Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

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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., 09/22/2021
E.g., 09/22/2021

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.

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.

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