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State v. Goodwin

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

September 17, 2019

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
STEVIE GOODWIN, JR., Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 23 May 2019.

          Appeal by Defendant from judgment entered 4 May 2018 by Judge Jeffrey P. Hunt in Mecklenburg County Superior Court. Nos. 17 CRS 204615, 024833

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General T. Hill Davis, III, for the State.

          Unti & Smith, PLLC, by Sharon L. Smith, for defendant-appellant.

          MURPHY, JUDGE.

         Where an indigent defendant requests a change of counsel from a court-appointed attorney to a private attorney during a pre-trial hearing, a trial court commits structural error when it makes its decision based solely on the effective assistance of the appointed attorney. Here, the trial court committed a structural error when it denied Defendant's request for new counsel using the standard for hearing an ineffective assistance of counsel argument rather than the standard for a counsel of choice argument. We reverse the trial court's denial of the right to hire new counsel and remand for a new trial.

         BACKGROUND

         On 5 February 2017 at approximately 1:00 A.M., Officer Taylor Lee Hager ("Officer Hager") and his partner stopped a vehicle when they observed it had an expired registration tag. The vehicle contained Defendant in the front passenger seat, the driver, and another passenger in the back seat. An officer recognized the back-seat passenger as an individual with several outstanding felony warrants and subsequently arrested him.

         After the arrest, Officer Hager noticed an open beer bottle in the vehicle and asked Defendant to step out. When Defendant exited the vehicle, Officer Hager "smell[ed] an odor of marijuana coming from his person." Officer Hager performed a pat down on Defendant to ensure he was not armed. During this pat down, Officer Hager felt a small metal container used as a keychain in Defendant's pocket. Relying on his prior experience in law enforcement, Officer Hager suspected that the keychain hid controlled substances. Officer Hager opened the container and found inside what was later identified as Oxycodone and methamphetamine. Cocaine was also found in the glove compartment of the vehicle.

         Defendant was charged with possession of cocaine and possession of methamphetamine. For the entirety of his trial, Denzil Forrester ("Forrester") was Defendant's court-appointed counsel. Forrester filed a motion to suppress evidence of the drugs found on Defendant during Officer Hager's pat down. However, Forrester omitted the required affidavit for the motion to be treated as a motion to suppress, thus making it a motion in limine, which the trial court denied.

         After his motion in limine was denied-and immediately prior to jury selection-Defendant requested new counsel, explaining to the trial court that he believed Forrester was not competent to represent him because they could not agree on which witnesses to call and could not properly communicate. Defendant also said he wanted to hire a private attorney and could acquire the money to pay for one. In response, Forrester moved to withdraw from his representation of Defendant. The trial court denied Defendant's request as well as Forrester's, stating, "The Court deems there not to be an absolute impasse in regards to this case so far."

         Forrester continued as Defendant's counsel, and, at the trial's conclusion, the jury found Defendant guilty of possession of methamphetamine and not guilty of possession of cocaine. Defendant was sentenced to an active sentence of 37-57 months imprisonment. He timely appeals.

         ANALYSIS

         Defendant presents two arguments on appeal: (1) that the trial court committed plain error when it admitted evidence obtained during the search subsequent to the pat down and (2) that the trial court committed a structural error when it denied his request for new, chosen counsel. We first address the choice of counsel issue, and conclude the trial court committed ...


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