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., 06/29/2024
E.g., 06/29/2024

For the reasons stated in the dissenting opinion below, the court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals in State v. Goins___ N.C. App. ___, 789 S.E.2d 466 (July 5, 2016). In that case, the Court of Appeals held, over a dissent, that a stop of the defendant’s vehicle was not supported by reasonable suspicion. The stop occurred in an area of high crime and drug activity. The Court of Appeals majority concluded that the defendant’s mere presence in such an area cannot, standing alone, provide the necessary reasonable suspicion for the stop. Although headlong flight can support a finding of reasonable suspicion, here, it determined, the evidence was insufficient to show headlong flight. Among other things, there was no evidence that the defendant saw the police car before leaving the premises and he did not break any traffic laws while leaving. Although officers suspected that the defendant might be approaching a man at the premises to conduct a drug transaction, they did not see the two engage in suspicious activity. The officers’ suspicion that the defendant was fleeing from the scene, without more, did not justify the stop. The dissenting judge concluded that the officers had reasonable suspicion for the stop. The dissenting judge criticized the majority for focusing on a “fictional distinction” between suspected versus actual flight. The dissenting judge concluded: considering the past history of drug activity at the premises, the time, place, manner, and unbroken sequence of observed events, the defendant’s actions upon being warned of the police presence, and the totality of the circumstances, the trial court correctly found that the officers had reasonable suspicion for the stop.

State v. Jackson, 368 N.C. 75 (June 11, 2015)

Reversing the decision below, State v. Jackson, 234 N.C. App. 80 (2014), the court held that an officer had reasonable suspicion for the stop. The stop occurred at approximately 9:00 pm in the vicinity of Kim’s Mart. The officer knew that the immediate area had been the location of hundreds of drug investigations. Additionally, the officer personally had made drug arrests in the area and was aware that hand to hand drug transactions occurred there. On the evening in question the officer saw the defendant and another man standing outside of Kim’s Mart. Upon spotting the officer in his patrol car, the two stopped talking and dispersed in opposite directions. In the officer’s experience, this is typical behavior for individuals engaged in a drug transaction. The officer tried to follow the men, but lost them. When he returned to Kim’s Mart they were standing 20 feet from their original location. When the officer pulled in, the men again separated and started walking in opposite directions. The defendant was stopped and as a result contraband was found. The court found these facts sufficient to create reasonable suspicion to justify the investigatory stop. The court noted that its conclusion was based on more than the defendant’s presence in a high crime and high drug area.

In this Forsyth County case, the Court of Appeals considered for a second time defendant’s appeal of his guilty pleas to possession of cocaine, marijuana, and marijuana paraphernalia based upon the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of defendant’s motion to suppress. 

This matter first came before the court in State v. Tabb, 2021-NCCOA-34, 276 N.C. App. 52 (2021) (unpublished), and the facts taken from that decision are presented in pages 2-4 of the slip opinion. The court remanded to the trial court with instructions to consider the sequence of events leading to defendant’s arrest and determine if a show of force and seizure of the driver occurred, where one arresting officer approached the driver’s side of the vehicle while two other officers approached the passenger’s side (where defendant was seated) and noticed marijuana and cash on defendant’s lap. Slip Op. at 4-5. The trial court concluded that the actions of the officers occurred almost simultaneously, and that neither defendant nor the driver would have believed they were seized until defendant was removed from the vehicle. As a result, the trial court concluded the search of defendant was constitutional and again denied his motion to suppress. 

Considering the current matter, the Court of Appeals first noted that defendant failed to raise the argument that the search violated Article 1, § 20 of the North Carolina Constitution in front of the trial court, dismissing this portion of his argument. The court then considered the argument that the officer who approached the driver’s side of the vehicle effected a seizure without proper suspicion, violating the Fourth Amendment. Exploring the applicable precedent, the court explained “[p]olice officers on foot may approach a stationary vehicle with its engine running and its lights turned on in a known area for crimes after midnight to determine if the occupants ‘may need help or mischief might be afoot’ or to seek the identity of the occupants therein or observe any items in plain view without violating our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.” Id. at 10, citing Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249 (2007), Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), and State v. Turnage, 259 N.C. App. 719 (2018). The court then explained that, even if the driver was seized immediately upon the officer’s “show of force,” the plain view doctrine permitted discovery and admissibility of the marijuana and currency observed by the officers approaching defendant’s side of the vehicle. Slip Op. at 11. The “brief period” between the show of force and the officers recognizing the items on defendant’s lap did not justify granting defendant’s motion to suppress. Id.

