819 S.E.2d 329 (N.C. 2018), 280A17, State v. Arrington

Docket Nº:280A17
Citation:819 S.E.2d 329
Opinion Judge:NEWBY, Justice.
Party Name:STATE of North Carolina v. James Edward ARRINGTON
Attorney:Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Tracy Nayer, Assistant Attorney General, for the State-appellant. Glenn Gerding, Appellate Defender, by James R. Grant, Assistant Appellate Defender, for defendant-appellee.
Judge Panel:Justice ERVIN dissenting. Justices HUDSON and BEASLEY join in this dissenting opinion.
Case Date:October 26, 2018
Court:Supreme Court of North Carolina

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819 S.E.2d 329 (N.C. 2018)

STATE of North Carolina


James Edward ARRINGTON

No. 280A17

Supreme Court of North Carolina

October 26, 2018

Heard in the Supreme Court on 14 March 2018.

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Appeal pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 803 S.E.2d 845 (2017), vacating a judgment entered on 14 September 2015 by Judge Alan Z. Thornburg in Superior Court, Buncombe County, setting aside defendant’s plea agreement, and remanding the case for further proceedings.

Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Tracy Nayer, Assistant Attorney General, for the State-appellant.

Glenn Gerding, Appellate Defender, by James R. Grant, Assistant Appellate Defender, for defendant-appellee.


NEWBY, Justice.

This case addresses whether, as part of a plea agreement, a defendant can stipulate on his sentencing worksheet that a second-degree murder conviction justified a B1 classification. A defendant may properly stipulate to prior convictions. Defendant here stipulated to the sentencing worksheet showing his prior offenses, one of which was a second-degree murder conviction designated as a B1 offense. In so stipulating, defendant acknowledged that the factual basis of his conviction involved general second-degree murder (a B1 classification) and did not implicate the exception for less culpable conduct involving an inherently dangerous act or omission or a drug overdose (a B2 classification). Nevertheless, a majority at the Court of Appeals held that the stipulation to this type of second-degree murder was an improper legal stipulation. Because defendant properly stipulated to the facts underlying his conviction and the conviction itself, comparable to his stipulating to his other offenses on the worksheet, the decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

On 14 September 2015, defendant entered into a plea agreement, which required him to plead guilty to assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, felony failure to appear, and having attained habitual felon status. Under the plea agreement, which defendant read and signed, the State consolidated the felony failure to appear charge into the assault with a deadly weapon charge, dismissed a second count of attaining habitual felon status, and allowed defendant to be sentenced in the mitigated range. On the sentencing worksheet, defendant stipulated to multiple previous offenses, including breaking and entering and larceny, possession of drug paraphernalia, assault on a female, driving while impaired, and breaking and entering a motor vehicle, in addition to second-degree murder. As a part of the plea agreement, defendant also stipulated that his 1994 second-degree murder conviction was accurately designated as a B1 offense.

At defendant’s sentencing hearing, the court read defendant’s plea agreement, which, as noted above, defendant had read and signed:

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The Court: The prosecutor, your attorney and you have informed the Court that the following includes all the terms and conditions of your plea, and I will read the plea arrangement to you now.

The defendant stipulates that he has 16 points and is a Level V for habitual felon sentencing purposes. The state agrees that 14 CRS 267 will be consolidated for sentencing purposes into 13 CRS 63727. The defendant will be sentenced as an habitual felon in the mitigated range and the state will dismiss the charge of obtaining the status of habitual felon in 15 CRS 624.

So does that include all the terms and conditions of your plea?

The Defendant: Yes, sir.

Soon thereafter, the following exchange occurred: [Prosecutor]: ... would the defendant stipulate to a factual basis and allow the state to summarize?

[Defense Counsel]: We will so stipulate.

[Prosecutor]: And would he also stipulate to the contents of the sentencing worksheet that was prepared for habitual sentencing purposes showing him to be a Level V for—

[Defense Counsel]: We will stipulate to the sentencing sheet.

