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State v. Simpkins

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

May 7, 2019


          Heard in the Court of Appeals February 28, 2019

          Appeal by defendant from judgments entered on or about 8 June 2017 by Judge Andrew Taube Heath in Superior Court, Stanly County, Nos. 16CRS1457, 704360

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Alexandra M. Hightower, for the State.

          Kimberly P. Hoppin, for defendant-appellant.

          STROUD, JUDGE.

         Defendant appeals his convictions for resisting a public officer and failing to exhibit/surrender his license. Because the trial court did not properly instruct defendant on waiver of the right to counsel under North Carolina General Statute § 15A-1242 and because defendant did not forfeit his right to such an instruction, we conclude defendant must receive a new trial.

         I. Background

         In July of 2016, Officer Trent Middlebrook of the City of Locust was on patrol; he ran the "tag" of a vehicle and discovered that the owner of the vehicle, defendant, had a suspended driver's license and a warrant out for his arrest. Officer Middlebrook pulled defendant over and asked for his license and registration. Defendant refused to provide them and was uncooperative and belligerent. Officer Middlebrook arrested defendant.

         Defendant's first trial was in district court, and there is no transcript of those proceedings. From the district court, there is an unsigned and undated waiver of counsel form with a handwritten note that appears to say, "Refused to respond to to [(sic)] inquiry by the court and mark as refused at this point[.]" There is also a waiver of counsel form from 16 August 2016 that also has a handwritten notation, "Defendant refused to sign waiver of counsel upon request by the Court[.]" Also on or about 16 August 2016, defendant was convicted in district court of resisting a public officer and failing to carry a registration card. Defendant appealed his convictions to superior court.

         In superior court, defendant proceeded pro se. Defendant was tried by a jury and convicted of resisting a public officer and failing to exhibit/surrender his license. The trial court entered judgments, and defendant appeals.

         II. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         Defendant contends "the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to try [him] in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-29 when the citation purporting to charge him was fatally defective." (Original in all caps.) But at oral argument before this Court, defendant's counsel withdrew this argument and conceded that State v. Jones, ___ N.C.App. _____, 805 S.E.2d 701, (2017), aff'd, ___ N.C. ___, 819 S.E.2d 340 (2018), is the controlling authority on this issue, and defendant cannot prevail. Therefore, this argument is dismissed.

         III. Waiver or Forfeiture of Counsel

         Defendant argues that "the trial court erred by failing to make a thorough inquiry of . . . [his] decision to proceed pro se as required by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1242." (Original in all caps.) We review whether the trial court complied with North Carolina General Statute § 15A-1242 de novo. See State v. Watlington, 216 N.C.App. 388, 393-94, 716 S.E.2d 671, 675 (2011) ("Prior cases addressing waiver of counsel under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1242 have not clearly stated a standard of review, but they do, as a practical matter, review the issue de novo. We will therefore review this ruling de novo.") (citations omitted)).

         North Carolina General Statute § 15A-1242 provides,

A defendant may be permitted at his election to proceed in the trial of his case without the assistance of counsel only after the trial judge makes thorough inquiry and is satisfied that the defendant:
(1) Has been clearly advised of his right to the assistance of counsel, including his right to the assignment of counsel when he is so entitled;
(2) Understands and appreciates the consequences of this decision; and
(3) Comprehends the nature of the charges and proceedings and the range of permissible punishments.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1242 (2015). "The trial court's inquiry under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1242 is mandatory and failure to conduct such an inquiry is prejudicial error." State v. Sorrow, 213 N.C.App. 571, 573, 713 S.E.2d 180, 182 (2011) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         Defendant contends he

was advised of his right to have counsel and of his right to have appointed counsel. However, there is no showing on the record that the trial court made the appropriate advisements or inquires to determine that . . . [he] understood and appreciate the consequences of his decision or comprehended "the nature of the charges and proceedings and the range of permissible punishments."

         While the trial court did inform defendant he could be subjected to "periods of incarceration," the transcript confirms that defendant was not explicitly informed of "the range of permissible punishments." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1242 (Emphasis added). The State acknowledged at oral argument that without informing defendant of the "range of permissible punishments[, ]" the trial court could not comply with the mandate of North Carolina General Statute § 15A-1242. Failure to comply with North Carolina General Statute § 15A-1242, if required, would result in prejudicial error. Sorrow, 213 N.C.App. 571, 713 S.E.2d 180. But the State contends the trial court was not required to comply with North Carolina General Statute § 15A-1242 due to defendant's forfeiture of his right to counsel.

         In oral arguments, both defense counsel and the State relied heavily on State v. Blakeley, as it addresses not only the issue before us regarding waiver and forfeiture of counsel, but also thoroughly analyzes many prior cases; therefore, we turn to Blakeley, 245 N.C.App. 452, 782 S.E.2d 88 (2016). Blakeley first notes that there are two ways a defendant may lose his right to be represented by counsel: voluntary waiver after being fully advised under North Carolina General Statute § 15A-1242 and forfeiture of the right by serious misconduct. Id. at 459-61, 782 S.E.2d at 93-94.

