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

In this Kansas driving with a revoked license case, the Court held that when a police officer knows that the registered owner of a vehicle has a revoked driver’s license and lacks information negating an inference that the owner is the driver of the vehicle, a traffic stop is supported by reasonable suspicion and does not violate the Fourth Amendment.  Recognizing that persons other than the registered owner sometimes may be lawfully driving, the Court said that knowledge of a registered owner’s revoked license “provided more than reasonable suspicion to initiate [a] stop” based on the “commonsense inference” that, in the absence of negating information, vehicles likely are being driven by their registered owners.  The Court emphasized the narrow scope of its holding, saying that the presence of additional facts may dispel reasonable suspicion and offering the example of a situation where an officer observes that a driver does not appear to be the registered owner.

Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Ginsburg, wrote a concurring opinion expressing the view that the stop in this case was reasonable given the particular nature of Kansas motor vehicle law, where a license revocation usually is the consequence of serious or repeated offenses, and in light of the fact that the “barebones [evidentiary] stipulation” before the court demonstrated a total absence of “additional facts” that might “dispel reasonable suspicion.”

Justice Sotomayor dissented, criticizing the majority’s approach for “absolving officers from any responsibility to investigate the identity of a driver” when feasible and arguing that inferences contributing to reasonable suspicion must be based on specialized law enforcement training and experience rather than layperson “common sense.”

Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323 (Jan. 26, 2009)

Summarizing existing law, the Court noted that a “stop and frisk” is constitutionally permissible if: (1) the stop is lawful; and (2) the officer reasonably suspects that the person stopped is armed and dangerous. It noted that that in an on-the-street encounter, the first requirement—a lawful stop—is met when the officer reasonably suspects that the person is committing or has committed a criminal offense. The Court held that in a traffic stop setting, the first requirement—a lawful stop—is met whenever it is lawful for the police to detain an automobile and its occupants pending inquiry into a vehicular violation. The police do not need to have cause to believe that any occupant of the vehicle is involved in criminal activity. Also, an officer may ask about matters unrelated to the stop provided that those questions do not measurably extend the duration of the stop. The Court further held that to justify a frisk of the driver or a passenger during a lawful stop, the police must believe that the person is armed and dangerous. 

State v. Johnson, 370 N.C. 32 (Aug. 18, 2017)

The Supreme Court reversed the decision below, State v. James Johnson, ___ N.C. App. ___, 784 S.E.2d 633 (April 5, 2016), which had held that because a police officer lacked reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop in this DWI case, the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. The defendant was stopped at a red light on a snowy evening. When the light turned green, the officer saw the defendant’s truck abruptly accelerate, turn sharply left, and fishtail. The officer pulled the defendant over for driving at an unsafe speed given the road conditions. The Supreme Court held that the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle. It noted that G.S. 20-141(a) provides that “[n]o person shall drive a vehicle on a highway or in a public vehicular area at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions then existing.” The Court concluded:

All of these facts show that it was reasonable for [the] Officer . . . to believe that defendant’s truck had fishtailed, and that defendant had lost control of his truck, because of defendant’s abrupt acceleration while turning in the snow. It is common knowledge that drivers must drive more slowly when it is snowing, because it is easier to lose control of a vehicle on snowy roads than on clear ones. And any time that a driver loses control of his vehicle, he is in danger of damaging that vehicle or other vehicles, and of injuring himself or others. So, under the totality of these circumstances, it was reasonable for [the] Officer . . . to believe that defendant had violated [G.S.] 20-141(a) by driving too quickly given the conditions of the road.

The Court further noted that no actual traffic violation need have occurred for a stop to occur. It clarified: “To meet the reasonable suspicion standard, it is enough for the officer to reasonably believe that a driver has violated the law.”

