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., 09/18/2021
E.g., 09/18/2021

On appeal from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 809 S.E.2d 340 (2018), the court per curiam vacated and remanded to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of State v. Wilson, ___ N.C. ___, 821 S.E.2d 811 (2018). In the decision below the majority held, in relevant part, that where the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s suppression motion failed to resolve disputed issues of fact central to the court’s ability to conduct a meaningful appellate review, the case must be remanded for appropriate findings of fact. In its order denying the defendant’s suppression motion, the trial court concluded that, at the time defendant was asked for consent to search his car, he had not been seized. On appeal, the defendant challenged that conclusion, asserting that because the officers retained his driver’s license, a seizure occurred. It was undisputed that the law enforcement officers’ interactions with the defendant were not based upon suspicion of criminal activity. Thus, if a seizure occurred it was in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The State argued that the trial court’s findings of fact fail to establish whether the officers retained the defendant’s license or returned it to him after examination. The Court of Appeals agreed, noting that the evidence was conflicting on this critical issue and remanding for appropriate findings of fact. As noted, the Supreme Court remanded for reconsideration in light of Wilson. In Wilson,a felon in possession of a firearm case, the Supreme Court held that Michigan v. Summers justifies a seizure of the defendant where he posed a real threat to the safe and efficient completion of a search.

State v. Wilson, 371 N.C. 920 (Dec. 21, 2018)

On discretionary review of a unanimous, unpublished decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 803 S.E.2d 698 (2017), in this felon in possession of a firearm case, the court held that Michigan v. Summers justifies a seizure of the defendant where he posed a real threat to the safe and efficient completion of a search and that the search and seizure of the defendant were supported by individualized suspicion. A SWAT team was sweeping a house so that the police could execute a search warrant. Several police officers were positioned around the house to create a perimeter securing the scene. The defendant penetrated the SWAT perimeter, stating that he was going to get his moped. In so doing, he passed Officer Christian, who was stationed at the perimeter near the street. The defendant then kept going, moving up the driveway and toward the house to be searched. Officer Ayers, who was stationed near the house, confronted the defendant. After a brief interaction, Officer Ayers searched the defendant based on his suspicion that the defendant was armed. Officer Ayers found a firearm in the defendant’s pocket. The defendant, who had previously been convicted of a felony, was arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He unsuccessfully moved to suppress at trial and was convicted. The Court of Appeals held that the search was invalid because the trial court’s order did not show that the search was supported by reasonable suspicion. The Supreme Court reversed holding “that the rule in Michigan v. Summers justifies the seizure here because defendant, who passed one officer, stated he was going to get his moped, and continued toward the premises being searched, posed a real threat to the safe and efficient completion of the search.” The court interpreted the Summers rule to mean that a warrant to search for contraband founded on probable cause implicitly carries with it the limited authority to detain occupants who are within the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched and who are present during the execution of a search warrant. Applying this rule, the court determined that “a person is an occupant for the purposes of the Summers rule if he poses a real threat to the safe and efficient execution of a search warrant.” (quotation omitted). Here, the defendant posed such a threat. It reasoned: “He approached the house being swept, announced his intent to retrieve his moped from the premises, and appeared to be armed. It was obvious that defendant posed a threat to the safe completion of the search.”

         Because the Summers rule only justifies detentions incident to the execution of search warrants, the court continued, considering whether the search of the defendant’s person was justified. On this issue the court held that “both the search and seizure of defendant were supported by individualized suspicion and thus did not violate the Fourth Amendment.”

State v. Verkerk, 367 N.C. 483 (June 12, 2014)

Reversing the court of appeals in a DWI case where the defendant was initially stopped by a firefighter, the court determined that the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress which challenged the firefighter’s authority to make the initial stop. After observing the defendant’s erratic driving and transmitting this information to the local police department, the firefighter stopped the defendant’s vehicle. After some conversation, the driver drove away. When police officers arrived on the scene, the firefighter indicated where the vehicle had gone. The officers located the defendant, investigated her condition and charged her with DWI. On appeal, the defendant argued that because the firefighter had no authority to stop her, evidence from the first stop was improperly obtained. However, the court determined that it need not consider the extent of the firefighter’s authority to conduct a traffic stop or even whether the encounter with him amounted to a “legal stop.” The court reasoned that the firefighter’s observations of the defendant’s driving, which were transmitted to the police before making the stop, established that the police officers had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant. The court noted that this evidence was independent of any evidence derived from the firefighter’s stop. 

