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State v. Santifort

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

December 19, 2017

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
JESSE SANTIFORT, Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 27 September 2017.

         Appeal by defendant from order entered 4 November 2016 by Judge William R. Pittman in Johnston County No. 16 CRS 2053 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Derrick C. Mertz, for the State.

          The Webster Law Firm, by Walter S. Webster, for defendant-appellant.

          DAVIS, Judge.

         Prior to charging Jesse Santifort with a crime, the State obtained two separate ex parte orders compelling the production of his personnel files and educational records. Santifort was not provided with any notice that these documents were being sought. He was subsequently indicted on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. Approximately two months after his indictment, Santifort filed motions to set aside the two ex parte orders, which were denied by the trial court. Because we conclude the two ex parte orders were void ab initio, we reverse.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On 3 March 2016, Santifort was employed as a police officer with the Kenly Police Department. On that date, he became involved in a vehicle pursuit that had been initiated by deputies employed by the Wilson County Sheriff's Office.

         Eventually, Alexander Thompson - the driver of the vehicle being pursued - wrecked his truck in an open field. Shortly after calling in the wreck, Santifort reported over the radio that he had deployed his Taser against Thompson. Shortly thereafter, Santifort requested emergency medical assistance for Thompson. Paramedics arrived and transported Thompson to WakeMed Hospital where he died three days later.

         On 7 March 2016, the State filed an ex parte motion in Johnston County Superior Court pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-168 seeking the production of Santifort's personnel records from four North Carolina police departments where he had been employed. On that same day, the Honorable Ronald L. Stephens entered orders compelling the disclosure of Santifort's personnel records from all four agencies.

         The State filed another ex parte motion in Johnston County Superior Court on 13 June 2016 seeking to obtain educational records from Johnston County Community College related to a Basic Law Enforcement Training class attended by Santifort. The Honorable Thomas H. Lock entered an order that same day compelling the disclosure of those records.

         Neither of the ex parte motions filed by the State contained accompanying affidavits. Furthermore, neither the State's motions nor the orders entered by Judges Stephens and Lock bore a docket number.

         On 6 September 2016, Santifort was indicted by a grand jury for involuntary manslaughter. He subsequently learned of the existence of the orders that had been entered by Judges Stephens and Lock. On 30 September 2016, Santifort filed in Johnston County Superior Court - through counsel - notices of appearance, motions to intervene pursuant to Rule 24 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, and motions for relief under Rule 60(b) seeking to have the ex parte orders vacated.

         On 3 November 2016, a hearing was held on Santifort's motions before the Honorable William R. Pittman in Johnston County Superior Court. The following day, Judge Pittman entered an order stating, in pertinent part, as follows:

1. Even though relevant authority suggests a special proceeding as one method of pursuing the kinds of records sought by the State in this matter in the absence of a civil or criminal action, the creation and docketing of a criminal case file pursuant to the indictment gives the defendant interest and standing in all matters pertaining to the investigation and prosecution of the matter.
2. The motion to intervene is therefore moot.
3. Granting the relief requested by the defendant in the motion for relief from prior orders of the Court would require this Court to overrule the orders of Judges Stephens and Lock and staying enforcement of orders already complied with.
4. Judges Stephens and Lock had jurisdiction to enter the prior orders.
5. The prior orders of Judges Stephens and Lock are not void ab initio.
6. The prior orders of Judges Stephens and Lock are not the kind of orders contemplated by Rule 60 from which relief can be granted.
7. The Court lacks the authority to overrule these orders rendered by other Superior Court Judges.
8. Ruling on a motion to suppress the State's use at trial of any information contained in the produced records is premature.
. . . .
NOW, THEREFORE, the Court orders as ...

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