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Case Law Corner with Burcu Hensley: Vol. 2


Happy Friday, Defenders! Welcome back to Case Law Corner, where we take a monthly dive into new and significant case law affecting youth and the practice of juvenile defense. In August, we asked you to help us compile a list of the most significant US Supreme Court and North Carolina court decisions. Last month, we unveiled your top 10 USSC decisions. This month, we highlight 10 North Carolina cases you should know about that affect the youth of North Carolina.


10 North Carolina Cases Affecting Youth that You Should Know


State v. Bunnell, 340 N.C. 74, 455 S.E.2d 426, 427 (1995)

Age should be considered as part of the totality of the circumstances in determining whether waiver of Miranda rights are knowing and voluntary.


In re T.E.F., 359 N.C. 570, 614 S.E.2d 296 (2005)

Courts must conduct a full inquiry as required by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-2407(a) during an adjudicatory hearing, a totality of the circumstances test is inadequate.


In re D.S., 364 N.C. 184, 694 S.E.2d 758, 763 (2010)

The timing requirements of section §7B-1703 (filing of a petition) are not jurisdictional.


In re D.A.H., 277 N.C. App. 16, 857 S.E.2d 771, 775 (2021)

School interrogations are unique in determining whether or not a student is in a custodial situation requiring Miranda warnings.


In re Z.P., 280 N.C. App. 442, 868 S.E.2d 317, 318 (2021)

An anti-threat statute requires the government to prove a true threat and requires both a subjective test and an objective test.


In re J.D.F., 279 N.C. App. 683, 863 S.E.2d 325 (2021)

Age should be considered as part of the totality of the circumstances in determining whether waiver of Miranda rights are knowing and voluntary.


State v. Garrett, 280 N.C. App. 220, 867 S.E.2d 216, 218 (2021)

“Raise the Age” does not apply retroactively.


In re J.A.D., 872 S.E.2d 374 (N.C. Ct. App. 2022)

Juvenile petitions are akin to the adult indictment. Adjudication orders must be in writing and contain appropriate findings of fact and conclusions of law.


State v. Kelliher, 873 S.E.2d 366 (N.C. 2022)

State v. Conner, 873 S.E.2d 339 (N.C. 2022)

Sentences for offenses committed under the age of 18, if the defendant is found to neither be incorrigible nor irredeemable, cannot be over 40 years.

In re B.W.C., No. COA22-124, 2022 N.C. App. LEXIS 595 (Ct. App. Sep. 6, 2022)

A child may be adjudicated delinquent for indirect contempt arising out of an undisciplined proceeding.


State v. Bunnell

340 N.C. 74, 455 S.E.2d 426, 427 (1995)


Summary: Defendant was convicted of first-degree murder after he shot his stepfather. On appeal, the court affirmed. The court found that defendant's actions showed premeditation and deliberation because he discussed killing his stepfather, calmly picked up the victim's gun, loaded it, and shot him. The evidence showed that there was no change in defendant's countenance after the killing, he returned to the house to remove the victim's wallet, and then determined the exact time of the shooting. The court found that defendant's confession was voluntary, despite the fact that he was only 14 years old, because it was clear that he understood his rights, he was not coerced, the interrogation took place in an office at the airport, and there was no display of weapons. The court determined that any error which might have resulted from the trial court's refusal to submit a voluntary manslaughter instruction to the jury was harmless. Because they were instructed on first and second-degree murder and chose to convict on first-degree murder, the jurors were not coerced.

Issues Affecting Youth: Whether age should be considered in determining knowing and voluntary waiver of Miranda rights. Yes, it should.


“Voluntariness must be determined by looking to the totality of the circumstances surrounding the statement. Some important factors to be considered include (1) whether defendant was in custody, (2) defendant's mental capacity, (3) the physical environment of the interrogation, and (4) the manner of the interrogation. The state bears the burden of proving that a defendant made a knowing and intelligent waiver of his rights and that his statement was voluntary.” (internal citations omitted) Id at 77.


In re T.E.F.

359 N.C. 570, 614 S.E.2d 296 (2005)


Summary: The sole question presented for review was whether the trial court, in conducting a juvenile adjudicatory hearing, committed reversible error by accepting the admission of guilt of the juvenile without conducting the full inquiry required under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-2407(a). The supreme court answered that question in the affirmative. Section 7B-2407(a) listed six issues that had to be addressed before a trial court could accept an admission from a juvenile. Addressing each of those issues directly and specifically was mandatory. One of the issues was whether the juvenile was satisfied with his counsel. The trial court had not addressed that issue directly, and thus, a new adjudicatory hearing was required. The supreme court refused to adopt a "totality of the circumstances" standard of review, noting that the State had a greater duty to protect the rights of the juvenile in a juvenile proceeding than was required in criminal proceedings. Adoption of a totality of the circumstances standard of review would undermine that duty.


