Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

About

This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.

Instructions

Navigate using the table of contents to the left or by using the search box below. Use quotations for an exact phrase search. A search for multiple terms without quotations functions as an “or” search. Not sure where to start? The 5 minute video tutorial offers a guided tour of main features – Launch Tutorial (opens in new tab).

E.g., 09/26/2021
E.g., 09/26/2021

On appeal from a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, State v. Parisi, ___ N.C. App. ___, 817 S.E.2d 228 (2018) (discussed in an earlier blog post by Shea Denning, https://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/got-probable-cause-for-impaired-driving/), the Supreme Court held that the trial court erred by granting the defendant’s motion to suppress in this impaired driving case. The Supreme Court considered whether the trial courts’ findings—which are conclusive on appeal if supported by competent evidence—supported the ultimate conclusions of law. Here, where the trial court made findings that the defendant admitted to consuming three beers, that defendant’s eyes were red and glassy, that a moderate odor of alcohol emanated from defendant’s person, and that the defendant exhibited multiple indicia of impairment while performing various sobriety tests, the Supreme Court had “no hesitation” in concluding that those facts sufficed, as a matter of law, to support the officer’s decision to arrest the defendant for impaired driving.

State v. Bartlett, 368 N.C. 309 (Sept. 25, 2015)

The court reversed the decision below, State v. Bartlett, 231 N.C. App. 417 (Dec. 17, 2013), holding that a new suppression hearing was required. At the close of the suppression hearing, the superior court judge orally granted the defendant’s motion and asked counsel to prepare a written order. However, that judge did not sign the proposed order before his term ended. The defendant presented the proposed order to a second superior court judge, who signed it, over the State’s objection, and without conducting a hearing. The order specifically found that the defendant’s expert was credible, gave weight to the expert’s testimony, and used the expert’s testimony to conclude that no probable cause existed to support defendant’s arrest. The State appealed, contending that the second judge was without authority to sign the order. The court of appeals found it unnecessary to reach the State’s contention because that court considered the first judge’s oral ruling to be sufficient. Reviewing the law, the Supreme Court clarified, “our cases require findings of fact only when there is a material conflict in the evidence and allow the trial court to make these findings either orally or in writing.” It added that to the extent that cases such as State v. Williams, 195 N.C. App. 554 (2009), “suggest otherwise, they are disavowed.” Turning to the case at hand, the court concluded that at the suppression hearing in this case, disagreement between the parties’ expert witnesses created a material conflict in the evidence. Thus, a finding of fact, whether written or oral, was required. Here, however, the first judge made no such finding. The court noted that while he did attempt to explain his rationale for granting the motion, “we cannot construe any of his statements as a definitive finding of fact that resolved the material conflict in the evidence.” Having found the oral ruling was inadequate, the Court considered whether the second judge had authority to resolve the evidentiary conflict in his written order even though he did not conduct the suppression hearing. It held that he did not, reasoning that G.S. 15A-977 contemplates that the same trial judge who hears the evidence must also find the facts. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that G.S. 15A-1224(b) authorized the second judge to sign the order, concluding that provision applies only to criminal trials, not suppression hearings. 

State v. Salinas, 366 N.C. 119 (June 14, 2012)

Modifying and affirming State v. Salinas, 214 N.C. App.408 (Aug. 16, 2011) (trial court incorrectly applied a probable cause standard instead of a reasonable suspicion standard to a vehicle stop), the court held that the trial court may not rely on allegations contained in a defendant’s G.S. 15A-977(a) affidavit when making findings of fact in connection with a motion to suppress.

Stat v. Phillips, 365 N.C. 103 (June 16, 2011)

The court rejected the capital defendant’s argument that the trial court’s findings of fact as to whether he had consumed impairing substances before making an incriminating statement to the police were insufficient. The court reviewed the trial court’s detailed findings and found them sufficient.

In this case involving possession of a firearm by a felon and carrying a concealed weapon, (1) binding caselaw required that the defendant’s conviction for felon in possession be vacated because the indictment was fatally defective; and (2) the trial court’s ruling on the defendant’s motion to suppress was based on improper findings of fact.

(1) G.S. 14-415.1(c) dictates that an indictment charging a defendant with possession of a firearm by a felon must be separate from any indictment charging other offenses related to or giving rise to the felon in possession charge.  Here, a single indictment charged the defendant with felon in possession, possession of a firearm with an altered/removed serial number, and carrying a concealed weapon.  Finding itself bound by State v. Wilkins, 225 N.C. App. 492 (2013), the court determined that the State’s failure to obtain a separate indictment for the felon in possession offense rendered the indictment fatally defective and invalid as to that offense.