The court then turned to defendant’s argument that the officers could not identify the unburnt marijuana as an illegal substance since industrial hemp is legal in North Carolina and is virtually indistinguishable by smell or visual identification. The court disagreed, noting that “there was more present than just the smell or visual identification . . . [t]here was the evidence of drug distribution, the currency beside the marijuana and [d]efendant’s possession of marijuana near his waistband.” Id. at 13-14. Because of the additional evidence to support reasonable suspicion, the court overruled defendant’s argument. 

The defendant was charged with possession of a firearm by a person previously convicted of a felony and resisting, delaying, or obstructing an officer. The State dismissed the resisting charge before trial, and the defendant filed a motion to suppress the firearm. The trial judge denied the motion to suppress, the defendant did not object to the introduction of the firearm at trial, and the defendant was convicted. Because the defendant failed to object to the firearm at trial, the Court of Appeals applied plain error review to the denial of his suppression motion.

(1) The evidence showed that the police chief received a call about possible drug activity involving two black males outside a store and radioed the information to patrol officers. A patrol officer saw two men who matched the description walking on the sidewalk, and he parked his marked patrol car. The patrol officer testified that the two men saw him and continued walking. When the officer yelled for the defendant to stop, he looked at the officer and then ran. Another officer eventually located the defendant and arrested him for resisting, delaying, or obstructing an officer.

The Court of Appeals found that the evidence did not support the trial judge’s findings of fact in its denial of the defendant’s suppression motion. Thus, the trial judge found the area had been the scene of several drug investigations and shootings in the previous months, but the police chief testified that for approximately seven years he could recall three arrests for drugs and marijuana and did not testify that they took place in the past several months. The patrol officer testified that he had responded to one shooting in the area but didn’t indicate when the shooting occurred and since then had responded to loitering and loud music issues. The trial judge also found that the defendant walked away “briskly” when he first saw the patrol officer, but the officer testified that the defendant was just walking down the sidewalk. The officer’s later testimony at trial that the defendant kept walking away faster and faster was not before the judge at the suppression hearing and could not be used to support the judge’s findings of fact. The Court found next that the trial judge’s supported findings of fact did not support his conclusion that the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant initially or probable cause to arrest for resisting. Thus, even assuming the incident took place in a high crime area, the defendant’s presence there and his walking away from the officer did not provide reasonable suspicion to stop. (The Court noted that the patrol officer was unaware of the tip received by the police chief and therefore did not consider the tip in measuring the reasonableness of the stopping officer’s suspicion.) Because the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to stop, the Court found that the defendant was not fleeing from a lawful investigatory stop and the trial judge erred in concluding that there was probable cause to arrest the defendant for resisting.

(2) When the second officer detained the defendant, the defendant did not have a firearm on him. Rather, a K-9 unit recovered the firearm underneath a shed along the defendant’s “flight path.” The Court of Appeals found that the defendant voluntarily abandoned the firearm before he was seized by law enforcement officers. The evidence was therefore not the fruit of an unlawful seizure, and the Fourth Amendment did not bar its admission at trial.