Issues Affecting Youth: Whether a court may look to the totality of the circumstances in lieu of conducting the full inquiry required of an adjudicatory hearing. No, it may not.


“Further, we decline to adopt a ‘totality of the circumstances’ standard of review when determining whether a juvenile's admission of guilt is a product of an informed choice under N.C.G.S. § 7B-2407. While we agree that ‘an 'admission' in a juvenile hearing is equivalent to a guilty plea in a criminal case,’ we also recognize the fact that there are significant differences between adult criminal trials and juvenile proceedings. Our courts have consistently recognized that ‘the State has a greater duty to protect the rights of a respondent in a juvenile proceeding than in a criminal prosecution.’ This higher burden placed upon the State to protect juvenile rights would certainly be undermined by ignoring the mandatory language of N.C.G.S. § 7B-2407 and by adopting a less certain and variable "totality of the circumstances" standard when determining whether a juvenile's admission is a product of an informed choice. We do not believe this was the intent of our General Assembly when it enacted N.C.G.S. § 7B-2407, requiring all six areas of inquiry before the juvenile's admission of guilt may be accepted.


Accordingly, we refuse to blur the distinction between juvenile proceedings and adult criminal proceedings, and we reemphasize the fact that increased care must be taken to ensure complete understanding by juveniles regarding the consequences of admitting their guilt.” Id at 575-576.


In re D.S.

364 N.C. 184, 694 S.E.2d 758, 763 (2010)


Summary: A juvenile court counselor (JCC) filed a petition alleging appellee committed simple assault and then filed a petition alleging he committed sexual battery in the same incident. The court of appeals held the second complaint was not filed within the time required by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1703 (2007). The supreme court held the JCC complied with the statute, requiring a petition's filing within 15 days after a complaint's receipt, because (1) he filed the second petition one day after receiving a complaint alleging sexual battery, and (2) he did not have to investigate facts underlying the first complaint, alleging simple assault, to decide if they supported filing a sexual battery charge, since, while the first complaint alleged appellee touched a victim on her buttocks and between her legs, it did not allege he committed sexual battery or touched the victim for sexual arousal or gratification. It was error to hold the trial court lacked jurisdiction because the legislature did not intend § 7B-1703's timing requirements to be jurisdictional, as it did not mention jurisdiction or state a JCC's failure to meet its timing requirements divested a court of subject matter jurisdiction.


Issues Affecting Youth: Whether failure to follow the timing requirements of §7B-1703 divests the court of jurisdiction. No, it does not.


“The legislature did not intend the timing requirements of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1703 (2007), requiring a juvenile court counselor to file a complaint as a petition within a certain time after receiving the complaint, to be jurisdictional.” Id at 193.


In re D.A.H.

277 N.C. App. 16, 857 S.E.2d 771, 775 (2021)


Summary: Held that the trial court erred in concluding that defendant juvenile's confession was not the product of a custodial interrogation; the juvenile, who was 13 years old, was questioned in the principal's office alongside the SRO, was not told he could leave, and was not provided the option of contacting his guardian until after he confessed. The trial court was required to take these circumstances into account and thus erred in finding that the student was not entitled to the protections of the Fifth Amendment or N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-2101.


Issues Affecting Youth: Whether Miranda rights are applicable in the schoolhouse setting. Yes, they are.


“When a student is interrogated in the presence of a school resource officer (SRO)—even when the SRO remains silent—the presence of the officer can create a coercive environment that goes above and beyond the restrictions normally imposed during school, such that a reasonable student would readily believe they are not free to go. This holding recognizes the reality that courts cannot simply ignore—that juveniles are uniquely susceptible to police pressure and may feel compelled to confess when a reasonable adult would not. Oftentimes the presence of an SRO during schoolhouse questioning can transform what otherwise might appear to be a voluntary encounter into a custodial interrogation.” Id at 17.



In re Z.P.