(2) The court determined that the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s Fourth Amendment motion to suppress a firearm seized from the center console of his vehicle did not contain adequate findings of fact pertaining to a material conflict in the evidence of the accessibility of the firearm and consequently the trial court plainly erred in denying the motion. 

An officer initiated a valid traffic stop of the defendant and searched the vehicle for marijuana based on an emanating odor.  During the search, the officer felt and saw the handgrip of a pistol around the center console, arrested the defendant for carrying a concealed weapon, and then removed a plastic panel from the console to retrieve the pistol.  The defendant challenged the trial court’s finding of fact that “no tools were needed” to remove the panel, a finding bearing upon the accessibility of the pistol for purposes of determining whether the officer had probable cause for the independent search of the console premised on the offense of carrying a concealed weapon.  Reviewing the testimony, the court of appeals found that the finding that “no tools were needed” was not supported by the testimony at the suppression hearing and that the trial court otherwise failed to make necessary findings as to the accessibility of the pistol.  Because the accessibility issue was not resolved by adequate findings, the trial court’s conclusion of law regarding probable cause was not supported and it could not properly rule on the defendant’s motion to suppress.  The court remanded the case for the trial court to make further findings on the issue.

The defendant was charged with impaired driving, was convicted in district court, appealed to superior court, and prevailed on a motion to suppress at a pretrial hearing in superior court. The State appealed. (1) The Court of Appeals rejected the State’s argument that the superior court judge lacked jurisdiction to enter a written order after the State gave oral notice of appeal at the conclusion of the hearing at which the judge granted the motion to suppress. At the hearing, the trial judge stated that the State could not establish a nexus between the person the officer saw driving and the defendant who later walked up to the officer. The Court found that the judge’s written order was a chronicle of the findings and conclusions he decided at the motion hearing and was not a new order affecting the merits of the case. (2) The Court rejected the State’s argument that certain findings of fact were not supported by the evidence. In regard to the green pickup truck that the defendant was allegedly driving, the trial judge found that the arresting officer testified that he did not see the truck park or anyone get in or out of the truck. The State asserted that the officer testified that he observed a video at the mini-mart where the truck was parked showing the defendant getting out of the truck. The Court found that the officer testified that the video was lost because he left the flash drive containing the video in his patrol car when he took the car to a mechanic. The Court held that the trial judge determines the credibility of witnesses, the weight to be given to testimony, and reasonable inferences. “The trial court was free to give no weight to [the officer’s] testimony regarding viewing the Mini-mart video.” (3) The Court rejected the State’s argument that probable cause existed to arrest the defendant for impaired driving. The Court found that the trial judge’s findings supported his conclusion that the State failed to show that the defendant was driving and, although the truck was registered to the defendant, failed to establish a connection between the driver of the truck and the defendant.

An officer patrolling the parking area of a park just before closing discovered the defendant asleep in her car. Based on the defendant’s positioning, he was concerned there might be a medical emergency, so he knocked on the window of her car. After he knocked several times, the defendant sat up, looked at him, and opened the driver’s side door. She said she was camping in the park with her son and decided to take a nap in her car. Her speech was slurred, her eyes were bloodshot, and she was unsteady on her feet when she got out of her car. The officer also saw track marks on her arms that were consistent with heroin use. The officer asked for the defendant’s license, and, while holding it, asked for consent to search the defendant’s car and her purse, which was sitting in the front seat of the car. 

The State and defendant presented conflicting evidence about what happened next. The officer said that defendant responded, “Sure.” The defendant said the officer asked three times for permission to search her car and each time she said, “I would really rather you not.” She said she only consented to the search after the officer threatened to arrest her.

The officer searched the defendant’s purse and found several syringes in its top section. He then asked the defendant whether she was carrying anything illegal. The defendant asked whether she was going to jail. The officer told her that he would not take her to jail if she cooperated. The defendant told him she had a syringe containing heroin in the side compartment of her purse. The officer found the syringe there, along with a burnt spoon and two grams of heroin.

