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State v. Ledbetter

Supreme Court of North Carolina

June 8, 2018

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
DONNA HELMS LEDBETTER

          Heard in the Supreme Court on 17 April 2018.

         On discretionary review pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 794 S.E.2d 551 (2016) (per curiam), denying defendant's petition for writ of certiorari to review an order entered on 20 October 2014 by Judge C.W. Bragg and dismissing defendant's appeal from a judgment entered on 27 October 2014 by Judge Jeffrey P. Hunt, both in Superior Court, Rowan County.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Christopher W. Brooks, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State.

          Meghan Adelle Jones for defendant-appellant.

          BEASLEY, JUSTICE.

         In this case we consider whether the absence of a procedural rule limits the Court of Appeals' discretionary authority to issue a writ of certiorari. In denying defendant's petition for writ of certiorari, the Court of Appeals held that although it had jurisdiction to issue the writ, it lacked a procedural mechanism under Rule 21 of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure to do so without further exercising its discretion to invoke Rule 2 to suspend the Rules. See State v. Ledbetter, __ N.C.App. __,, 794 S.E.2d 551, 555 (2016) (per curiam); see also N.C. Rs. App. P. 2, 21. Because we conclude that the absence of a procedural rule limits neither the Court of Appeals' jurisdiction nor its discretionary authority to issue writs of certiorari, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and remand this case for further proceedings.

         On 1 January 2013, defendant was charged with driving while impaired. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the charge on 23 December 2013, arguing that the State violated N.C. G.S. § 20-38.4 (setting forth procedures for magistrates to follow when the arrestee appears to be impaired during the initial appearance) and State v. Knoll, 322 N.C. 535, 545-48, 369 S.E.2d 558, 564-66 (1988) (holding that a charge of driving while impaired is subject to dismissal when the defendant was prejudiced by the magistrate's failure to inform the defendant of certain statutory rights). The trial court denied defendant's motion on 20 October 2014.

         Following the trial court's denial of her motion, on 27 October 2014, defendant pleaded guilty to driving while impaired.[1] The plea arrangement stated that "[defendant] expressly retains the right to appeal [t]he [c]ourt's denial of her motion to dismiss/suppress her Driving While Impaired charge in this case." Defendant gave notice of appeal and petitioned the Court of Appeals for review by writ of certiorari under N.C. G.S. § 15A-1444(e). The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal and denied the certiorari petition, holding that defendant did not have a statutory right to appeal from the trial court's denial of her motion to dismiss prior to her guilty plea and that the petition did not assert grounds included in or permitted by Rule 21. See State v. Ledbetter, 243 N.C.App. 746, 757, 779 S.E.2d 164, 171 (2015). On 22 September 2016, this Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of the Court's recent decisions in State v. Stubbs, 368 N.C. 40, 770 S.E.2d 74 (2015), and State v. Thomsen, 369 N.C. 22, 789 S.E.2d 639 (2016). State v. Ledbetter, 369 N.C. 64, 64, 793 S.E.2d 216, 216-17 (2016) (per curiam order).

         Upon reconsideration, the same panel of the Court of Appeals issued a unanimous opinion that again denied defendant's petition for writ of certiorari and dismissed her appeal. See Ledbetter, __ N.C.App. at __, 794 S.E.2d at 555. The Court of Appeals held that

[a]fter further consideration and review of both Thomsen and Stubbs, and under the jurisdictional authority provided by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1444(e), [d]efendant's petition for writ of certiorari to review her motion to dismiss, prior to entry of her guilty plea, does not assert any of the procedural grounds set forth in Rule 21 to issue the writ. Although the statute provides jurisdiction, this Court is without a procedural process under either Rule 1 or 21 to issue the discretionary writ under these facts, other than by invoking Rule 2.

Id. at ___, 794 S.E.2d at 555. The court further declined to invoke Rule 2 to suspend the requirements of the rules to issue the writ of certiorari. Id. At ___, 794 S.E.2d at 555.

         The North Carolina Constitution states that "[t]he Court of Appeals shall have such appellate jurisdiction as the General Assembly may prescribe." N.C. Const. art. IV, § 12(2). The General Assembly has exercised this constitutional authority by giving the Court of Appeals "jurisdiction . . . to issue the prerogative writs, including mandamus, prohibition, certiorari, and supersedeas, in aid of its own jurisdiction, or to supervise and control the proceedings of any of the trial courts of the General Court of Justice." N.C. G.S. § 7A-32(c) (2017). "This statute empowers the Court of Appeals to review trial court rulings . . . by writ of certiorari unless some other statute restricts the jurisdiction that subsection 7A-32(c) grants." Thomsen, 369 N.C. at 25, 789 S.E.2d at 641 (citing Stubbs, 368 N.C. at 42-43, 770 S.E.2d at 76). Therefore, "[s]ubsection 7A-32(c) . . . creates a default rule that the Court of Appeals has jurisdiction to review a lower court judgment by writ of certiorari. The default rule will control unless a more specific statute restricts jurisdiction in the particular class of cases at issue." Id. at 25, 789 S.E.2d at 642.

         In State v. Stubbs we addressed whether the Court of Appeals has jurisdiction to review a trial court's grant of a defendant's motion for appropriate relief by writ of certiorari. See 368 N.C. at 41, 770 S.E.2d at 75. We noted that a separate statute, N.C. G.S. § 15A-1422(c), specifically addresses review of trial court rulings on motions for appropriate relief under section 15A-1415. Id. at 42-43, 770 S.E.2d at 76. In Stubbs "we were not concerned with whether subsection 15A-1422(c) provided an independent source of jurisdiction for the Court of Appeals to issue the writ. Rather, we focused on the absence of language in subsection 15A-1422(c) that would limit the court's review." Thomsen, 369 N.C. at 25, 789 S.E.2d at 642 (citing Stubbs, 368 N.C. at 43, 770 S.E.2d at 76) (citations omitted). Finding no limiting language, we held that the Court of Appeals had jurisdiction to issue the writ. Id. at 25, 789 S.E.2d at 642 (citing Stubbs, 368 N.C. at 43, 770 S.E.2d at 76).

         In State v. Thomsen the sole difference from Stubbs was that the trial court granted appropriate relief on its own motion pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 15A-1420(d), rather than on defendant's motion pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 15A-1415. Compare Thomsen, 369 N.C. at 25, 789 S.E.2d at 642, with Stubbs, 368 N.C. at 41, 770 S.E.2d at 75. N.C. G.S. § 15A-1422(c) does not mention review of relief granted "pursuant to" subsection 15A-1420(d); therefore, the parties disagreed on whether the sua sponte grant of relief was "pursuant to" subsection 15A-1415(b) or subsection 15A-1420(d). See Thomsen, 369 N.C. at 26, 789 S.E.2d at 642. We held that the answer to this question did not matter, and that the Court of Appeals had jurisdiction in either event "because nothing in the Criminal Procedure Act, or any other ...


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