A criminal defendant's right to representation by counsel in serious criminal matters is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, §§ 19, 23 of the North Carolina Constitution. Our appellate courts have recognized two circumstances, however, under which a defendant may no longer have the right to be represented by counsel.
First, a defendant may voluntarily waive the right to be represented by counsel and instead proceed pro se. Waiver of the right to counsel and election to proceed pro se must be expressed clearly and unequivocally. Once a defendant clearly and unequivocally states that he wants to proceed pro se, the trial court must determine whether the defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waives the right to in-court representation by counsel. A trial court's inquiry will satisfy this constitutional requirement if conducted pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 15A- 1242. . . .
. . . .
The second circumstance under which a criminal defendant may no longer have the right to be represented by counsel occurs when a defendant engages in such serious misconduct that he forfeits his constitutional right to counsel. Although the right to counsel is guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Article I of the North Carolina Constitution, in some situations a defendant may lose this right:
Although the loss of counsel due to defendant's own actions is often referred to as a waiver of the right to counsel, a better term to describe this situation is forfeiture. Unlike waiver, which requires a knowing and intentional relinquishment of a known right, forfeiture results in the loss of a right regardless of the defendant's knowledge thereof and irrespective of whether the defendant intended to relinquish the right. A defendant who is abusive toward his attorney may forfeit his right to counsel.

Id. (citations, quotation marks, ellipses, and brackets omitted).

         Blakeley then notes a third way a defendant may lose the right to representation by counsel, a hybrid of waiver and forfeiture:

Finally, there is a hybrid situation (waiver by conduct) that combines elements of waiver and forfeiture. Once a defendant has been warned that he will lose his attorney if he engages in dilatory tactics, any misconduct thereafter may be treated as an implied request to proceed pro se and, thus, as a waiver of the right to counsel. Recognizing the difference between forfeiture and waiver by conduct is important. First, because of the drastic nature of the sanction, forfeiture would appear to require extremely dilatory conduct. On the other hand, a waiver by conduct could be based on conduct less severe than that sufficient to warrant a forfeiture. This makes sense since a waiver by conduct requires that a defendant be warned about the consequences of his conduct, including the risks of proceeding pro se. A defendant who engages in dilatory conduct having been warned that such conduct will be treated as a request to proceed pro se cannot complain that a court is forfeiting his right to counsel.

Id. at 464-65, 782 S.E.2d at 96 (quotation marks omitted).

         As to the facts in Blakeley specifically,

In this case, neither defendant nor the State asserts that defendant ever asked to represent himself at trial, and our own review of the transcript fails to reveal any evidence that defendant indicated, must less clearly and unequivocally requested, that he be permitted to proceed pro se. The record clearly indicates that when defendant signed the waiver of his right to assigned counsel he did so with the expectation of being able to privately retain counsel. Before the trial court the defendant stated that he wanted to employ his own lawyer. There is no evidence that defendant ever intended to proceed to trial without the assistance of some counsel. We conclude that the present case is not governed by appellate cases addressing a trial court's responsibility to ensure that a defendant who wishes to represent himself is knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waiving his right to counsel.
. . . .
In this case, the State argues that defendant forfeited his right to counsel, relying primarily upon generalized language excerpted from Montgomery stating that a forfeiture of counsel results when the state's interest in maintaining an orderly trial schedule and the defendant's negligence, indifference, or possibly purposeful delaying tactic, combine to justify a forfeiture of defendant's right to counsel. The State also cites State v. Quick, 179 N.C.App. 647, 649-50, 634 S.E.2d 915, 917 (2006), in which this Court cited Montgomery for the proposition that any willful actions on the part of the defendant that result in the absence of defense counsel constitutes a forfeiture of the right to counsel. Montgomery did not, however, include such a broad holding or suggest that any willful actions resulting in the absence of defense counsel are sufficient to constitute a forfeiture. Instead, as this Court has observed, forfeiture of the right to counsel has usually been restricted to situations involving egregious conduct by a defendant[.]

Id. at 460-61, 782 S.E.2d at 93-94 (citations, quotation marks, ellipses, and brackets omitted).

