Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


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.


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E.g., 06/26/2024
E.g., 06/26/2024

Law enforcement officers were attempting to serve an arrest warrant early in the morning at an apartment complex in New Mexico. They noticed the plaintiff in the parking lot and realized she was not the subject of the warrant but wished to speak with her. As they approached, the plaintiff entered her car. According to the plaintiff, she did not immediately notice the police approaching (and was admittedly under the influence of methamphetamine). When an officer tried to open her car door to speak with her, she noticed armed men surrounding her car for the first time and drove off, fearing a carjacking. Although not in the path of the vehicle, the officers fired 13 rounds at the car as it drove away. The plaintiff was struck twice in her back but escaped, only to be apprehended the next day. She sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for excessive force, alleging that the shooting was an unreasonable Fourth Amendment seizure. The district court granted summary judgment to the officers and the Tenth Circuit affirmed. Circuit precedent held that no seizure occurs when an officer’s use of force fails to obtain control of the suspect. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed 5-3.

Under the Fourth Amendment, a seizure of a person occurs when law enforcement applies physical force or when a person submits to an officer’s show of authority. In Hodari D. v. California, 499 U.S. 621 (1991), the Court noted that the application of any physical force to a suspect constituted an arrest (and therefore a seizure) under the common law, even if the use of force was unsuccessful in gaining control of the suspect. “An officer’s application of physical force to the body of a person ‘for the purpose of arresting him’ was itself an arrest—not an attempted arrest—even if the person did not yield.” Torres Slip op. at 4 (citations omitted). This is distinct from seizure by show of authority, where the seizure is not complete until the suspect submits to the authority. See Hodari D. The rule that physical force completes an arrest as a constructive detention is widely acknowledged in the common law.

That the use of force by law enforcement here involved the application of force from a distance (by way of the bullets) did not meaningfully alter the analysis. The Court observed: “The required ‘corporal sei[z]ing or touching the defendant’s body’ can be as readily accomplished by a bullet as by the end of a finger.” Torres Slip op. at 11 (citation omitted). But not all applications of force or touches will constitute a seizure. For Fourth Amendment purposes, only where an officer applies force with an “intent to restrain” the suspect does the use of force rise to the level of a seizure.  An accidental or incidental touching would not qualify, nor would the use of force for a purpose other than with the intent to restrain. Intent to restrain is analyzed under an objective standard. The question is not what the officer intended (or what the suspect perceived), but rather whether the circumstances objectively indicate an intent by officers to restrain the suspect. The level of force used by officers remains relevant in that inquiry. A seizure by application of force lasts no longer than the application of force, and the length of the seizure may be relevant to the question of damages or suppression of evidence. Taking the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the officers here seized the plaintiff by using force with an intent to restrain her.

The defendant-officers sought a rule that no seizure would occur until there is “intentional acquisition of control” by police of a suspect. They contended that the common law rule from Hodari D. was meant to apply only to arrests for civil debt matters, not criminal cases. The majority rejected this argument, finding no distinction at common law between civil or criminal arrests. The common law tort of false imprisonment provides support for the seizure principle at issue—even a moment of wrongful confinement creates liability for false imprisonment, just as a mere touching accomplishes an arrest. The approach proposed by the defendants would eliminate the distinction between arrest by show of authority and arrest by use of force. This would create confusion about when a suspect is considered to be under an officer’s control, and how long a suspect would need to be under the officer’s control.

The dissent faulted the majority’s definition of seizure as “schizophrenic” and inconsistent with the law of property seizures and the Fourth Amendment. The majority responded:

[O]ur cases demonstrate the unremarkable proposition that the nature of a seizure can depend on the nature of the object being seized. It is not surprising that the concept of constructive detention or the mere-touch rule developed in the context of seizures of a person—capable of fleeing and with an interest in doing so—rather than seizures of ‘houses, papers, and effects.’ Id. at 19-20.

