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

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.

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. 

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 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. 

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