Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in South Carolina Supreme Court
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The case revolves around Travis Hines, who was indicted for the distribution of heroin after selling the drug to a confidential informant. Hines initially had a public defender, then hired a private attorney, Christopher Wellborn. The State offered Hines a plea deal of ten years, which was later withdrawn and replaced with an eighteen-year offer. Wellborn requested the video of the drug buy, which the State refused to provide unless Hines rejected the plea offer and proceeded to trial. After viewing the video, Wellborn advised Hines to accept a fifteen-year plea deal. However, Hines discharged Wellborn and began negotiating directly with the State. He eventually pleaded guilty in exchange for a fourteen-year sentence, representing himself in the process.The lower courts dismissed Hines' post-conviction relief (PCR) petition, where he sought to set aside his guilty plea on the grounds that he was not adequately warned about the dangers of self-representation and that the State violated discovery rules by refusing to let him watch the video. The court of appeals affirmed the dismissal, ruling that the warnings Hines received about self-representation satisfied the Sixth Amendment and that there was no discovery violation.The Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed the lower courts' decisions. The court held that Hines had competently and intelligently waived his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The court found that Hines, a twenty-nine-year-old college student with previous experience in the criminal justice system, understood the nuances of having legal representation. The court also noted that Hines had been advised by Wellborn to plead guilty, and the nature of the charges and the scope of the punishments he faced were clear to him. The court concluded that Hines had not met his burden of proving his waiver was involuntary. View "Hines v. State" on Justia Law

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In July 2018, Thomas Jones was observing a traffic stop conducted by two deputies outside his home. Jones interacted with the deputies, asking questions about the stop. The deputies responded by arresting Jones, using a taser in the process. Jones was convicted under a Greenville County ordinance for interfering with a county law enforcement officer. He was sentenced to thirty days in jail and a $1,000 fine, which was suspended upon ten days in jail over weekends and a $500 fine. Jones appealed his conviction, arguing that the ordinance was unconstitutionally applied to him and that the ordinance itself was unconstitutional under the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution.Jones's case was transferred to the Supreme Court of South Carolina due to the constitutional challenges he raised. The State conceded that the ordinance was improperly applied to Jones under the specific facts of the case and asked the court to reverse his conviction and sentence. The State also requested that the court not address Jones's broader challenges to the ordinance.The Supreme Court of South Carolina agreed with the State's position. The court noted that it generally declines to rule on constitutional issues unless necessary and that facial challenges to statutes are disfavored. The court found that Jones's actions of observing and asking questions were constitutionally protected conduct and could not support a conviction under the ordinance. The court was deeply disturbed by the deputies' behavior in this case but declined to go further than necessary in its ruling. The court reversed Jones's conviction on the narrow grounds that the ordinance was unconstitutionally applied to him and reserved judgment on the broader challenges to the ordinance for another case. View "State v. Jones" on Justia Law

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Patrick Clemons, a convicted felon, was found guilty of possessing a firearm. He had two prior convictions for Criminal Domestic Violence of a High and Aggravated Nature (CDVHAN) and one for Assault and Battery Second Degree (AB2d) in South Carolina. Due to these prior convictions, Clemons was classified as an armed career criminal under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), leading to a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years. Clemons appealed his enhanced sentence, arguing that both CDVHAN and AB2d could be committed through reckless or negligent conduct, and therefore, neither should qualify as a predicate offense for enhanced sentencing under the ACCA's "elements clause."Clemons' appeal reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which certified two questions to the South Carolina Supreme Court. The questions sought to clarify the mental state required to commit AB2d and CDVHAN in South Carolina. The South Carolina Supreme Court rephrased the questions to ask whether a defendant could be convicted of these offenses with a mens rea of recklessness as defined by the Model Penal Code.The South Carolina Supreme Court held that the answer to both questions was "yes." The court explained that the South Carolina Legislature had chosen to criminalize multiple types of conduct under the statutes for AB2d and CDVHAN. Therefore, there was not a single mens rea required for a conviction under either statute. Instead, the required mens rea depended on the actus reus of the crime being prosecuted. The court concluded that under some circumstances, a person could be convicted of AB2d and CDVHAN with a mens rea of recklessness. View "United States of America v. Clemons" on Justia Law

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Randy Collins was tried and convicted for first-degree arson and criminal conspiracy, following a fire that resulted in the death of a 12-year-old boy. The conviction was based, in part, on Collins' statement to law enforcement, which was obtained during an interview where the officers assured Collins that his statements would remain confidential. Collins appealed his conviction, arguing that his statement to law enforcement was involuntary due to the officers' false assurance of confidentiality.The Supreme Court of South Carolina, reviewing the case on certiorari, agreed with Collins. The court held that when law enforcement gave Collins Miranda warnings, but then negated them by falsely advising him that his statements would remain confidential, his statement became involuntary. The court noted that such a false assurance of confidentiality is inherently coercive because it interferes with an individual's ability to make a fully informed decision on whether to engage in an interview.Moreover, the court found that the false assurance of confidentiality was not harmless error. Collins' statement was key evidence linking him to the arson scheme and placing him at the scene of the fire. His situation was distinguishable from cases where the inadmissible evidence is merely cumulative to other properly admitted evidence. Therefore, the court affirmed the court of appeals' decision, albeit with modification, and held that Collins' statement was inadmissible and he was entitled to a new trial. The court also took the opportunity to unequivocally condemn the interviewing technique employed in this case. View "The State v. Collins" on Justia Law