The majority also rejected accusations by the dissent that its decision was result-oriented or designed to appear so. The Court noted its holding was narrow. The decision does not determine the reasonableness of the seizure, the question of potential damages, or the issue of qualified immunity for the officers. In the words of the Court:

[A] seizure is just the first step in the analysis. The Fourth Amendment does not forbid all or even most seizures—only unreasonable ones. All we decide today is that the officers seized Torres by shooting her with intent to restrain her movement.  Id. at 20.

Justice Gorsuch dissented, joined by Justices Alito and Thomas. They disagreed that a mere touching with intent to restrain constitutes a Fourth Amendment seizure where the officer fails to obtain control of the suspect and would have affirmed the Tenth Circuit.  Justice Barrett did not participate in the case.

In this drug trafficking case arising out of a traffic stop, the court affirmed the conclusion of the Court of Appeals that the law enforcement officer who arrested the defendant violated the Fourth amendment by prolonging the stop without the defendant’s consent or a reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity.  Highway Patrol Trooper Lamm, a member of the Patrol’s Criminal Interdiction Unit who was assigned to aggressively enforce traffic laws while being on the lookout for other criminal activity including drug interdiction and drug activity, clocked the black male defendant’s vehicle by radar being operated at a speed of 78 miles per hour in a 65 mile-per-hour zone.  Lamm initiated a traffic stop and observed at its outset that there was a black female passenger and a female pit bull dog inside the vehicle.  The defendant provided Lamm with his New York driver’s license and the rental agreement for the vehicle, which indicated that the female passenger, Usha Peart who also was the defendant’s fiancée, was the renter and that the defendant was an additional authorized driver.  Trooper Lamm ordered the defendant out of the vehicle, which Lamm characterized as displaying “signs of . . . hard [continuous] driving,” and into the front seat of Lamm’s patrol car, where he further ordered the defendant to close the door of the patrol car, which the defendant did after expressing some reluctance.  Trooper Lamm did not consider the defendant to be free to leave at this point and began to question the defendant about his travel and other activities.  Upon confirming that things were sufficiently in order regarding the rental car, Lamm completed the traffic stop and returned all paperwork to the defendant, telling him that the stop was concluded.  About 20 minutes had elapsed at this point.  After telling the defendant that the stop had ended, Lamm said “I’m going to ask you a few more questions if it is okay with you,” and construed the defendant’s continued presence in his patrol car as voluntary.  Lamm testified that despite informing the defendant that the stop had ended, defendant would still have been detained, even if he denied consent to search the vehicle and wanted to leave.  Lamm asked the defendant for consent to search the vehicle, to which he replied “you could break the car down,” but further explained that Lamm should seek consent from Peart since she had rented the car.  Lamm told the defendant to “sit tight” in the patrol vehicle as Lamm went to confer with Peart.  At this time, Trooper Ellerbe, also a member of the Criminal Interdiction Unit, arrived at the scene in response to Lamm’s request for backup where he was informed by Lamm that Lamm was going to attempt to obtain consent to search from Peat.  Ellerbe then stationed himself next to Lamm’s passenger seat where the defendant remained seated with the door closed.  Lamm proceeded to talk with Peart and obtained her signature on the State Highway Patrol form “Written Consent to Search,” which he had completed himself.  Lamm then discovered cocaine in the backseat area of the vehicle and directed Ellerbe to place the defendant in handcuffs.