The defendant was speaking at an anti-abortion event outside an abortion clinic in Charlotte. He was using an amplified microphone and was sitting at the table where the amplification controls were located. Officers measured his amplified voice at more than 80 decibels and approached him to cite him for violating the city’s noise ordinance. The defendant refused to produce identification, so the officers arrested him and charged him with resisting, delaying, and obstructing a law enforcement officer as well as the noise ordinance violation. At a bench trial in superior court, a judge convicted the defendant of R/D/O and dismissed the noise ordinance violation because, although the judge concluded that the defendant had violated the ordinance, the city “had discretion to decide which enforcement penalties it would levy against a violator of the noise ordinance, but . . . failed to do so.” The judge sentenced the defendant to probation, one condition of which was that the defendant stay at least 1,500 feet away from the abortion clinic where the event took place. The defendant appealed. Among other issues: (1) The defendant’s conduct was covered by the ordinance, so the officers’ initial stop was valid. The ordinance applies, in part, to persons “operating . . . sound amplification equipment.” The defendant contended that simply speaking into a microphone does not amount to “operating” any “amplification equipment.” The court of appeals viewed that construction as “unduly narrow” and found that the “plain meaning” of the ordinance was that speaking into an amplified microphone, while sitting at a table with the amplification controls present, was covered. (2) The probation condition is reasonably related to the defendant’s rehabilitation as required by statute, in part because it reduces the likelihood that he will commit a similar offense again.

In a case in which the court determined that the defendant received ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, the court considered whether there was reasonable suspicion for the vehicle stop and found there was none. Having found that appellate counsel’s performance was deficient, the court moved on to the prejudice prong of the ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The analysis required it to evaluate how it would have ruled on direct appeal with respect to the defendant’s claim that there was no reasonable suspicion for the stop. Here, the conclusion that the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle was based solely on the following facts: officers saw the defendant and a woman exit a China Bus carrying small bags at the “same bus stop that a lot of heroin is being transported from New York to the Greensboro area” and while waiting for his ride at an adjacent gas station, the defendant briefly looked towards an officer’s unmarked vehicle and “shooed” that vehicle away, at which point the defendant’s ride pulled into the parking lot. These facts do not support a finding of reasonable suspicion, particularly where the defendant was entirely unknown to the officers.

In this drug case, the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress drug evidence seized after a traffic stop where the officer had no reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle. Officers received a tip from a confidential informant regarding “suspicious” packages that the defendant had received from a local UPS store. The informant was an employee of the UPS store who had been trained to detect narcotics; the informant had successfully notified the police about packages later found to contain illegal drugs and these tips were used to secure a number of felony drug convictions. With respect to the incident in question, the informant advised the police that a man, later identified as the defendant, had arrived at the UPS store in a truck and retrieved packages with a Utah a return address when in fact the packages had been sent from Arizona. After receiving this tip, the police arrived at the store, observed the defendant driving away, and initiated a traffic stop. During the stop they conducted a canine sniff, which led to the discovery of drugs inside the packages. Holding that the motion to suppress should have been granted, the court noted that there is nothing illegal about receiving a package with a return address which differs from the actual shipping address; in fact there are number of innocent explanations for why this could have occurred. Although innocent factors, when considered together may give rise to reasonable suspicion, the court noted that it was unable to find any case where reasonable suspicion was based solely on a suspicious return address. Here, the trial court made no finding that the informant or the police had any prior experience with the defendant; the trial court made no finding that the origination city was known as a drug source locale; and the trial court made no finding that the packages were sealed suspiciously, had a suspicious weight based on their size, had hand written labels, or had a suspicious odor. 

