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., 11/27/2021
E.g., 11/27/2021

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.

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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