With this recitation of the factual circumstances surrounding the stop and search, the court proceeded to analyze, under the two-pronged analysis of Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), (1) whether the stop was reasonable at its inception, and (2) whether the continued stop was “sufficiently limited in scope and duration to satisfy the conditions of an investigative seizure.”  Focusing on the second prong of the analysis because the defendant conceded that the stop was lawful at is inception, the court cited its previous decision in State v. Bullock, 370 N.C. 256 (2017) while explaining that “the duration of a traffic stop must be limited to the length of time that is reasonably necessary to accomplish the mission of the stop,” and that a law enforcement officer may not detain a person “even momentarily without reasonable, objective grounds for doing so.”  The critical question on this second prong in the traffic stop context is whether Trooper Lamm “diligently pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel [his] suspicions quickly, during which time it was necessary to detain the defendant” or whether Lamm unlawfully extended an otherwise-completed stop.  Reviewing its own precedent and that of the U.S. Supreme Court, the court explained that all of Trooper Lamm’s investigative activities until the point where Lamm returned the defendant’s paperwork, issued the warning ticket, and told the defendant that the stop had ended were lawful.  At that point, however, the mission of the stop was accomplished and Lamm unlawfully prolonged it by detaining the defendant in his patrol car and asking the defendant further questions without reasonable suspicion.  As to whether reasonable suspicion existed to prolong the stop, the court found that inconsistencies in Lamm’s testimony demonstrated that he was unable to articulate an objective basis for his purported reasonable suspicion and was unable to articulate the time at which he formulated such suspicion.  The court disagreed with dissenting justices who took the view that the defendant’s nervousness, his explanation of travel plans, the condition of the rental car, and the fact that it had been paid for in cash provided reasonable suspicion, saying that these circumstances were generally consistent with lawful travel and were unremarkable.  The court concluded by agreeing with the Court of Appeals that the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the defendant’s unlawful detention.

Justice Newby dissented, explaining that in his view, and as the trial court had found, the defendant consented to the prolonging of the stop in order to allow Trooper Lamm to ask him a few more questions.

Justice Davis, joined by Justices Newby and Ervin, also dissented, expressing the view that even is the defendant’s consent to search was not voluntary, Trooper Lamm possessed reasonable suspicion to extend the stop.  In finding that reasonable suspicion existed, Justice Davis noted the defendant and his passenger’s inconsistent statements regarding their travel plans, certain features of the rental car agreement, the fact that the car had been paid for in cash, and the condition of the interior of the car, including that dog food was strewn about and that air fresheners were present.

State v. Leak, 368 N.C. 570 (Dec. 18, 2015)

The supreme court vacated the decision below, State v. Leak, ___ N.C. App. ___, 773 S.E.2d 340 (2015), and ordered that the court of appeals remand to the trial court for reconsideration of the defendant’s motion to suppress in light of Rodriguez v. United States, ___ U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015). The court of appeals had held that the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated when an officer, who had approached the defendant’s legally parked car without reasonable suspicion, took the defendant’s driver’s license to his patrol vehicle. The court of appeals concluded that until the officer took the license, the encounter was consensual and no reasonable suspicion was required: “[the officer] required no particular justification to approach defendant and ask whether he required assistance, or to ask defendant to voluntarily consent to allowing [the officer] to examine his driver’s license and registration.” However, the court of appeals concluded that the officer’s conduct of taking the defendant’s license to his patrol car to investigate its status constituted a seizure that was not justified by reasonable suspicion. Citing Rodriguez (police may not extend a completed vehicle stop for a dog sniff, absent reasonable suspicion), the court of appeals rejected the suggestion that no violation occurred because any seizure was “de minimus” in nature.

State v. Icard, 363 N.C. 303 (June 18, 2009)

Under the totality circumstances, the defendant was seized by officers and the resulting search of her purse was illegal. The officers mounted a show of authority when (1) an officer, who was armed and in uniform, initiated the encounter, telling the defendant, an occupant of a parked truck, that the area was known for drug crimes and prostitution; (2) the officer called for backup assistance; (3) the officer initially illuminated the truck with blue lights; (4) a second officer illuminated the defendant’s side of the truck with take-down lights; (5) the first officer opened the defendant’s door, giving her no choice but to respond to him; and (6) the officer instructed the defendant to exit the truck and bring her purse. A reasonable person in defendant’s place would not have believed that she was free to leave or otherwise terminate the encounter and thus the trial court erred when it concluded that the defendant’s interaction with the officers was consensual.

In this Mecklenburg County case, defendant appealed his judgment for trafficking methamphetamine and maintaining a vehicle for keeping or selling methamphetamine, arguing that his motion to suppress the evidence obtained from a search of his vehicle was improperly denied. The Court of Appeals agreed, reversing the denial of his motion and vacating the judgment. 

