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The Price of Pork Chops Goes Up

“Habitual” crime doesn’t have to make sense. Sometimes, very literally, the cases also don’t seem to make “cents” either. People have on occasion heard the horror stories. A single mom, arrested for stealing $8 of diapers. A homeless man, arrested for a $1 pack of gum or a can of beer. And the result, if the misdemeanor larceny is one of a string of larcenies, may result in years in prison. Getting a fair hearing or trial should have almost nothing to do with the cost. Sadly, this can be a two-edged sword: people may blindly think that minor thefts are no different from major ones. Under North Carolina law, a simple misdemeanor or larceny can be elevated to a felony, if it’s proven that a defendant has committed four or more prior larcenies.

In the following discussion, we can talk about what price was paid, when a man stole two packs of pork chops. As a frame of reference, the estimated cost of these stolen meat items in 2016 was around $20, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. He’s going to be paying a price for them for years.

II. The Crime At Ingles Market

In September 2016, the employees at Ingles market noticed Lamont Edgerton acting suspiciously. Later, one of the employees testified that Edgerton was “sticking… meats inside of a bag he brought in the store for himself.” Edgerton was followed out into the parking lot of the supermarket. It was never fully explained why, but after he noticed he been followed, Edgerton went back into the supermarket, where a somewhat bizarre series of events happened. The employees said that Edgerton was “rowdy,” inside the store. Edgerton asked the employees if there was a “problem.” The employees said that they were frightened or threatened by Edgerton’s actions at that point. For whatever reason, they had then told Edgerton to go ahead and just “Take the meat,” and to “leave.” He did.

This final exchange could have – probably even should have – made a difference in the larceny charge that was to be brought against Edgerton later. A member of the Lake Lure Police Department reviewed the surveillance video and recognized the defendant. The police sergeant then went to Edgerton’s home and arrested him. As he was being taken into custody, Edgerton pled with the officer: “Can’t I just have my dad go back and pay for the pork chops?” The Sergeant told him that it was just too late.

This final exchange could have--probably even should have – made a difference in the larceny charge that was to be brought against Egerton later. But this wasn’t the only odd thing that happened in the course of the prosecution and trial.

During the jury trial, Edgerton became agitated. After the jury returned a guilty verdict, he became so disruptive that he was removed from the court room, and the court proceeded without him. This absence may help explain, in part, why Edgerton became regarded as a “habitual” felon. Edgerton appears not to have been fully aware of the risk he was in because of the prior larcenies. In other words, did Edgerton have sufficient legal representation in his prior larcenies? Should it matter if he was unable to assist in his own defense in those cases? Given that a theft of well under $1,000 (this dollar amount triggers, in theory, some special protection for the poor, under North Carolina’s habitual felon law) occurred in this pork chop case, it’s a good question. But without being sure someone is adequately represented, by experienced and assertive criminal defense lawyer, there’s always a risk the defendant is going to be made into mincemeat. There were good defenses, raised for Edgerton, on appeal.

III.    A Shopping Spree of Defenses... 5 Items To Get

First, a criminal defense attorney pointed out fax indicating that the indictment was not sufficient to charge anyone with “habitual larceny.” Second, the arraignment had some questionable practices in it. Third, the defendant, who had been removed from the court room, had given his lawyer at the trial no right to authorize or stipulate anything about prior larceny convictions. Fourth, the criminal defense attorney on appeal argued for sufficient evidence to prove the actual charge of habitual larceny. This issue we will talk about in a minute. Fifth, there were some issues about using what’s called “best evidence” to establish prior felony convictions. Can courts use electronic records, which may or may not be notoriously unreliable?

The appeals court ignored each of the five grounds for appeal, for various reasons of varying validity. Of the five reasons, perhaps the most disturbing analysis came on the question of relating the misdemeanor larceny of property value (of under $1,000) to making Edgerton a habitual felon, and thus facing years in prison. The jury was presented with official, albeit electronic summaries of, records to prove Edgerton’s prior larcenies, and subsequently found Edgerton guilty of being a “habitual felon.” Unfortunately, the trial attorney for the defendant had also earlier stipulated to the prior felony convictions, which would be “sufficient… to arrive at the level of a habitual larceny.” The court seemed to embrace this unwelcome stipulation as a sort of fig leaf for any imperfections in the electronic statement. The appeals court did not explain, though, why there is a threshold level of $1,000, or if has implications for such low-value thefts as in this case. Perhaps, the allegation of the employees feeling “threatened” by Edgerton’s return to the market was an important factor in casting Edgerton into a more ‘felonious’ light.

This uncertainty once again raises concerns about if people who have mental health issues are getting the legal help they truly need, and as early as possible during a possible arrest. The fact that Edgerton was immediately recognized by the police suggests he was hardly an unknown quantity.

Part of the problem here is the difference between a trial and appeals court. The facts are decided at the trial level. Whatever facts may exist about Edgerton’s ability to protect himself, without an expert defense attorney, is left to the facts stage of his prior arrests. Getting the right criminal lawyer is best, as soon as possible after the arrest. The argument could even be made that it even makes sense to try and take action, by getting criminal law advice, before a fifth larceny conviction.

IV.  Getting a Jury to Listen

This case raised serious issues, seemingly not fully addressed, about competency and fairness in sentencing. For example, Edgerton’s conduct at the supermarket and in the trial itself could’ve raised red flags about whether and how he should’ve been treated, in terms of potential mental health issues. This case is a sterling example of why people with family members who have a history of ‘garden variety’ crimes should continue to be vigilant in all arrests. The help of an experienced trial attorney can be a key factor in trying to keep misdemeanors from escalating into felonies. And if a trial does occur, best explaining to a jury the human dynamics involved.

V. Conclusions:

In this case, Lamont Edgerton told police he stole the meat “because he had no money and wanted something nice to eat on his birthday.” As it turned out, this meant Edgerton was likely to spend the next 8 birthdays in jail. Perhaps, most sadly, was the court’s dismissal of any “requirement that the defendant was Represented by counsel or had waived counsel” in the prior misdemeanor larceny cases. This alone should encourage every person, charged with a felony or a misdemeanor, to seek professional help and advice of an experienced trial attorney, as soon as possible. If you, a family member or a loved one have been accused of a crime related to repeat misdemeanors of any kind, from shoplifting to trespass or theft, or involving related claims or your legal rights to a fair trial, please contact us.  You will speak with a Criminal Defense attorney/ experienced trial lawyer who can best answer your questions, at any stage of proceedings.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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