. After approaching defendant, who was still seated in his vehicle, Officer Kennerly detected an odor of alcohol and observed that defendant's eyes were red and glassy. Officer Kennerly asked defendant from where he had driven and whether he had been drinking. Defendant responded that he was coming from a restaurant and had consumed three beers that evening.

         Based on his observations, training, and experience, Officer Kennerly then requested that defendant exit the vehicle in order to perform three standardized field sobriety tests: the HGN, the walk-and-turn, and the one-leg stand. Officer Kennerly administered the HGN test to defendant twice in order to ascertain whether his eyes "jerked" during the test, which is an indication of impairment. After observing four out of six possible indicators of impairment during the HGN test, Officer Kennerly determined that defendant might be impaired and proceeded with the remaining two field sobriety tests.

         Officer Kennerly observed two out of four possible indicators of impairment during the one-leg stand test and six out of eight possible indicators during the walk-and-turn test. At the conclusion of the three field sobriety tests, Officer Kennerly placed defendant under arrest for driving while impaired, transported him to the police station, and administered a breathalyzer test to defendant. Defendant's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) measured at 0.08 grams of alcohol per 210 liters of air. Defendant was charged with driving while subject to an impairing substance. After being convicted in district court, defendant appealed his conviction. Defendant was then tried during the 12 November 2013 criminal session of the Superior Court, Mecklenburg County.

         When Officer Kennerly testified at trial regarding his administration of the HGN test, defendant objected, arguing that pursuant to the 2011 amendment to North Carolina Rule of Evidence 702(a), the State should not be permitted to present testimony regarding the HGN test without qualifying the testifying officer as an expert. In response, the State argued that Officer Kennerly did not need to be found explicitly to be an expert because he was merely testifying to the administration of the field sobriety tests and his resulting observations. The State also argued that Officer Kennerly had completed the requisite training to administer field sobriety tests; therefore, he was qualified to testify regarding the subject. At the conclusion of its own voir dire of the officer and a voir dire by both attorneys, the trial court concluded that Officer Kennerly could testify based upon his training and experience, regarding his administration of the three field sobriety tests as well as his observations of defendant during the tests. Officer Kennerly then testified that he had received training as to how to administer the HGN test and how to identify indicators of impairment based upon the test. He also testified that, after administering the three field sobriety tests to defendant, he concluded from his training, experience, and observations that defendant's "mental and physical faculties were appreciably impaired."

         At the close of the evidence, defendant proposed two relatively similar jury instructions concerning the results of the breathalyzer test and how the jury should analyze those results. The proposed instructions suggested to the jury that it was not compelled to find defendant's BAC to be 0.08 or more based upon the result of the chemical analysis. In response, the State argued that such an instruction would merely draw attention to the 0.08 BAC and confuse the jury. The State also asserted that it would be sufficient for the trial court to instruct the jury that it was the sole judge of the weight of the evidence and the credibility of the witnesses. After consideration of the applicable case law and the arguments of counsel, the trial court refused to give defendant's requested jury instructions and gave the pattern jury instructions on credibility and impaired driving.

         On 15 November 2013, the jury convicted defendant of driving while impaired. Defendant appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeals, arguing, inter alia, that the trial court failed to comply with the standards of Rule 702 in allowing Officer Kennerly's testimony without requiring the State to tender the officer as an expert witness. Defendant also argued that Rule 702(a1) obligated the trial court to find explicitly that Officer Kennerly was qualified to present expert testimony as an expert pursuant to Rule 702(a) before allowing him to testify about the HGN test results. Defendant further maintained that the trial court erred in rejecting his proposed jury instructions. Defendant contended that the proposed instructions were necessary to inform the jury that, although the breathalyzer results were sufficient to support a finding of driving while impaired, they did not compel a finding that defendant was guilty of impaired driving beyond a reasonable doubt.

         In response, the State argued before the Court of Appeals that the trial court properly limited Officer Kennerly's testimony to the administration of the field sobriety tests and his observations of defendant during those tests. The State further contended that if defendant believed that Officer Kennerly was not qualified to testify, it was defendant's responsibility to refute the officer's training and experience. Noting that defendant tendered two experts to counter Officer Kennerly's evidence at trial, the State highlighted that the jury still determined that defendant was guilty. Regarding the trial court's refusal to deliver defendant's proposed jury instructions, the State argued that the requested instructions were given in substance, and that the jury was not misled or misinformed in receiving the pattern instructions.

         Concluding that Rule 702(a1) requires that a witness explicitly be found to be an expert before testifying to the results of an HGN test, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court erred in failing to recognize Officer Kennerly as an expert pursuant to Rule 702(a). See State v. Godwin, __ N.C.App. __, ___, 786 S.E.2d 34, 37-38 (2016). In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeals relied on State v. Helms, in which this Court held that the HGN test "represents specialized knowledge that must be presented to the jury by a qualified expert." Id. at___, 786 S.E.2d at 36 (emphasis omitted) (quoting State v. Helms, 348 N.C. 578, 581, 504 S.E.2d 293, 295 (1998)). The Court of Appeals also highlighted potentially conflicting evidence regarding defendant's performance on the other field sobriety tests and concluded that such evidence created "a reasonable possibility" that, "had the HGN test results not been admitted, a different result would have been reached at trial." Id. at___, 786 S.E.2d at 39. Based upon its holding on this issue, the Court of Appeals awarded defendant a new trial. Id. at___, 786 S.E.2d at 40. As to the jury instructions, the Court of Appeals rejected defendant's argument, noting that the pattern jury instructions given by the trial court "informed the jury, in substance, that it was not compelled to return a guilty verdict based simply on the chemical analysis results." Id. at___, 786 S.E.2d at 39 (quoting State v. Beck, 233 N.C.App. 168, 171-72, 756 S.E.2d 80, 83, disc. rev. denied, 367 N.C. 508, 759 S.E.2d 94 (2014)).

         On appeal to this Court, the State argues that the trial court implicitly found that the witness was qualified as an expert. Therefore, the State contends that the Court of Appeals erred by holding that the expert testimony was erroneously admitted. We agree. On conditional appeal, defendant argues that the Court of Appeals erred in affirming the trial court's refusal to give his requested jury instructions. Defendant contends that without his ...


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