In December of 2019, defendant was pulled over by officers of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Police Department for speeding. During the stop, one officer determined defendant was on active probation while checking his license. The officer asked defendant to step out of the car and speak with him, and during their discussion, the officer asked for defendant’s consent to search the vehicle. Defendant told the officer he could go ahead and search the vehicle, resulting in the discovery of a bag of methamphetamine under the driver’s seat. At trial, defendant moved to suppress the results of the search, and the trial court denied the motion after conducting a hearing. Defendant subsequently pleaded guilty to the charges without negotiating a plea agreement. Defendant did not give notice of his intent to appeal prior to entering a plea but made oral notice of appeal during the sentencing hearing. 

The Court of Appeals first discussed whether defendant had a right of appeal after pleading guilty without giving notice of his intent, explaining that the recent precedent in State v. Jonas, 280 N.C. App. 511 (2021), held that notice of intent to appeal is not required when a defendant did not negotiate a plea agreement. However, the court also noted that Jonas was stayed by the North Carolina Supreme Court. As a result, the court granted defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari to consider his arguments on appeal. Judge Murphy dissented from the grant of certiorari and would have found jurisdiction under Jonas. Slip Op. at 11, n.1.  

On appeal, defendant argued that when he consented to the search of his vehicle, he was unlawfully seized. The Court of Appeals agreed, explaining “[b]ased upon the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would not have felt free to terminate this encounter and a search of the car was not within the scope of the original stop.” Id. at 11. Here, after the officer returned defendant’s license and registration documents, the purpose for the traffic stop had ended. When the officer reached inside defendant’s vehicle to unlock the door, instructed him to “come out and talk to me real quick” behind the vehicle, and began asking questions about defendant’s probation status, the officer improperly extended the stop and engaged in a show of authority. Id. at 19. At trial, the officer testified that he used the technique of separating operators from their vehicles “because people are more likely to consent to a search when they are separated from their vehicle.” Id. After reviewing the totality of the circumstances, the court concluded “the seizure was not rendered consensual by the return of the documents, the request to search was during an unlawful extension of the traffic stop, and [defendant]’s consent to search was invalid.” Id. at 20.

In this Orange County case, defendant appealed her conviction for impaired driving, arguing the trial court erred by denying her motion to suppress an unlawful seizure by the arresting officer. The Court of Appeals agreed with defendant and found error in the denial of her motion to suppress.

In November of 2019, an officer from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department was performing checks of businesses along a road at 3:00am. The officer observed defendant’s car pulling into the driveway of a closed business. Driving slowly by the driveway, the officer put the cruiser in reverse, backed up to the driveway and pulled in, blocking defendant’s exit while activating the cruiser’s blue lights. The officer ran defendant’s plates, then approached the vehicle to ask what defendant was doing, noticing a strong odor of alcohol and glassy eyes. Defendant was charged with impaired driving; at trial, the court concluded that the encounter was voluntary up until the time that defendant gave the officer her identification card, denying her motion to suppress.

Reviewing defendant’s argument, the Court of Appeals noted it was undisputed that the officer did not observe a crime before pulling in behind defendant. The only issue was when the encounter became a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The court explained that a “show of authority” such as blocking a vehicle’s exit or activating blue lights can be interpreted as a seizure, even when an officer does not physically restrain or touch the defendant. Slip Op. at 13. Emphasizing the difficult choice that the defendant had as a result of the officer’s actions, the court noted “in such a situation most people would feel compelled to remain in their car and wait to speak with the officer, knowing that attempting to leave would only end in trouble and/or danger.” Id. at 17. As a result, the court held that defendant was seized “at the point that [the officer] pulled in behind [d]efendant’s car while activating her blue lights and blocked [d]efendant’s available exit.” Id. at 22.