Defense counsel then conceded, "There’s nothing I can deny about Mr. [Arrington’s] record, absolutely nothing." The State later referenced defendant’s prior second-degree murder conviction, noting that "[defendant] killed a nine-year-old child, shot a nine-year-old child to death. ... He ended up pleading guilty to second-degree murder ...." Defendant did not attempt to explain further the facts of the second-degree murder conviction. After hearing from both parties, the judge determined that defendant had attained habitual felon status and sentenced him in the mitigated range, as agreed.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment and set aside defendant’s guilty plea, holding that defendant improperly stipulated to a matter of "pure legal interpretation." State v. Arrington, __ N.C.App. __, __, 803 S.E.2d 845, 849 (2017). The Court of Appeals reasoned that, because the legislature divided second-degree murder into two classifications after the date of defendant’s second-degree murder offense, determining the appropriate classification of the offense would be a legal question that is thus inappropriate as the subject of a stipulation between the parties. Id. at __, 803 S.E.2d at 848. The Court of Appeals opined that the analysis required here paralleled comparing elements of an out-of-state offense to the corresponding elements of a North Carolina offense, which this Court has determined to be an improper subject of a stipulation. Id. at __, 803 S.E.2d at 849 (citing State v. Sanders, 367 N.C. 716, 766 S.E.2d 331 (2014) ).

The dissent argued that defendant’s stipulation to the second-degree murder conviction listed on his sentencing worksheet did not constitute an improper stipulation of law. Id. at __, 803 S.E.2d at 852 (Berger, J., dissenting). The dissent asserted that, while the trial court must make the legal determination of defendant’s prior record level, a defendant may stipulate to the existence of prior convictions and their classifications, which is what defendant did here. Id. at __, 803 S.E.2d at 852. Thus, the dissent would have affirmed the trial court’s judgment. Id. at __, 803 S.E.2d at 852-53. The State filed notice of appeal based on the dissenting opinion.

Every criminal conviction involves facts (i.e., what actually occurred) and the application of the law to the facts, thus making the conviction a mixed question of fact and law. In a jury trial the judge instructs jurors on the law, and the jury finds the facts and applies the law. Similarly, in a guilty plea trial counsel summarizes the facts, and the judge determines whether the facts support a conviction of the pending charge. Consequently, when a defendant stipulates to a prior conviction on a worksheet, the defendant is admitting that certain past conduct constituted a stated criminal offense. It is well settled that a defendant can stipulate to a prior conviction, even though the prior conviction itself involved a mixed question of fact and law. While the statutory classification of this prior conviction is a legal determination, its classification is fact driven. Relying

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on a defendant’s past criminal history, the trial court determines the range of sentence.

Here the crime of second-degree murder has two potential classifications, B1 and B2, depending on the facts of the murder. By stipulating that the former conviction of second-degree murder was a B1 offense, defendant properly stipulated that the facts giving rise to the conviction fell within the statutory definition of a B1 classification. Like defendant’s stipulation to every other offense listed in the worksheet, defendant’s stipulation to second-degree murder showed that he stipulated to the facts underlying the conviction and that the conviction existed. While defendant does not challenge the other stipulations as improper, he contends he could not legally stipulate that his prior second-degree murder conviction constituted a B1 felony.

"The prior record level of a felony offender is determined by calculating the sum of the points assigned to each of the offenders prior convictions that the court ... finds to have been proved in accordance with this section." N.C.G.S. § 15A-1340.14(a) (2017). "The State bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a prior conviction exists and that the offender before the court is the same person as the offender named in the prior conviction." Id. § 15A-1340.14(f) (2017). The State may prove a prior conviction exists by (1) "[s]tipulation of the parties"; (2) "[a]n original or copy of the court record of the prior conviction"; (3) "[a] copy of records maintained by the Department of Public Safety, the Division of Motor Vehicles, or of the Administrative...

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