280 N.C. App. 442, 868 S.E.2d 317, 318 (2021)


Summary: A trial court properly adjudicated a juvenile a delinquent based on sufficient evidence that the juvenile had violated N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-277.1 by physically threatening another student with a crowbar as she had previously threatened him, she was larger and stronger than the other student who was very fearful of her, and the statement was made in a way intended for the other student to hear it. However, the State did not meet its burden of showing that the juvenile had violated N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-277.6 by threatening to blow up the school because an objectively reasonable hearer would not have construed the juvenile's threat as a true threat since none of the three classmates who heard the threat testified that they thought she was serious when she made it, so the evidence was insufficient to create an inference to satisfy the State's burden.


Issues Affecting Youth: Whether the charge of communicating a mass threat of violence on educational property must be a true threat. Yes, it must.


“The United States Supreme Court has concluded that an anti-threat statute requires the government to prove a true threat. A true threat, for purposes of criminal liability, depends on both how a reasonable hearer would objectively construe the statement and how the perpetrator subjectively intended her statement to be construed.” Id at 443.


In re J.D.F.

279 N.C. App. 683, 863 S.E.2d 325 (2021)


Summary: Juvenile, 13 years old, was questioned by law enforcement at the Sheriff’s department, with his aunt’s boyfriend present. At first, he denied the allegations of sexual conduct, but approximately 30 minutes into the interview, gave an oral and then written statement with an indication that it was voluntary. The juvenile argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress because (1) his statements were the product of a custodial interrogation and were made without Miranda warnings or the additional protections of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-2101, and (2) his statements were not voluntary.


Issues Affecting Youth: Whether age should be considered in determining knowing and voluntary wavier of Miranda rights. Yes, it should.


“[In] all cases involving an interrogation of a juvenile, the trial court [is] required to consider [the juvenile’s] age as part of the totality of the circumstances test.” . . . “Generally, ‘a minor has the capacity to make a voluntary confession . . . without the presence or consent of counsel or other responsible adult . . . .’ The factors used in considering the admissibility of a confession given by a minor are his intelligence, education, experience, and ability to comprehend the meaning and effect of his statement, in addition to his age.” (internal citations omitted) Id.


State v. Garrett

280 N.C. App. 220, 867 S.E.2d 216, 218 (2021)


Summary: Defendant was 16 years old at the time he committed a criminal offense and charged as an adult in 2016. “Raise the Age” went into effect after he was charged but before his charges were resolved. Defendant moved to dismiss based on equal protection grounds, alleging that he did not receive the benefit of juvenile court jurisdiction.


Issues Affecting Youth: Whether “Raise the Age” applies retroactively. No, it does not.


“The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution does not forbid statutes and statutory changes to have a beginning, and thus to discriminate between the rights of an earlier and later time.” . . . “A statute is not subject to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution or N.C. Const. art. I § 19 unless it creates a classification between different groups of people.” . . . “The prosecution of juveniles as adults does not involve the substance of what is made criminal, and instead involves the procedure taken regarding a criminal offense alleged against juveniles.” Id at 220.


In re J.A.D.

872 S.E.2d 374 (N.C. Ct. App. 2022)


Summary: Juvenile was charged with extortion but challenged, inter alia, the sufficiency of the petition for lack of naming the victim, and the sufficiency of the findings in the adjudication order.


Issues Affecting Youth: Whether petitions are akin to indictments in the requirement to aver every element of a criminal offense. Yes, they are, and they must. What factors must be considered in determining whether a statement is a true threat. Whether the dispositional order must be in writing with appropriate findings of fact and conclusions of law. Yes, it must.


“A petition in a juvenile action serves essentially the same function as an indictment in a felony prosecution and is subject to the same requirement that it aver every element of a criminal offense, with sufficient specificity that the accused is clearly apprised of the conduct for which he is being charged. When a petition is fatally deficient, it is inoperative and fails to evoke the jurisdiction of the court. It is not the function of a charging instrument to bind the hands of the State with technical rules of pleading; rather, its purposes are to identify clearly the crime being charged, thereby putting the accused on reasonable notice to defend against it and prepare for trial, and to protect the accused from being jeopardized by the State more than once for the same crime.” Id at 378.


“Whether a defendant's particular statements contain a true threat is a fact-specific evaluation, in which a court must consider (1) the context in which the statement was made, (2) the nature of the language the defendant deployed, and (3) the reaction of the listeners upon hearing the statement, although no single factor is dispositive. The Court further determined that, in order to narrowly define the range of unprotected speech proscribable as true threats, the State is required to prove the speaker's intent by both an objective and a subjective element in order to convict the defendant of a true threat offense.” Id at 378.