In this drug case, the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained in a traffic stop. Sometime after 8:40 PM, an officer received a dispatch relating an anonymous report concerning a “suspicious white male,” with a “gold or silver vehicle” in the parking lot, walking around a closed business, Graham Feed & Seed. The officer knew that a business across the street had been broken into in the past and that residential break-ins and vandalism had occurred in the area. When the officer arrived at the location he saw a silver vehicle in the parking lot. The officer parked his vehicle and walked towards the car as it was approaching the parking lot exit. When he shined his flashlight towards the drivers side and saw the defendant, a black male, in the driver’s seat. The defendant did not open his window. When the officer asked the defendant, “What’s up boss man,” the defendant made no acknowledgment and continued exiting the parking lot. The officer considered this behavior a “little odd” and decided to follow the defendant. After catching up to the defendant’s vehicle on the main road, and without observing any traffic violations or furtive movements, the officer initiated a traffic stop. Contraband was found in the subsequent search of the vehicle and the defendant was arrested and charged. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence seized as a result of the stop. The defendant was convicted and he appealed. The court determined that the officer’s justification for the stop was nothing more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch. The anonymous tip reported no crime and was only partially correct. Although there was a silver car in the parking lot, the tip also said it could have been gold, and there was no white male in the lot or the vehicle. Additionally, the tip merely described the individual as “suspicious” without any indication as to why, and no information existed as to who the tipster was and what made the tipster reliable. As a result there is nothing inherent in the tip itself to allow a court to deem it reliable and provide reasonable suspicion. Additionally the trial court’s findings of fact concerning the officer’s knowledge about criminal activity refer to the area in general and to no particularized facts. The officer did not say how he was familiar with the area, how he knew that there had been break-ins, or how much vandalism or other crimes had occurred there. Additionally the trial court’s findings stipulated that there was no specific time frame given for when the previous break-ins had occurred. The court rejected the State’s argument that the officer either corroborated the tip or formed reasonable suspicion on his own when he arrived at the parking lot. It noted that factors such as a high-crime area, unusual hour of the day, and the fact that businesses in the vicinity were closed can help to establish reasonable suspicion, but are insufficient given the other circumstances in this case. The State argued that the defendant’s nervous conduct and unprovoked flight supported the officer’s reasonable suspicion. But, the court noted, the trial court did not make either of those findings. The trial court’s findings say nothing about the defendant’s demeanor, other than that he did not acknowledge the officer, nor do they speak to the manner in which he exited the parking lot. The court went on to distinguish cases offered by the State suggesting that reasonable suspicion can be based on a suspect’s suspicious activities in an area known for criminal activity and an unusual hour. The court noted that in those cases the officers were already in the areas in question because they were specifically known and had detailed instances of criminal activity. Here, the officer arrived at the parking lot because of the vague tip about an undescribed white male engaged in undescribed suspicious activity in a generalized area known for residential break-ins and vandalism. The trial court made no findings as to what suspicious activity by the defendant warranted the officer’s suspicion. In fact the officer acknowledged that the defendant was not required to stop when he approached the defendant’s vehicle. The court concluded:

Accordingly, we are unpersuaded by the State’s argument and agree with Defendant that the trial court erred in concluding that Officer Judge had reasonable suspicion to stop him. Though the tip did bring Officer Judge to the Graham Feed & Seed parking lot, where he indeed found a silver car in front of the then-closed business with no one else in its vicinity at 8:40 pm, and although Defendant did not stop for or acknowledge Officer Judge, we do not believe these circumstances, taken in their totality, were sufficient to support reasonable suspicion necessary to allow a lawful traffic stop. When coupled with the facts that (1) Defendant was in a parking lot that did “not have a ‘no trespassing’ sign on its premises”—making it lawful for Defendant to be there; (2) Defendant was not a white male as described in the tip; (3) Defendant’s car was possibly in motion when Officer Judge arrived in the parking lot; (4) Defendant had the constitutional freedom to avoid Officer Judge; and (5) Defendant did not commit any traffic violations or act irrationally prior to getting stopped, there exists insufficient findings that Defendant was committing, or about to commit, any criminal activity.

Concluding otherwise would give undue weight to, not only vague anonymous tips, but broad, simplistic descriptions of areas absent specific and articulable detail surrounding a suspect’s actions.