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In South Carolina, the case revolves around the interpretation of a law concerning the calculation of the one-year maximum Community Supervision Program (CSP) revocation sentence. The key question is whether inmates arrested for alleged CSP violations should receive credit towards their potential CSP revocation sentence for the time they spent in jail awaiting the adjudication of the CSP violation charge. The Petitioner, Stacardo Grissett, violated the terms of his CSP and was denied credit for roughly six months he spent in jail awaiting his CSP revocation hearing. His appeal was dismissed as moot because he had completed his CSP revocation sentence and original sentence by the time it reached the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court of South Carolina, however, chose to review the case due to its potential for repetition and the need for clarification. The court ruled that inmates must be given credit for any time served awaiting their CSP revocation hearing towards their CSP revocation sentence. The court's decision hinged on the interpretation of Section 24-21-560(C), which states that an inmate who is incarcerated for a CSP violation is not eligible to earn credits that would reduce the sentence. The court held that time served does not "reduce" a sentence, but only affects the date on which the sentence begins, thereby ruling in favor of the Petitioner. View "State v. Grissett" on Justia Law

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In South Carolina, a defendant, William C. Sellers, was convicted of murder in connection with the killing of Johnny Hydrick. The State presented evidence that Sellers personally murdered Hydrick during a burglary and robbery attempt to steal Oxycodone, guns, and cash from Hydrick's home. The State also presented an alternative theory that Sellers was guilty under the doctrine of "the hand of one is the hand of all" because he and another man agreed to carry out the burglary and robbery, during which one or both of them fatally beat Hydrick.The Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed the lower court's decision. The court addressed two main issues. First, it considered whether the trial court's jury instruction defining malice partly as "the intentional doing of a wrongful act without just cause or excuse" improperly shifted the burden of proof to Sellers. The court found that the instruction did not shift the burden because the State was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Sellers acted "without just cause or excuse."Second, the court examined whether the State presented sufficient evidence to support instructing the jury on Sellers' criminal liability under the doctrine of "the hand of one is the hand of all." The court found that the State had presented evidence that Sellers and another man had agreed to commit the burglary and robbery, and that both had beaten Hydrick during the course of these crimes. Thus, the instruction was supported by the evidence.Therefore, the court affirmed Sellers' conviction for murder. View "State v. William C.Sellers" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed the decision by the court of appeals in the case of Tommy Lee Benton, who was convicted for the murder of Charles Bryant Smith, two counts of first-degree burglary, one count of first-degree arson, and one count of third-degree arson. Benton's first trial was declared a mistrial due to his failure to disclose his alibi, which he intended to support via his great-grandmother's testimony. Benton claimed that his second trial and ensuing convictions were barred by double jeopardy. The court, however, found that the mistrial was declared due to "manifest necessity," hence, there was no double jeopardy violation.Benton also argued against the admissibility of gruesome crime scene photographs and certain text and Facebook messages. The court upheld the trial court's decision, asserting that the photographs provided important context to the testimony and other key evidence. The court noted that while the photographs were disturbing, any error in admitting them was harmless as they did not significantly contribute to the verdict. The court also affirmed the admissibility of the text and social media messages. View "State v. Benton" on Justia Law

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James Heyward was convicted of multiple crimes arising from the armed robbery, brutal beating, and murder of Alice Tollison during the burglary of her home. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Heyward's petition for a writ of certiorari to address the trial court's refusal to remove Heyward's leg shackles during the striking of the jury, and four evidentiary issues. As to three of the evidentiary issues, the authentication of a fingerprint card, the admission of gruesome autopsy photographs, and the State's use of Heyward's alias, the Supreme Court found the trial court acted within its discretion. As to the other evidentiary issue, a firearms expert's testimony Heyward's pistol was operational at the time of the crimes, the Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals' ruling that if there was any error in the admission of that testimony it did not prejudice Heyward. As to the leg shackles, the Court found the trial court erred in failing to exercise its discretion in determining whether Heyward should have been required to wear leg shackles in the presence of the jury. However, because the State conclusively proved Heyward's guilt through overwhelming evidence such that no rational conclusion could have been reached other than Heyward is guilty of these crimes, the Court nevertheless affirmed. View "South Carolina v. Heyward" on Justia Law

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Corey Brown was convicted by jury of conspiracy to commit grand larceny, armed robbery, and kidnapping. In a post-trial motion, Brown moved for a new trial on several grounds, including the State's failure to disclose its negotiations with Shadarron Evans, the State's key witness. The trial court granted the motion, and the State appealed. Agreeing with the State, the court of appeals reversed the grant of a new trial, concluding that no plea offer had been extended and remanded the case to the circuit court to make specific findings as to whether the evidence was material to Brown's guilt under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Brown's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the court of appeals. After that review, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case to the circuit court for a new trial. View "South Carolina v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Robert Miller, III was convicted of murdering eighty-six-year-old Willie Johnson. Following the murder, Petitioner—who was fifteen years old at the time—confessed four times: twice to his close friends and twice to law enforcement. All four confessions were admitted at trial, three without objection. This appeal centered around the voluntariness of Petitioner's fourth and final confession to two agents of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). After examining the totality of the circumstances surrounding the fourth confession, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that Petitioner's free will was not overborne, and his confession was voluntary. It therefore affirmed. View "South Carolina v. Miller" on Justia Law