An East Carolina University police officer was responding to a traffic accident call at 2:50 a.m. in Pitt County. He noticed a vehicle on the road and followed it, suspecting it had been involved in the accident. The officer testified that the vehicle did not have its rear lights on. There were no other cars on the road at the time. The vehicle pulled into a parking lot and circled around to exit. The officer entered the parking lot and pulled alongside the defendant’s car as it was exiting the lot. The officer gestured with his hand for the other vehicle to stop but did not activate his blue lights or siren and did not obstruct the defendant’s path. The defendant’s vehicle stopped, and the officer engaged the driver in conversation. He quickly suspected the driver was impaired and ultimately arrested the defendant for impaired driving. The defendant moved to suppress. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the defendant was not seized and that the encounter was voluntary. The defendant pled guilty, reserving his right to appeal the denial of the suppression motion. A majority of the Court of Appeals reversed.

The trial court made a finding of fact that the officer’s intention was to conduct a voluntary encounter. While the officer did so testify, this finding did not resolve the conflict between the State’s evidence that the encounter was voluntary and consensual and the defendant’s evidence that the encounter amounted to a traffic stop. “[W]hen there is a material conflict in the evidence regarding a certain issue, it is improper for the trial court to make findings which ‘do not resolve conflicts in the evidence but are merely statements of what a particular witness said.’” Steele Slip op. at 8-9. This finding therefore failed to support the trial court’s conclusions of law. Additionally, the defendant challenged two other findings of fact relating to the defendant’s rear lights. According to the defendant, the officer’s testimony about the rear lights was plainly contradicted by the officer’s dash cam video. The Court of Appeals, though “inclined to agree” with the defendant, found that these findings were not relevant to the issue at hand:

The issue of whether Defendant’s taillights were illuminated is irrelevant because the trial court’s ruling did not turn on whether [the officer] had reasonable suspicion to pull over Defendant for a traffic stop. Instead . . .  the dispositive issue is whether this encounter qualified as a traffic stop at all (as opposed to a voluntary encounter which did not implicate the Fourth Amendment). Id. at 11-12.

The state argued that the defendant was not stopped and that the encounter was consensual. A seizure occurs when an officer uses physical force with intent to seize a suspect or when a suspect submits to an officer’s show of authority. See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). An officer’s show of authority amounts to a seizure when a reasonable person would not feel free to terminate the encounter and leave. The court noted that this case was unusual, as most seizure cases involve pedestrian stops. The trial court (and the dissent) erred by relying on pedestrian stop cases to find that no seizure occurred. Unlike when an officer approaches a person or parked car on foot, this case involved the officer following the defendant with each party in moving vehicles and the officer gesturing for the defendant to stop. According to the court:

There is an important legal distinction between an officer who tails and waves down a moving vehicle in his patrol car; and an officer who walks up to a stationary vehicle on foot. In the latter scenario, the officer has taken no actions to impede the movement of the defendant—whereas in the former scenario, the officer’s show of authority has obligated the defendant to halt the movement of his vehicle in order to converse with the officer. Steele Slip op. at 18.

Given the criminal penalties for failure to follow traffic control commands and resisting a public officer, a reasonable driver would likely feel obligated to stop an officer gesturing for the driver to stop. “[W]hen a person would likely face criminal charges for failing to comply with an officer’s ‘request,’ then that person has been seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, § 20 of our state Constitution.” Id. at 20. Further, the trial court failed to properly weigh the time and location of the encounter. Given the late hour and deserted parking lot, the environment was more “intimidating” than a public, daytime encounter, and a reasonable person would be “more susceptible to police pressure” in these circumstances. Id. at 21. Finally, the trial court also failed to properly weigh the effect of the officer’s hand gestures. The “authoritative” gestures by the uniformed officer in a marked patrol car (and presumably armed) supported the defendant’s argument that he was seized. Had the officer not been in a marked police vehicle, it was unlikely that a reasonable person would have voluntarily stopped under these circumstances. The majority of the court therefore agreed that the defendant was seized and reversed the denial of the suppression motion. The matter was remanded for the trial court to determine whether the seizure was supported by reasonable suspicion.

Judge Hampson dissented and would have affirmed the trial court’s order.