In this carrying a concealed handgun case, the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress where the officer had reasonable suspicion to seize the defendant. While patrolling a high crime area, the officer saw the defendant and Ariel Peterson walking on a sidewalk. Aware of multiple recent crimes in the area, the officer stopped his car and approached the men. The officer had prior interactions with the defendant and knew he lived some distance away. The officer asked the men for their names. Peterson initially gave a false name; the defendant did not. The officer asked them where they were coming from and where they were going. Both gave vague answers; they claimed to have been at Peterson’s girlfriend’s house and were walking back to the defendant’s home, but were unable or unwilling to say where the girlfriend lived. When the defendant asked the officer for a ride to his house, the officer agreed and the three walked to the patrol car. The officer informed the two that police procedure required him to search them before entering the car. As the officer began to frisk Peterson, Peterson ran away. The officer turned to the defendant, who had begun stepping away. Believing the defendant was about to run away, the officer grabbed the defendant’s shoulders, placed the defendant on the ground, and handcuffed him. As the officer helped the defendant up, he saw that a gun had fallen out of the defendant’s waistband. Before the trial court, the defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress discovery of the gun. He pleaded guilty, reserving his right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. On appeal, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that he was unlawfully seized when the officer discovered the gun. Agreeing with the defendant that exercising a constitutional right to leave a consensual encounter should not be used against a defendant “to tip the scale towards reasonable suspicion,” the court noted that the manner in which a defendant exercises this right “could, in some cases, be used to tip the scale.” However, the court found that it need not determine whether it was appropriate for the trial court to consider the fact that the defendant was backing away in its reasonable suspicion calculus. Rather, the trial court’s findings regarding the men’s behavior before the defendant backed away from the officer were sufficient to give rise to reasonable suspicion. The defendant was in an area where a “spree of crime” had occurred; Peterson lied about his name; they both gave vague answers about where they were coming from; and Peterson ran away while being searched. This evidence supports the trial court’s conclusion that the officer had reasonable suspicion to seize the defendant.

Reasonable suspicion supported the traffic stop. At the time of the stop it was very late at night; the defendant’s vehicle was idling in front of a closed business; the business and surrounding properties had experienced several break-ins; and the defendant pulled away when the officer approached the car. Considered together, this evidence provides an objective justification for stopping the defendant.

Reasonable suspicion supported the stop. An officer patrolling a “known drug corridor” at 4 am observed the defendant’s car stopped in the lane of traffic. An unidentified pedestrian approached the defendant’s car and leaned in the window. The officer found these actions to be indicative of a drug transaction and thus conducted the stop.

An officer had reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk the defendant when the defendant was in a high crime area and made movements which the officer found suspicious. The defendant was in a public housing area patrolled by a Special Response Unit of U.S. Marshals and the DEA concentrating on violent crimes and gun crimes. The officer in question had 10 years of experience and was assigned to the Special Response Unit. Many persons were banned from the public housing area—in fact the banned list was nine pages long. On a prior occasion the officer heard shots fired near the area. The officer saw the defendant walking normally while swinging his arms. When the defendant turned and “used his right hand to grab his waistband to clinch an item” after looking directly at the officer, the officer believed the defendant was trying to hide something on his person. The officer then stopped the defendant to identify him, frisked him and found a gun in the defendant’s waistband.

The trial court erred denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. Officers responded to a complaint of loud music in a location they regarded as a high crime area. The officers did not see the defendant engaged in any suspicious activity and did not see any device capable of producing loud music. Rather, the defendant was merely standing outside at night, with two or three other men. These facts do not provide reasonable suspicion to justify an investigatory stop of the defendant. That being the case, the officer’s encounter with the defendant was entirely consensual, which the defendant was free to and did ignore by running away. Once the officer caught up with the defendant and handcuffed him for resisting arrest, a seizure occurred. However, because the defendant’s flight from the consensual encounter did not constitute resisting, the arrest was improper.

Officers had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant. When officers on a gang patrol noticed activity at a house, they parked their car to observe. The area was known for criminal activity. The defendant exited a house and approached the officers’ car. One of the officers had previously made drug arrests in front of the house in question. As the defendant approached, one officer feared for his safety and got out of the car to have a better defensive position. When the defendant realized the individuals were police officers his “demeanor changed” and he appeared very nervous--he started to sweat, began stuttering, and would not speak loudly. Additionally, it was late and there was little light for the officers to see the defendant’s actions.

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