(1) A stop of the defendant’s vehicle was justified by reasonable suspicion. While on patrol in the early morning, the officer saw the defendant walking down the street. Directly behind him was another male, who appeared to be dragging a drugged or intoxicated female. The defendant and the other male placed the female in the defendant’s vehicle. The two then entered the vehicle and left the scene. The officer was unsure whether the female was being kidnapped or was in danger. Given these circumstances, the officer had reasonable suspicion that the defendant was involved in criminal activity. (2) Additionally, and for reasons discussed in the opinion, the court held that the stop was justified under the community caretaking exception. 

In the course of rejecting the defendant’s ineffective assistance claim related to preserving a denial of a motion to suppress, the court held that no prejudice occurred because the trial court properly denied the motion. The officer received a report from an identified tipster that a window at a residence appeared to have been tampered with and the owner of the residence was incarcerated. After the officer confirmed that a window screen had been pushed aside and the window was open, he repeatedly knocked on the door. Initially there was no response. Finally, an individual inside asked, “Who’s there?” The officer responded, “It’s the police.” The individual indicated, “Okay,” came to the door and opened it. When the officer asked the person’s identity, the individual gave a very long, slow response, finally gave his name but either would not or could not provide any ID. When asked who owned the house, he gave no answer. Although the individual was asked repeatedly to keep his hands visible, he continued to put them in his pockets. These facts were sufficient to create reasonable suspicion that the defendant might have broken into the home and also justified the frisk. During the lawful frisk, the officer discovered and identified baggies of marijuana in the defendant’s sock by plain feel. 

The trial court did not err by concluding that the seizure was unsupported by reasonable suspicion. The officers observed the defendant walking down the sidewalk with a clear plastic cup in his hands filled with a clear liquid. The defendant entered his vehicle, remained in it for a period of time, and then exited his vehicle and began walking down the sidewalk, where he was stopped. The officers stopped and questioned the defendant because he was walking on the sidewalk with the cup and the officers wanted to know what was in the cup.

The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence of his alleged impairment where the evidence was the fruit of an illegal stop. An officer who was surveying an area in the hope of locating robbery suspects saw the defendant pull off to the side of a highway in a wooded area. The officer heard yelling and car doors slamming. Shortly thereafter, the defendant accelerated rapidly past the officer, but not to a speed warranting a traffic violation. Thinking that the defendant may have been picking up the robbery suspects, the officer followed the defendant for almost a mile. Although he observed no traffic violations, the officer pulled over the defendant’s vehicle. The officer did not have any information regarding the direction in which the suspects fled, nor did he have a description of the getaway vehicle. The officer’s reason for pulling over the defendant’s vehicle did not amount to the reasonable, articulable suspicion necessary to warrant a Terry stop.

An officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle. Around midnight, officers were conducting a traffic stop at Olde Waverly Place, a partially developed subdivision. While doing so, an officer noticed the defendant’s construction vehicle enter the subdivision and proceed to an undeveloped section. Although officers had been put on notice of copper thefts from subdivisions under construction in the county, no such thefts had been reported in Olde Waverly Place. When the defendant exited the subdivision 20-30 minutes later, his vehicle was stopped. The officer did not articulate any specific facts about the vehicle or how it was driven which would justify the stop; the fact that there had been numerous copper thefts in the county did not support the stop.

Reasonable suspicion existed for a stop. An assault victim reported to a responding officer that the perpetrator was a tall white male who left in a small dark car driven by a blonde, white female. The officer saw a small, light-colored vehicle travelling away from the scene; driver was a blonde female. The driver abruptly turned into a parking lot and drove quickly over rough pavement. When the officer approached, the defendant was leaning on the vehicle and appeared intoxicated. Although there was a passenger in the car, the officer could not determine if the passenger was male or female. The officer questioned the defendant, determined that she was not involved in the assault, but arrested her for impaired driving. The court held that although there was no information in the record about the victim’s identity, this was not an anonymous tip case; it was a face-to-face encounter with an officer that carried a higher indicia of reliability than an anonymous tip. Additionally, the officer’s actions were not based solely on the tip. The officer observed the defendant’s “hurried actions,” it appeared that the defendant was trying to avoid the officer, and the defendant was in the proximity of the crime scene. Even though the defendant’s vehicle did not match the description given by the victim, the totality of the circumstances supported a finding of reasonable suspicion. 

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