The trial court did not err by determining that the defendant was seized while walking on a sidewalk. Although the officers used no physical force to restrain the defendant, both were in uniform and had weapons. One officer blocked the sidewalk with his vehicle and another used his bicycle to block the defendant’s pedestrian travel on the sidewalk. 

The defendant was seized when officers parked directly behind his stopped vehicle, drew their firearms, and ordered the defendant and his passenger to exit the vehicle. After the defendant got out of his vehicle, an officer put the defendant on the ground and handcuffed him.

State v. Nunez, 274 N.C. App. 89 (Oct. 20, 2020)

The defendant was charged with impaired driving after being involved in a single car accident in a Biscuitville parking lot. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained by the arresting officer, who was actually the second officer to arrive on the scene. The defendant argued that the first officer who arrived on the scene and activated the blue lights on her patrol vehicle lacked reasonable suspicion to seize him. The Court of Appeals held that the defendant was not seized by the mere activation of the first officer’s blue lights, and that the trial court therefore did not err by denying the motion to suppress. Activation of an officer’s blue lights is a factor in determining whether a seizure has occurred, but where, as here, there was no other action on the part of the officer to stop the vehicle or otherwise impede the defendant, he was not seized.

A police offer stopped at a gas station for a cup of coffee, and on his way inside he noticed the defendant standing outside the gas station, talking loudly and using abusive language on his cell phone. The clerk inside told the officer she thought the defendant was bothering other customers. The officer called for backup, approached the defendant, and asked him to end his conversation. The defendant complied “after some delay,” but then began shifting from foot to foot and looking from side to side. His nervous behavior made the officer concerned that he might have a weapon, so he asked the defendant if he could pat him down. The defendant hesitated, but then consented. While conducting the pat-down, the officer felt a soft, rubbery wad in the defendant’s pocket that the officer immediately believed to be narcotics packaged in plastic baggies. After completing the pat-down, the officer manipulated the rubbery wad again, ensuring it was what he believed it to be, and then reached into the defendant’s pocket and withdrew the object. The wad was made up of plastic baggie corners containing a white powdery substance that looked like cocaine and a tube of Orajel. The defendant stated that the substance was baking soda, which he mixed with Orajel to fool buyers into thinking it was cocaine. Field and lab testing confirmed the defendant’s statements. The defendant was charged with possession with intent to sell and deliver a counterfeit controlled substance. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the fruits of the search on the grounds that he was illegally detained, he did not consent to the search, and the search exceeded the scope of a permissible pat-down. The defendant pled guilty and appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling denying the motion. The defendant was not seized by the officers, who initially told him he should “finish his conversation elsewhere.” It was only when the defendant hesitated and began acting nervous that the officer became concerned that the defendant might be armed, and the defendant then consented to be searched for weapons. The counterfeit drugs discovered during that weapons search were admissible under the “plain feel” doctrine. Even before he manipulated the object a second time or removed it from the defendant’s pocket, the officer testified that based on his years of experience in narcotics investigations, it was “immediately apparent” to him that the object would be drugs in plastic packaging. After reviewing several cases on the plain feel doctrine, the court explained that the standard to be applied is analogous to the probable cause standard. In this case, the officer’s training and experience in narcotics investigations, the circumstances surrounding the defendant’s nervous behavior, and the readily apparent nature of the item in the defendant’s pocket established “that [the officer’s] subsequent manipulation of the objects and search of defendant’s pocket for confirmation was therefore supported by probable cause.”