A police officer stopped the defendant for suspected texting while driving. When the officer returned to his vehicle to check on the defendant’s identity, the defendant fled. (1) Before his trial on charges of texting while driving and felony fleeing to elude, the defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the stop. At the suppression hearing, the officer testified that he did not stop the defendant for merely using the phone, but rather for using it in a manner that he reasonably believed ran afoul of G.S. 20-137.4A(a), North Carolina’s prohibition on texting and emailing while driving. The officer testified that the defendant was using and handling the phone in a manner more consistent with texting or reading text messages than with using a mapping system. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion and the defendant was convicted of felonious fleeing to elude. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court committed plain error by concluding that the officer was justified in stopping his car solely based on his observation that the operator was using a cell phone while driving. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that under the specific facts of this case, which included additional indicia of criminal activity beyond mere phone use, the trial court did not err by finding that the officer had reasonable, articulable suspicion to believe that the defendant was using the phone in a manner proscribed by law. The Court emphasized that its holding should not be viewed as establishing a test for meeting the reasonable suspicion requirement in other texting while driving cases. (2) The Court remanded the case for the defendant to be sentenced at prior record level two instead of level three, as his prior record level worksheet improperly counted a point for a prior misdemeanor. The Court rejected the State’s argument that the improperly counted point could be offset by adding for the first time an additional point under G.S. 15A-1340-14(b)(7) for the defendant being on probation at the time of the offense, as the State did not comply with the statutory notice procedures for that point.

(1) In this drug trafficking case, the court held that the fact that the defendant’s truck crossed over a double yellow line justified the stop. The officer saw the defendant’s vehicle cross the center line of the road by about 1 inch. The court stated:

[T]here is a “bright line” rule in some traffic stop cases. Here, the bright line is a double yellow line down the center of the road. Where a vehicle actually crosses over the double yellow lines in the center of a road, even once, and even without endangering any other drivers, the driver has committed a traffic violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-146 (2017). This is a “readily observable” traffic violation and the officer may stop the driver without violating his constitutional rights.

(2) After a proper traffic stop, the officer had reasonable suspicion to extend the stop for six or seven minutes for a dog sniff. The officer was patrolling the road based on complaints about drug activity and had been advised by the SBI to be on the lookout for the defendant based upon reports that he was bringing large quantities of methamphetamine to a supplier who lived off of the road. After the officer stopped the defendant’s vehicle, he identified the defendant as the person noted in the lookout warning. The defendant was confused, spoke so quickly that he was hard to understand, and began to stutter and mumble. The defendant did not make eye contact with the officer and his nervousness was “much more extreme” than a typical stopped driver. His eyes were bloodshot and glassy and the skin under his eyes was ashy. Based on his training and experience, the officer believed the defendant’s behavior and appearance were consistent with methamphetamine use. The defendant told the officer he was going to “Rabbit’s” house. The officer knew that “Rabbit” was involved with methamphetamine and that he lived nearby. When the defendant exited his car, he put his hand on the car for stability. These facts alone would have given the officer reasonable suspicion. But additionally, a woman the officer knew had given drug information to law enforcement in the past approached and told the officer she had talked to Rabbit and the defendant had “dope in the vehicle.” These facts were more than sufficient to give the officer a reasonable suspicion that the defendant had drugs in his vehicle and justify extension of the stop for a dog sniff.

In this impaired driving case, an officer’s observation of a single instance of a vehicle crossing the double yellow centerline in violation of state motor vehicle law provided reasonable suspicion to support the traffic stop. While traveling southbound on Highway 32, NC Highway Patrol Trooper Myers was notified by dispatch that a caller had reported a black Chevrolet truck traveling northbound on Highway 32 at a careless, reckless, and high speed. Myers then saw a black Chevrolet truck travelling northbound cross the center double yellow line. Myers initiated a traffic stop, which resulted in impaired driving charges. The defendant argued that the stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion because Myers did not corroborate the caller’s information. The court rejected this argument, noting that Myer’s own observation of the vehicle driving left of center providing reasonable suspicion for the stop. Under G.S. 20-150(d), crossing a double yellow centerline constitutes a traffic violation. Citing prior case law, the court stated that an officer’s observation of such a violation is sufficient to constitute reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop.

The vehicle stop was supported by reasonable suspicion. An officer received an anonymous report that a drunk driver was operating a black, four-door Hyundai headed north on Highland Capital Boulevard. The officer located the vehicle as reported and observed that the defendant drove roughly 15 miles below the 35 mph speed limit; that the defendant stopped at an intersection without a stop sign or traffic signal for “longer than usual”; that the defendant stopped at a railroad crossing and remained motionless for 15 to 20 seconds, although no train was coming and there was no signal to stop; that after the officer activated his blue lights, the defendant continued driving for approximately two minutes, eventually stopping in the middle of the road, and in a portion of the road with no bank or curb, having passed several safe places to pull over.

