In North Carolina v. Murchison (232 PA 13, filed June 12, 2014), the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that in a Violation of Probation hearing, a defendant can be violated based on hearsay.
Hearsay means that the complaining witness does not need to be at the hearing, a police officer can tell the judge what the witness said. Also documents can be used even if no witness is present to lay a foundation.
What does this case mean to you? Defendants accept probationary sentences daily with the feeling of relief: you ducked the bullet and are not going to jail. In sentencing hearings, the judge reads the litany of obligations, aka conditions of probation: fines, reporting to a probation officer, community service, drug assessments etc. I notice the defendants’ eyes glaze over at this time and they are not able to absorb what the judge is saying. Part of the reason that the defendants do not know what the judge is saying is that the list is long, the terminology unfamiliar and the rapidity of the judge’s speech. The judge lists probation conditions constantly and mows through the list with warp speed. But regardless, most of the time, the defendants are not even paying attention. They are just thinking that they were lucky not to be going to jail.
The defendants fail to take seriously the number of days of jail suspended. Why is this a problem? It is a problem because those days or months can be activated SO quickly and easily but defendants do not think it will happen to them.
Well, with the new Supreme Court case, activation of the sentence can happen quicker and easier than ever. In Murchison, the police officer testified that the defendant’s mother said that the defendant had broken into her home, held her and his girlfriend in a closet and possessed knives. She also opined that the defendant would kill someone if left on probation. The other hearsay evidence was an Administrative Office of the Court’s printout, showing that defendant was indicted for First Degree Burglary.
“The trial court found that defendant unlawfully, willfully, and without legal justification had violated conditions of his probation by committing one or more subsequent offenses, as alleged in the violation reports. Accordingly, the trial court revoked defendant’s probation and activated his suspended sentences.” All the prosecutor must show to have the suspended jail/prison sentence activate is that the evidence is “such as to reasonably satisfy the judge in the exercise of his sound discretion that the defendant has willfully violated a valid condition of probation.” Translation: not much evidence at all. With Murchison, North Carolina has streamlined the procedure to whisk defendants off to prison with the most minimal effort. The lesson to defendants is to know that you are treading on eggshells the moment you are granted probation. Know your obligations, work with your probation officer and know that very, very little evidence is required to send you to prison.