State v. Turnage, ___ N.C. App. ___, 817 S.E.2d 1 (May. 15, 2018) temp. stay granted, ___ N.C. ___, 814 S.E.2d 459 (Jun 20 2018)

In this fleeing to elude, resisting an officer and child abuse case, the trial court erred by concluding that a seizure occurred when a detective activated his blue lights. After receiving complaints about drug activity at 155 John David Grady Road, officers conducted surveillance of the area. All officers were in plain clothes and in unmarked vehicles. As a detective was arriving in the area, he received a report that a burgundy van was leaving the premises. The detective followed the van and saw it, suddenly and without warning, stop in the middle of the road. The detective waited approximately 15 seconds and activated his blue lights. As the detective approached the driver’s side of the vehicle, he saw a male exit the passenger side, who he recognized from prior law enforcement encounters. The individual started walking towards the officer’s vehicle with his hands in his pockets. The detective told his colleague, who was in the vehicle, to get out. The male then ran back to the van yelling “Go, go, go” and the van sped away. During a mile and a half pursuit the van ran off the shoulder of the road, crossed the centerline and traveled in excess of 80 mph in a 55 mph zone. When officers eventually stopped the vehicle, two children were in the back of the van. The defendant was arrested for the charges noted above. The trial court found that a seizure occurred when the detective pulled behind the stopped the van and activated his blue lights and that no reasonable suspicion justified this activity. On appeal, the State argued that the trial court erred by concluding a seizure occurred when the detective activated his blue lights. The court agreed. Citing Hodari D., the court noted that a show of authority by law enforcement does not rise to the level of a seizure unless the suspect submits to that authority or is physically restrained. Here, for unknown reasons the driver and the defendant stopped the vehicle in the middle of the road before any show of authority from law enforcement. The detective’s later activation of his blue lights did not constitute a seizure because the defendant did not yield to the show of authority. The defendant was not seized until the vehicle was stopped during the chase. The criminal activity observed by the officer during the chase and his observation of the two minor children in the van justified the arrest for the offenses at issue.

State v. Wilson, ___ N.C. App. ___, 793 S.E.2d 737 (Dec. 6, 2016) aff’d per curiam, 370 N.C. 389 (Dec 22 2017)

In this impaired driving case, the court held, over a dissent, that the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress where no seizure occurred. An officer went to a residence to find a man who had outstanding warrants for his arrest. While walking towards the residence, the officer observed a pickup truck leaving. The officer waved his hands to tell the driver—the defendant—to stop. The officer’s intention was to ask the defendant if he knew anything about the man with the outstanding warrants; the officer had no suspicion that the defendant was the man he was looking for or was engaged in criminal activity. The officer was in uniform but had no weapon drawn; his police vehicle was not blocking the road and neither his vehicle’s blue lights nor sirens were activated. When the defendant stopped the vehicle, the officer almost immediately smelled an odor of alcohol from inside the vehicle. After the defendant admitted that he had been drinking, the officer arrested the defendant for impaired driving. Because a reasonable person would have felt free to decline the officer’s request to stop, no seizure occurred; rather, the encounter was a consensual one.

In this impaired driving case, the defendant was not seized within the meaning of the fourth amendment until he submitted to the officer’s authority by stopping his vehicle. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the seizure occurred when the officer activated his blue lights. Because the defendant continued driving after the blue lights were activated, there was no submission to the officer’s authority and no seizure until the defendant stopped his vehicle. As a result, the reasonable suspicion inquiry can consider circumstances that arose after the officer’s activation of his blue lights but before the defendant’s submission to authority. 

In this drug case, the trial court properly denied a motion to suppress where no illegal seizure of the defendant occurred during a knock and talk and where exigent circumstances justified the officers’ warrantless entry into the defendant’s home. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he was illegally seized during a knock and talk because he was coerced into opening the front door. The officers knocked on the front door a few times and stated that they were with the police only once during the 2-3 minutes it took the defendant to answer the door. There was no evidence that the defendant was aware of the officer’s presence before he opened the door. Blue lights from nearby police cars were not visible to the defendant and no takedown lights were used. The officers did not try to open the door themselves or demand that it be opened. The court concluded: “the officers did not act in a physically or verbally threatening manner” and no seizure of defendant occurred during the knock and talk. (2) Exigent circumstances supported the officers’ warrantless entry into the defendant’s home (the defendant did not challenge the existence of probable cause). Officers arrived at the defendant’s residence because of an informant’s tip that armed suspects were going to rob a marijuana plantation located inside the house. When the officers arrived for the knock and talk, they did not know whether the robbery had occurred, was in progress, or was imminent. As soon as the defendant open his door, an officer smelled a strong odor of marijuana. Based on that odor and the defendant’s inability to understand English, the officer entered the defendant’s home and secured it in preparation for obtaining a search warrant. On these facts, the trial court did not err in concluding that exigent circumstances warranted a protective sweep for officer safety and to ensure the defendant or others would not destroy evidence.