Because the officer saw the defendant drive through a red light, the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle.

No reasonable suspicion supported a traffic stop. The State had argued reasonable suspicion based on the driver’s alleged crossing of the fog line, her and her passenger’s alleged nervousness and failure to make eye contact with officers as they drove by and alongside the patrol car, and the vehicle’s slowed speed. The court found that the evidence failed to show that the vehicle crossed the fog line and that in the absence of a traffic violation, the officers’ beliefs about the conduct of the driver and passenger were nothing more than an “unparticularized suspicion or hunch.” It noted that nervousness, slowing down, and not making eye contact is not unusual when passing law enforcement. The court also found it “hard to believe” that the officers could tell that the driver and passenger were nervous as they passed the officers on the highway and as the officers momentarily rode alongside the vehicle. The court also found the reduction in speed—from 65 mph to 59 mph—insignificant. 

(1) The trial court erred in connection with its ruling on a suppression motion in an impaired driving case. The trial court failed to look beyond whether the defendant’s driving was normal in assessing whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle. (2) The officer had a reasonable, articulable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle based on observed traffic violations notwithstanding the officer’s mistaken belief that the defendant also had violated G.S. 20-146(a). The officer’s testimony that he initiated the stop after observing the defendant drive over the double yellow line was sufficient to establish a violation of G.S. 20-146(d)(3-4), 20-146(d)(1), and 20-153; therefore regardless of his subjective belief that the defendant violated G.S. 20-146(a), the officers testimony establishes objective criteria justifying the stop. The stop was reasonable and the superior court erred in holding otherwise. The court noted that because the officer’s reason for the stop was not based solely on his mistaken belief that the defendant violated G.S. 20-146(a) but also because the defendant crossed the double yellow line, the case was distinguishable from others holding that an officer’s mistaken belief that a defendant has committed a traffic violation is not an objectively reasonable basis for a stop.

An officer lawfully stopped a vehicle after observing the defendant drive approximately 10 mph above the speed limit. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the traffic stop was a pretext to search for drugs as irrelevant in light of the fact that the defendant was lawfully stopped for speeding. 

Officers had reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle in which the defendant was a passenger based on the officers’ good faith belief that the driver had a revoked license and information about the defendant’s drug sales provided by three informants. Two of the informants were confidential informants who had provided good information in the past. The third was a patron of the hotel where the drug sales allegedly occurred and met with an officer face-to-face. Additionally, officers corroborated the informants’ information. As such, the informants’ information provided a sufficient indicia of reliability. The officer’s mistake about who was driving the vehicle was reasonable, under the circumstances.

State v. Ford, 208 N.C. App. 699 (Dec. 21, 2010)

The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress when officers had reasonable suspicion to believe that the defendant committed a traffic violation supporting the traffic stop. The stop was premised on the defendant’s alleged violation of G.S. 20-129(d), requiring that a motor vehicle’s rear plate be lit so that under normal atmospheric conditions it can be read from a distance of 50 feet. The trial court found that normal conditions existed when officers pulled behind the vehicle; officers were unable to read the license plate with patrol car’s lights on; when the patrol car’s lights were turned off, the plate was not visible within the statutory requirement; and officers cited the defendant for the violation. The defendant’s evidence that the vehicle, a rental car, was “fine” when rented did not controvert the officer’s testimony that the tag was not sufficiently illuminated on the night of the stop.

The trial court properly concluded that an officer had reasonable suspicion to believe that the defendant was committing a traffic violation when he saw the defendant driving on a public street while using his windshield wipers in inclement weather but not having his taillights on. The trial court’s conclusion that the street at issue was a public one was supported by competent evidence, even though conflicting evidence had been presented. The court noted that its conclusion that the officer correctly believed that the street was a public one distinguished the case from those holding that an officer’s mistaken belief that a defendant had committed a traffic violation is constitutionally insufficient to support a traffic stop.

The officer had reasonable suspicion to stop when the officer saw the defendant commit a violation of G.S. 20-154(a) (driver must give signal when turning whenever the operation of any other vehicle may be affected by such movement). Because the defendant was driving in medium traffic, a short distance in front of the officer, the defendant’s failure to signal could have affected another vehicle.

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