The defendant was not arrested that evening, but subsequently was indicted for possession of heroin and possession of drug paraphernalia. She filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the search, which the trial court denied. She pled guilty, preserving her right to appeal. On appeal, she argued that she did not voluntarily consent to the search of her purse, and that the trial court’s findings on that issue were insufficient. The court of appeals disagreed. Rejecting the defendant’s argument to the contrary, the court explained that the question of whether consent to search was voluntary is one of fact, not law.

The trial court determined that the defendant freely gave consent to the officer to search her vehicle and her purse. This finding was supported by the officer’s testimony at the suppression hearing that he asked defendant for consent to search her car and purse, and she said, “Sure.” The court of appeals concluded, therefore, that the trial court’s finding that the defendant’s consent was “freely given” was supported by competent evidence and was binding on appeal. Though the trial court failed to make a specific finding that the search did not violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, the appellate court reached that conclusion based on the finding of fact that the defendant voluntarily consented to the search. Thus, the court of appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress.

Officers obtained a search warrant to search the defendant’s house. They executed the warrant, found drugs, and charged the defendant with drug offenses. The defendant moved to suppress, arguing that the warrant contained material misrepresentations and did not provide probable cause to support the issuance of the warrant. A superior court judge denied the motion, and the defendant was convicted and appealed. The court of appeals reversed. (1) The trial judge did not set forth adequate conclusions of law. Although formal findings of fact are not required when the evidence regarding a motion to suppress is not in conflict, a judge must still provide conclusions of law, i.e., must explain the reason for the judge’s ruling. In this case, the defendant made multiple challenges to the warrant and the trial judge merely denied the motion without further explanation. (2) The warrant was not supported by probable cause. The application was based on information from a confidential and reliable informant. The informant claimed to have purchased drugs from the defendant in the past, but reported that the defendant had become more cautious recently and now would sell drugs only through a specific middleman. The informant reported that she had recently picked up the middleman, dropped the middleman off in “the general area of defendant’s home” and picked him up shortly thereafter in possession of drugs. The court of appeals concluded that this did not provide probable cause as the middleman was of unknown reliability and no one had observed him entering the defendant’s home. A dissenting judge would have found that the informant’s history of purchasing drugs from the defendant, plus what amounted to an imperfectly controlled purchase by the middleman, provided probable cause.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the findings and conclusions made by the trial court from the bench with respect to his motions to suppress are insufficient because the trial court expressly ordered the State to prepare written orders on the motions but the State failed to do so. North Carolina law requires findings of fact only where there is a material conflict in the evidence, and allows the trial court to make those findings of fact either orally or in writing. Regardless of whether findings of fact are required, the trial court must make conclusions of law in the record. Considering each of the defendant’s motions to suppress the court found that the “trial court’s oral rulings on the motions are without error, because they state sufficient findings of fact resolving any material conflicts in the evidence and conclusions of law that apply the law to those factual findings.”

Because the trial court failed to provide its rationale for denying the defendant’s motions to suppress, the court found itself unable to engage in meaningful review with respect to the trial court’s denial of the motions and thus remanded. Although the trial court is only required to make findings of fact when there is a material conflict in the evidence, the trial court must make conclusions of law. Here, the trial court did not provide its rationale during the hearing and its order lacked adequate conclusions of law applying necessary principles to the facts presented. 

The trial court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress in this traffic stop case contained inadequate conclusions of law concerning the validity of the traffic stop. The trial court’s sole conclusion of law is better characterized as a statement of law. A conclusion of law requires the exercise of judgment in making a determination or application of legal principles to the facts found. The court remanded for findings of fact and conclusions of law. 

On the State’s appeal from a trial court order granting the defendant’s motion to suppress, the court vacated and remanded for new findings of fact and if necessary, a new suppression hearing. After being shot by police, the defendant was taken to the hospital and given pain medication. He then waived his Miranda rights and made a statement to the police. He sought to suppress that statement, arguing that his Miranda waiver and statement were involuntarily. The court began by rejecting the State’s claim that the trial court erred by considering hearsay evidence in connection with the suppression motion and by relying on such evidence in making its findings of fact. The court noted that the trial court had “great discretion” to consider any relevant evidence at the suppression hearing. However, the court agreed with the State’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to resolve evidentiary issues before making its findings of fact. It explained:

[T]he trial court suppressed Defendant’s statements on the grounds Defendant was “in custody, in severe pain, and under the influence of a sufficiently large dosage of a strong narcotic medication[;]” however, the trial court failed to make any specific findings as to Defendant’s mental condition, understanding, or coherence—relevant considerations in a voluntariness analysis—at the time his Miranda rights were waived and his statements were made. The trial court found only that Defendant was in severe pain and under the influence of several narcotic pain medications. These factors are not all the trial court should consider in determining whether his waiver of rights and statements were made voluntarily.