No seizure occurred when an officer initially approached the defendant in response to a tip about an impaired driver. The officer used no physical force, approached the defendant’s vehicle on foot and engaged in conversation with him. The officer did not activate his blue lights and there was no evidence that he removed his gun from his holster or used a threatening tone. Thus, the court concluded, the event was a voluntary encounter.

The court ruled that the trial court erred by granting the defendant’s motion to suppress. A wildlife officer approached the defendant, dressed in full camouflage and carrying a hunting rifle, and asked to see his hunting license. After the defendant showed his license, the officer asked how he got to the location; he replied that his wife transported him there. The officer then asked him whether he was a convicted felon. The defendant admitted that he was. The officer seized the weapon and the defendant was later charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. The court ruled that the defendant was neither seized under the Fourth Amendment nor in custody under Miranda when the officer asked about his criminal history, and therefore the trial court erred by granting the motion to suppress. The court further noted that the officer had authority to seize the defendant’s rifle without a warrant under the plain view doctrine.

Citing California v. Hodari D, 499 U.S. 621 (1991), the court held that the defendant was not seized when he dropped a plastic baggie containing controlled substances. An officer was patrolling at night in an area where illegal drugs were often sold, used, and maintained. When the officer observed five people standing in the middle of an intersection, he turned on his blue lights, and the five people dispersed in different directions. When the officer asked them to come back, all but the defendant complied. When the officer repeated his request to the defendant, the defendant stopped, turned, and discarded the baggie before complying with the officer’s show of authority by submitting to the officer’s request.

An encounter between the defendant and an officer did not constitute a seizure. The officer parked his patrol car on the opposite side of the street from the defendant’s parked car; thus, the officer did not physically block the defendant’s vehicle from leaving. The officer did not activate his siren or blue lights, and there was no evidence that he removed his gun from its holster, or used any language or displayed a demeanor suggesting that the defendant was not free to leave. A reasonable person would have felt free to disregard the officer and go about his or her business; as such the encounter was entirely consensual.

No stop occurred when the defendant began to run away as the officers exited their vehicle. The defendant did not stop or submit to the officers’ authority at this time.

State v. Morton, 198 N.C. App. 206 (July 21, 2009) rev’d on other grounds, 363 N.C. 737 (Dec 11 2009)

No seizure occurred when officers approached the defendant and asked to speak with him regarding a shooting. The defendant submitted to questioning without physical force or show of authority by the police; the officers did not raise their weapons or activate their blue lights. 

The defendant was charged with driving while license revoked, not an impaired revocation; assault on a female; possession of a firearm by a person previously convicted of a felony; attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon; and habitual felon status. The State proceeded to trial on the charges of speeding to elude arrest and attaining habitual felon status, dismissing the other charges. The defendant was found guilty of both, and the trial judge sentenced the defendant to 97 to 129 months’ imprisonment. 

The defendant argued that the trial judge erred in failing to dismiss the speeding to elude arrest charge. According to the defendant, at the time the law enforcement officer activated his blue lights and siren to initiate a traffic stop, the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant and therefore was not performing a lawful duty of his office. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, holding that the circumstances before and after an officer signals his intent to stop a defendant determine whether there was reasonable suspicion for a stop. Here, after the officer put on his lights and siren, the defendant accelerated to speeds of 90 to 100 miles per hour, drove recklessly by almost hitting other cars, pulled onto the shoulder to pass other cars, swerved and fishtailed across multiple lanes, crossed over the double yellow line, and ran a stop sign before he parked in a driveway and took off running into a cow pasture, where the officers found him hiding in a ditch. These circumstances gave the officer reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before he seized the defendant.

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