When a man gets caught driving 94 miles per hour in a 65 mph zone, few of us would expect his court case to attract much attention.
Fewer still would foresee the case reaching the N.C. Supreme Court. Almost no one would predict that the case would produce a rare 4-3 split.
Yet that’s exactly what happened this month in State v. Hamer. The decision could offer a valuable clue about the state Supreme Court’s future approach to legal technicalities in criminal cases.
In January 2018, a state Highway Patrol trooper used a speed-detection device to catch Demon Hamer driving nearly 30 mph over the speed limit on Interstate 40 in Orange County.
Six months later, Hamer pleaded guilty to the speeding charge in District Court. Prosecutors dropped an additional charge of reckless driving. Hamer was ordered to pay a $50 fine and court costs.
The case could have ended there. But Hamer appealed to Superior Court, and he was appointed a public defender.
Here’s where the legal case gets interesting.
Like other criminal defendants, Hamer was entitled to a trial by jury. Thanks to a 2014 amendment to the state constitution, though, he had the ability to waive that right. He could agree to have his case decided instead by a judge. It’s called a bench trial.
State law spells out a process a judge must follow before a defendant can waive a jury trial. The process takes place at the trial’s outset. The judge questions the defendant on the record. This ensures that the defendant clearly agrees to bypass a jury.
That’s not what happened in Hamer’s case. Court records suggest that the prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge all started the trial with a limited understanding of the process. While all parties agreed to conduct a bench trial, the judge didn’t begin the proceeding by questioning Hamer in court about waiving a jury trial. Instead the judge waited until after the prosecution had rested its case.
Despite the irregular timing, Hamer consented to a bench trial. The judge later found him guilty and ordered him to pay court costs.
On appeal, a new appellate defender argued that Hamer “did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his right to a jury trial.”
This month three justices of the N.C. Supreme Court agreed. Writing on the losing end of a 4-3 decision, Justice Sam Ervin IV argued that the majority decision “rests upon a significant understatement of the extent of the trial court’s failure to comply with the applicable statutory procedures [and] a fundamental misapprehension of the nature of the claim that defendant has asserted.”
“I believe that the majority’s decision involves a substantial deviation from this Court’s precedent that has the effect of countenancing a violation of defendant’s fundamental right to trial by jury,” Ervin added. He and fellow Democratic Justices Anita Earls and Robin Hudson would have ordered a new trial for Hamer.
On a court with four Democrats and three Republicans, the decision did not split along party lines. Democratic Justice Michael Morgan joined his Republican colleagues to make up the 4-3 majority.
Justice Phil Berger Jr. wrote for that majority. “[D]efendant contends that the trial court’s failure to follow the statutorily prescribed procedure for waiver of a jury trial deprived him of a jury trial that he did not want.”
Siding with Hamer in this case would impose a new legal rule that would “rigidly require a new trial for technical violations, … without regard to the facts and circumstances of a particular case and without consideration of prejudice to the defendant,” Berger wrote.
“While the right to a jury trial is rooted in both our State constitution and the United States Constitution, the trial court’s error here concerns a statutory procedure allowing criminal defendants to waive this constitutional right,” Berger added. “Here, defendant bears the burden of demonstrating not only that an error occurred, but also that he was prejudiced by the error.”
Hamer clearly chose to make his case directly to a judge, Berger noted. “There is no evidence in the record to demonstrate that defendant was not aware of his right to a jury trial or his right to waive the same,” he wrote. “Defendant had the right to waive a trial by jury, and the record tends to show that defendant’s strategy was to have the merits of his case decided in a bench trial.”
Berger points to the case’s most important fact. “[T]here was overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt presented at trial,” he wrote. “The evidence supports a finding that defendant was guilty of speeding, … and defendant has not met his burden as there is no reasonable possibility that had the error in question not been committed, a different result would have been reached in a bench trial or a jury trial.”
The bottom line in this case: Hamer can no longer drag out appeals of his 2018 speeding conviction.
Beyond Hamer, though, a 4-3 majority on the state’s highest court could be sending a message. Defendants should think twice about relying on legal technicalities to escape punishment for their crimes.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.