Furthermore, although the defendant moved to suppress on grounds that police officers allegedly coerced his Miranda waiver and statements by withholding pain medication, the trial court failed to resolve the material conflict in evidence regarding whether police coercion occurred.

Because the trial court provided the rationale for its ruling on the defendant’s motion to suppress from the bench and there were no material conflicts in the evidence, the trial court was not required to enter a written order.

Although the trial court made findings of fact in its order denying the defendant’s suppression motion, it erred by failing to make conclusions of law. The court remanded for appropriate conclusions of law.

The trial court erred by failing to issue a written order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. A written order is necessary unless the court announces its rationale from the bench and there are no material conflicts in the evidence. Here, although the trial court announced its ruling from the bench, there was a material conflict in the evidence. The court remanded for entry of the required written order. 

A trial court’s order denying a motion to suppress is not invalid merely because the trial court did not make its findings immediately after the suppression hearing where the trial court later made the required findings. 

The trial court was not required to make written finding of fact supporting its denial of a suppression motion where the trial court provided its rationale from the bench and there were not material conflicts in the evidence.

In granting the defendant’s motion to suppress, the trial judge erred by failing to make findings of fact resolving material conflicts in the evidence. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court “indirectly provided a rationale from the bench” by stating that the motion was granted for the reasons in the defendant’s memorandum.

In re N.J., 221 N.C. App. 427 (June 19, 2012)

The district court erred by failing to make findings of fact or conclusions of law in connection with its ruling on the juvenile’s motion to suppress in violation of G.S. 15A-977, where the trial court failed to provide its rationale for denying the motion. 

Although there was no material conflict in the evidence as to whether the defendant was impaired when he made a statement, the court held, over a dissent, that there was a material conflict as to whether he was in custody and that the trial court erred by failing to make the necessary findings of fact on that issue. Because the defendant’s testimony did not meet the standard for rendering his statement involuntary, any conflict in the evidence on this issue was not material. As to custody, the officer’s testimony suggested the defendant was not in custody. However the defendant’s testimony if believed would support a contrary conclusion; therefore there was a material conflict on this issue.

By orally denying the defendant's motion to suppress, the trial court failed to comply with G.S. 15A-977(f)’s requirement that it enter a written order with findings of fact resolving material conflicts in the evidence. The statute mandates a written order unless the trial court provides its rationale from the bench and there are no material conflicts in the evidence. Although the trial court provided its rationale from the bench, there were material conflicts in the evidence as to whether the defendant’s consent to search was voluntary. The court remanded for the trial court to make the necessary findings of fact and for reconsideration of its conclusions of law in light of those findings.

The trial court erred by failing to make findings of fact and conclusions of law in connection with its denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress. When a trial court’s failure to make findings of fact and conclusions of law is assigned as error, the trial court’s ruling on a motion to suppress is fully reviewable for a determination as to whether (1) the trial court provided the rationale for its ruling from the bench; and (2) there was a material conflict in the evidence presented at the suppression hearing. If a reviewing court concludes that both criteria are met, then the findings of fact are implied by the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress and will be binding on appeal, if supported by competent evidence. If a reviewing court concludes that either of the criteria is not met, then a trial court’s failure to make findings of fact and conclusions of law is reversible error. A material conflict in the evidence exists when evidence presented by one party controverts evidence presented by an opposing party such that the outcome of the matter is likely to be affected. Turning to the case at hand, the court held that the defendant had presented evidence that controverts the State’s evidence as to whether a seizure occurred. Because there was a material conflict in the evidence, the trial court’s failure to make findings of fact and conclusions of law is fatal to the validity of its ruling. The court reversed and remanded for findings of fact and conclusions of law. The court noted that even when there is no material conflict in the evidence, the better practice is for the trial court to make findings of fact.

Remanding for a new suppression hearing where the trial court failed to provide any basis or rationale for its denial of the defendant’s suppression motion. The court “again urge[d] the trial courts . . . to remember ‘it is always the better practice to find all facts upon which the admissibility of the evidence depends.’”

Show Table of Contents