“In a juvenile delinquency action, the dispositional order shall be in writing and shall contain appropriate findings of fact and conclusions of law, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-2512 (2019). Additionally, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-2501(c) instructs that the court shall select a disposition that is designed to protect the public and to meet the needs and best interests of the juvenile, based upon five enumerated factors. The plain language of § 7B-2501(c) compels the appellate court to find that a trial court must consider each of the five factors in crafting an appropriate disposition.” . . . “N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-2411 requires the trial court to affirmatively state the burden of proof in its written findings, without regard to the pre-printed language on the form it chooses to use.” Id at 378.


State v. Kelliher & State v. Conner

873 S.E.2d 366 (N.C. 2022) 873 S.E.2d 339 (N.C. 2022)


Summary: (Kelliher) The North Carolina Supreme Court found that it violates both U.S. Const. amend VIII and N.C. Const. art. I, § 27 to sentence a juvenile homicide offender who has been determined to be neither incorrigible nor irredeemable to life without parole. Any sentence that required a juvenile offender to serve more than forty years in prison before becoming eligible for parole was a de facto sentence of life without parole. Kelliher’s sentence, which required him to serve fifty years in prison before becoming eligible for parole, was a de facto sentence of life without parole under N.C. Const. art. I, § 27. Because the trial court affirmatively found that the juvenile was "neither incorrigible nor irredeemable," he could not constitutionally receive that sentence.


Summary: (Conner) The North Carolina Supreme Court found that juvenile offenders who received sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility for parole, while not guaranteed parole at any point during their respective terms of incarceration, nonetheless must have the opportunity to seek an early release afforded by the prospect of parole after serving no more than forty years of incarceration. After serving forty years of incarceration for his crimes, Conner possessed the opportunity to be considered for parole; to compel him to serve a term of incarceration in excess of forty years upon the trial court's determination that he, in light of his status as a juvenile, was neither incorrigible nor irredeemable, would unconstitutionally constitute a de facto life sentence.


Issues for Youth: Whether a sentence over 40 years for an offense committed while under 18 years of age and the defendant is not found to be neither incorrigible nor irredeemable amounts to a de facto sentence of life without parole. Yes, it does.


“It violates both the Eighth Amendment, U.S. Const. amend VIII and N.C. Const. art. I, § 27 to sentence a juvenile homicide offender who has been determined to be neither incorrigible nor irredeemable to life without parole. Furthermore, any sentence or combination of sentences which, considered together, requires a juvenile offender to serve more than forty years in prison before becoming eligible for parole is a de facto sentence of life without parole within the meaning of N.C. Const. art. I, § 27 because it deprives the juvenile of a genuine opportunity to demonstrate he or she has been rehabilitated and to establish a meaningful life outside of prison.” Kelliher at 369.


“Because a juvenile defendant's potential future danger to society and the youngster's ability to be rehabilitated for the rest of his life cannot be meaningfully evaluated at sentencing, a judgment of life without parole denies a juvenile offender the chance to demonstrate his growth, maturity, and rehabilitation. Thus, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide. And if a trial court imposes a sentence of life it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.” Conner at 340.



In re B.W.C.

No. COA22-124, 2022 N.C. App. LEXIS 595 (Ct. App. Sep. 6, 2022)


Summary: Appellant was properly adjudicated as delinquent for indirect contempt and placed on probation for six months because under a plain reading of N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 7B-1501 and 5A-31, it was clear that he had committed indirect contempt when he violated his disposition order by failing to attend school regularly, an action which was done outside of the direct presence of the trial court, and under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 5A-33, it was proper to find appellant delinquent as a result of such contempt, and he had been put on notice on multiple occasions that such failure would result in his being held in contempt.


Issues for Youth: Whether a child may be adjudicated delinquent for indirect contempt arising out of undisciplined proceedings. Yes, he may.


“When the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, there is no room for judicial construction, and the courts must give it its plain and definite meaning. The N.C. General Statutes provide that a fifteen-year-old juvenile is delinquent if he commits indirect contempt as defined in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 5A-31. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1501(7)(a) (2021). The behavior of a juvenile who engages in willful disobedience of, resistance to, or interference with a court's lawful process, order, directive, or instruction or its execution constitutes contempt. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 5A-31(a)(3) (2021). Such contempt is indirect when it is exercised outside of the presence of a court.” Id at *1.



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