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North Carolina Supreme Court: Defendant Can’t Be Convicted of Both Habitual Misdemeanor Assault and Felony Assault for Same Act

In November 2015, Fields and A.R. — a transgender woman — engaged in consensual sex. Afterward, while they were bathing, Fields seized A.R. by the hair, roughly grabbed and squeezed her genitals, and slammed her to the floor. As a result, A.R. needed 15 stitches to close the wound to her scrotum.

A jury convicted Fields of both misdemeanor assault and felony assault for his attack on A.R. Because Fields had stipulated to two prior misdemeanor assault convictions within the past 15 years, the superior court imposed a sentence of nine to 20 months for habitual misdemeanor assault and a consecutive sentence of 19 to 32 months for the felony assault. Fields appealed, arguing, inter alia, that he could not be convicted of both habitual misdemeanor assault and felony assault for the same act. The Court of Appeals agreed with Fields and vacated his habitual misdemeanor assault conviction. The North Carolina Supreme Court granted the State’s petition for discretionary review.

The Court observed that N.C.G.S. § 14-33(c)(1) (2019) (“misdemeanor assault statute”) provides in pertinent part: “Unless the conduct is covered under some other provision of law providing greater punishment, any person who commits any assault ... is guilty of a Class A1 misdemeanor if ... he or she [i]nflicts serious injury upon another person.” A person commits the offense of habitual misdemeanor assault if (1) the person’s current offense violates the misdemeanor assault statute, (2) the person has two prior convictions for either misdemeanor assault or felony assault with the earlier of those two convictions not occurring more than 15 years before the current violation, and (3) the current violation caused physical injury. N.C.G.S. § 14-33.2 (2019) (“habitual misdemeanor assault statute”). A person commits felony assault, a Class F felony, if he or she assaults another person and inflicts serious bodily injury. N.C.G.S. § 14-32.4(a) (2019) (“felony assault statute”).

The State argued that because the prefatory language of the misdemeanor assault statute, (i.e., “Unless the conduct is covered under some other provision of law providing greater punishment”) does not appear in the habitual misdemeanor assault statute, the prefatory language is inapplicable to Fields because he was sentenced only on habitual misdemeanor assault and the finding of guilt on the charge of misdemeanor assault was only for the purposes of proving an element of the habitual misdemeanor assault statute.

The Court defined the issue as one of statutory construction that is controlled by the intent of the legislature. State v. Joyner, 494 S.E.2d 653 (N.C. 1991). The Court is to give effect to the plain meaning of the words when the language of a statute is unambiguous. State v. Byrd, 675 S.E.2d 323 (N.C. 2009). When more than one statute is implicated, the Court is to construe the statutes in pari materia [construed together] and give effect, when possible, to all applicable provisions. Meza v. Div. of Soc. Servs., 692 S.E.2d 96 (N.C. 2010).

In State v. Davis, 698 S.E.2d 65 (N.C. 2010), the North Carolina Supreme Court interpreted identical prefatory language in the statute governing the crime of felony serious injury by vehicle, which provided: “unless the conduct is covered by some other provision of law providing greater punishment ... felony serious injury by vehicle is a Class F felony.” N.C.G.S. § 20-141.4(b) (2009). The defendant in Davis was convicted of both felony serious injury by vehicle and of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury (a Class E felony) for the same conduct. The Davis Court explained: “This [prefatory] language indicates the General Assembly was aware when it enacted the ... [vehicular injury statute] that other, higher class offenses might apply to the same conduct.... [T]he General Assembly intended an alternative: that punishment is either imposed for the more heavily punishable offense or for the [vehicular injury] offense, but not both.” Since assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury is a Class E felony providing greater punishment, the Court in Davis held the conviction for felony serious injury by vehicle could not stand.

Because identical prefatory language appears in the misdemeanor assault statute — a Class A1 misdemeanor, Fields’ conviction of felony assault — a Class F felony — invalidated his misdemeanor assault conviction, the Court concluded. And that meant he could not be punished for habitual misdemeanor assault as that offense was predicated on the misdemeanor assault conviction.

However, in State v. Pakulski, 390 S.E.2d 129 (N.C. 1990), the North Carolina Supreme Court held that when a judgment is arrested on predicate felonies underlying a felony murder conviction to avoid double jeopardy problems, the guilty verdicts on the underlying felonies remain on the docket, and judgment can be imposed if the murder conviction is later reversed on appeal. For this reason, the Court in the current case agreed with the State that the Court of Appeals should have arrested, rather than vacated, the trial court’s judgment for habitual misdemeanor assault.

Related legal case

State v. Fields

 

 

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