         Blakeley then provides a thorough review of the types of behavior prior cases have determined support forfeiture,

Although the United States Supreme Court has never directly addressed forfeiture of the right to counsel, the Court's other holdings demonstrate reluctance to uphold forfeiture of a criminal defendant's U.S. Constitutional rights, except in egregious circumstances. Additionally, the federal and state courts that have addressed forfeiture have restricted it to instances of severe misconduct.
There is no bright-line definition of the degree of misconduct that would justify forfeiture of a defendant's right to counsel. However, our review of the published opinions of our appellate courts indicates that, as discussed in Wray, forfeiture has generally been limited to situations involving severe misconduct and specifically to cases in which the defendant engaged in one or more of the following: (1) flagrant or extended delaying tactics, such as repeatedly firing a series of attorneys; (2) offensive or abusive behavior, such as threatening counsel, cursing, spitting, or disrupting proceedings in court; or (3) refusal to acknowledge the trial court's jurisdiction or participate in the judicial process, or insistence on nonsensical and nonexistent legal rights. The following is a list of published cases from North Carolina in which a defendant was held to have forfeited the right to counsel, with a brief indication of the type of behavior in which the defendant engaged:
1. State v. Montgomery, 138 N.C.App. 521, 530 S.E.2d 66 (2000): the defendant fired several lawyers, was disruptive and used profanity in court, threw water on his attorney while in court, and was repeatedly found in criminal contempt.
2. State v. Quick, 179 N.C.App. 647, 634 S.E.2d 915 (2006): the defendant in a probation revocation case waived court-appointed counsel in order to hire private counsel, but during an eight month period did not contact any attorney, instead waiting until the day before trial.
3. State v. Rogers, 194 N.C.App. 131, 669 S.E.2d 77 (2008), disc. review denied, 363 N.C. 136, 676 S.E.2d 305 (2009): over the course of two years, the defendant fired several attorneys, made unreasonable accusations about court personnel, reported one of his attorneys to the State Bar, accused another of racism, and was warned by the court about his behavior.
4. State v. Boyd, 200 N.C.App. 97, 682 S.E.2d 463 (2009), disc. review denied, 691 S.E.2d 414 (2010): during a period of more than a year, the defendant refused to cooperate with two different attorneys, repeatedly told one attorney that the case was not going to be tried, was totally uncooperative with counsel, demanded that each attorney withdraw from representation, and obstructed and delayed the trial proceedings.
5. State v. Leyshon, 211 N.C.App. 511, 710 S.E.2d 282, appeal dismissed, 365 N.C. 338, 717 S.E.2d 566 (2011): for more than a year after defendant was arraigned, he refused to sign a waiver of counsel or state whether or not he wanted counsel, instead arguing that the court did not have jurisdiction and making an array of legally nonsensical assertions about the court's authority.
6. State v. Cureton, 223 N.C.App. 274, 734 S.E.2d 572 (2012): the defendant feigned mental illness, discharged three different attorneys, consistently shouted at his attorneys, insulted and abused his attorneys, and at one point spat on his attorney and threatened to kill him.
7. State v. Mee, 233 N.C.App. 542, 756 S.E.2d 103 (2014): the defendant appeared before four different judges over a period of fourteen months, during which time he hired and then fired counsel twice, was represented by an assistant public defender, refused to state his wishes with respect to counsel, advanced unsupported legal theories concerning jurisdiction, and refused to participate in the trial.
8. State v. Joiner, ___ N.C.App. ___, 767 S.E.2d 557 (2014): the defendant gave evasive and often bizarre answers to the court's questions, shouted and cursed at the trial court, smeared feces on the holding cell wall, had to be gagged during trial, threatened courtroom personnel with bodily harm, and refused to answer simple questions.
9. State v. Brown, ___ N.C.App. ___, 768 S.E.2d 896 (2015): like the defendants in Mee and Leyshon, this defendant offered only repetitive legal gibberish in response to simple questions about representation, and refused to recognize the court's jurisdiction.

Id. at 461-63, 782 S.E.2d at 94-95 (quotation marks omitted).

         Blakeley then explains how the defendant's actions in Blakeley were not as egregious as those in the cases where forfeiture was found:

In stark contrast to the defendants discussed above, in this case:
1. Defendant was uniformly polite and cooperative. In fact, the trial court found as a mitigating factor that the defendant returned to court as directed during the habitual felon phase, even after he had been found guilty of the underlying offense.
2. Defendant did not deny the trial court's jurisdiction, disrupt court proceedings, or behave offensively.
3. Defendant did not hire and fire multiple attorneys, or repeatedly delay the trial. Although the case was three years old at the time of trial, the delay from September 2011 until August 2014 resulted from the State's failure to prosecute, rather than actions by defendant.
We conclude that defendant's request for a continuance in order to hire a different attorney, even if motivated by a wish to postpone his trial, was nowhere close to the serious misconduct that has previously been held to constitute forfeiture of counsel. In reaching this decision, we find it very significant that defendant was not warned or informed that if he chose to discharge his counsel but was unable to hire another attorney, he would then be forced to proceed pro se. Nor was defendant warned of the consequences of such a decision. We need not decide, and express no opinion on, the issue of whether certain conduct by a defendant might justify an immediate forfeiture of counsel without any preliminary warning to the defendant. On the facts of this case, however, we hold that defendant was entitled, at a minimum, to ...

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