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State v. Rieger

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

October 1, 2019

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
DAVE ROBERT RIEGER

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 9 May 2019.

          Appeal by defendant from judgments entered 12 October 2017 by Judge Alan Z. Thornburg in Buncombe County Nos. 16 CRS 2470, 2472 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Deborah M. Greene, for the State.

          Edward Eldred, Attorney at Law, PLLC, by Edward Eldred, for the defendant.

          DIETZ, JUDGE.

         Dave Rieger got pulled over for following too closely. Law enforcement found marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia in Rieger's car and arrested him on two charges: possession of marijuana and possession of marijuana paraphernalia. Rieger took his case to trial and a jury convicted him of both charges.

         To Rieger, this all seemed like one criminal case against him. But the State filed the two charges against him in two separate charging documents and the trial court entered two separate judgments against him. In each of those judgments, the court assessed court costs, amounting to a total of nearly $800.

         This appeal is about those court costs. The applicable statute authorizes court costs "in every criminal case" in which the defendant is convicted. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-304(a). So the question is this: was what Rieger experienced one criminal case or two?

         It is not an easy question to answer. Both Rieger and the State offer reasonable but conflicting interpretations of the plain language, the statute's history, and the spirit and intent underlying the imposition of court costs. Ultimately, we are guided by the General Assembly's intent that court costs reflect the costs that the justice system actually incurs. Court costs are not intended to be a fine or other form of punishment. With this in mind, we hold that when multiple criminal charges arise from the same underlying event or transaction and are adjudicated together in the same hearing or trial, they are part of a single "criminal case" for purposes of the costs statute. Accordingly, we vacate the imposition of costs in one of the two judgments against Rieger.

         Facts and Procedural History

         In 2016, after law enforcement discovered various illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia in Dave Robert Rieger's car during a traffic stop, the State charged Rieger with driving while impaired, driving without an operator's license, and possession of clonazepam, hydrocodone, marijuana, and marijuana paraphernalia. The case then made its way through the justice system. Although the State brought each charge through a separate charging document, at each step in the criminal justice process these charges were heard together in the same court proceeding. Ultimately, in late 2017, after being found guilty on multiple charges in district court, Rieger appealed to superior court and his case went to trial. The jury found Rieger guilty of two charges: possession of marijuana and possession of marijuana paraphernalia.

         After sentencing, the superior court entered two separate judgments, one for each conviction. In both judgments, the trial court imposed the court costs described in the statute addressing costs in criminal court. This amounted to nearly $800 in court costs. Rieger appealed, challenging the imposition of the same court costs in both judgments.

         Analysis

         Rieger argues that the trial court erred by assessing court costs as part of both the criminal judgments. The statute governing criminal costs ...


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