What do civil practitioners need to know about today’s opinion on probation revocation appeals? Simply this: When faced with potentially conflicting opinions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals, earlier opinions may carry more weight than later opinions, especially if you have North Carolina Supreme Court precedent on your side.
In State v. Pennell, the North Carolina Court of Appeals addressed what it described as “considerable confusion in the opinions of our appellate courts” concerning what may be appealed following a probation revocation hearing. On one side, there were two recent opinions (i.e., State v. Long in 2012 and State v. Hunnicutt in 2013) where the North Carolina Court of Appeals dismissed appeals, holding that jurisdictional challenges based on an allegedly fatally defective indictment constituted an impermissible collateral attack on the original judgment. On the other side, there were earlier opinions where the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court heard and decided the merits of such collateral attacks on the jurisdiction of the trial court.
How did the Court of Appeals resolve this conflict? It sided with the earlier opinions and held that appeals following a probation revocation hearing may be based solely upon a challenge, either direct or collateral, to the trial court’s jurisdiction. It explained that it was “bound by precedent of our Supreme Court and, because this Court may not overrule its own opinions, we are also bound by the earlier opinions of this Court that conflict with Long and Hunnicutt.”
Does this explanation mean that, absent Supreme Court precedent, the Court of Appeals will be bound by its earlier opinion when asked to decide which Court of Appeals opinion got it right? If so, you may want to keep this opinion in your back pocket the next time an earlier line of cases on a particular issue is more favorable to your client’s position than a later line of cases coming out the other way.