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., 09/26/2021
E.g., 09/26/2021

In this DWI case, the court held that a traffic checkpoint had a valid programmatic purpose and that G.S. 20-16.3A is constitutional.  Troopers testified that the primary purpose of the checkpoint, which was conducted with prior approval from a supervisor, with an established plan, and without narcotics officers or drug dogs, was to check for driver’s licenses and evidence of impairment.  The defendant’s primary challenge to the programmatic purpose of the checkpoint was that its location changed throughout the evening.  Given that changing the location was planned prior to establishing the checkpoint and was authorized by the supervisor, the trial court properly determined that the checkpoint had a valid programmatic purpose.  The court went on to hold G.S. 20-16.3A constitutional, specifically finding that the statute does not violate the right to free travel and does not impermissibly foreclose equal protection challenges arising from the placement of checkpoints.

The defendant was charged with driving while impaired after being stopped at a checkpoint on Highway 27 in Harnett County.  She moved to suppress the evidence on the basis that the checkpoint violated her Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion, and the defendant pled guilty preserving her right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. She then appealed.

The Court of Appeals, over a dissent, determined that the trial court did not adequately weigh the factors necessary to judge the reasonableness and hence, the constitutionality, of the checkpoint.  Those factors are: (1) the gravity of the public concern served by the seizure; (2) the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest; and (3) the severity of the interference with individual liberty. If, on balance, these factors weigh in favor of the public interest, the checkpoint is reasonable and therefore constitutional.

As for the first factor, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court failed to make findings that assessed the importance of this particular checkpoint stop to the public. While the trial court made ample findings, in the Court’s view, that the checkpoint’s primary purpose (detecting violations of the state’s motor vehicle laws) was lawful, those findings did not substitute for findings that the checkpoint furthered the public concern.

As for the second factor, the Court of Appeals noted that while the trial court made pertinent findings regarding the location of the checkpoint, the time it occurred and its duration, it failed to consider other relevant factors such as whether it “was set up on a whim,” had a predetermined start and end time, why the time was chosen, and why its location was chosen (beyond the finding that it was a major thoroughfare that was heavily traveled at times).

The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court thoroughly considered the final factor; nevertheless, the deficiencies related to the findings on the first two factors prevented it from meaningfully applying the three-prong test. 

Finally, the appellate court declined to consider whether the trial court erred in concluding that the checkpoint complied with statutory requirements as that issue was not preserved for review.

Judge Stroud dissented from the majority’s resolution of the constitutional issue, expressing her view that the trial court made findings of fact sufficient to permit appellate review and that it correctly addressed the three prongs of the balancing test. The dissent would have held that the trial court’s findings supported the conclusion that the checkpoint was reasonable.

In this impaired driving case, the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress, which had asserted that a checkpoint stop violated his constitutional rights. When considering a constitutional challenge to a checkpoint, a two-part inquiry applies: the court must first determine the primary programmatic purpose of the checkpoint; if a legitimate primary programmatic purpose is found the court must judge its reasonableness. The defendant did not raise an issue about whether the checkpoint had a proper purpose. The court noted when determining reasonableness, it must weigh the public’s interest in the checkpoint against the individual’s fourth amendment privacy interest. Applying the Brown v. Texas three-part test (gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure; the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest; and the severity of the interference with individual liberty) to this balancing inquiry, the court held that the trial court’s findings of fact did not permit the judge to meaningfully weigh the considerations required under the second and third prongs of the test. This constituted plain error.

Although the trial court properly found that the checkpoint had a legitimate proper purpose of checking for driver’s license and vehicle registration violations, the trial court failed to adequately determine the checkpoint’s reasonableness. The court held that the trial court’s “bare conclusion” on reasonableness was insufficient and vacated and remanded for appropriate findings as to reasonableness.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of a vehicle checkpoint. The checkpoint was conducted for a legitimate primary purpose of checking all passing drivers for DWI violations and was reasonable.

In a DWI case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the checkpoint at issue was unconstitutional. The court first found that the checkpoint had a legitimate primary programmatic purpose, checking for potential driving violations. Next, it found that the checkpoint was reasonable.

The trial court did not err by granting the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of a vehicle checkpoint. Specifically, the trial court did not err by concluding that a lack of a written policy in full force and effect at the time of the defendant’s stop at the checkpoint constituted a substantial violation of G.S. 20-16.3A (requiring a written policy providing guidelines for checkpoints). The court also rejected the State’s argument that a substantial violation of G.S. 20-16.3A could not support suppression; the State had argued that evidence only can be suppressed if there is a Constitutional violation or a substantial violation of Chapter 15A.

The trial court erred by granting the defendant's motion to suppress on grounds that a checkpoint was unlawful under G.S. 20-16.3A. Because the defendant did not actually stop at the checkpoint, its invalidity was irrelevant to whether an officer had sufficient reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant once he attempted to evade the checkpoint. The court vacated the order granting the motion to suppress and remanded.

The trial court did not err by concluding that the vehicle checkpoint passed constitutional muster. The trial court properly concluded that the primary programmatic purpose of the checkpoint was “the detection of drivers operating a motor vehicle while impaired and that the ‘procedure was not merely to further general crime control’” and that this primary programmatic purpose was constitutionally permissible. Applying the three-pronged test of Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 50 (1979), the trial court properly determined that the checkpoint was reasonable.

The vehicle checkpoint did not violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. The primary programmatic purpose of the checkpoint—to determine if drivers were complying with drivers license laws and to deter citizens from violating these laws—was a lawful one. Additionally, the checkpoint itself was reasonable, based on the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure, the degree to which the seizure advanced the public interest, and the severity of the interference with individual liberty. The court also held that the officer had reasonable, articulable suspicion to continue to detain the 18-year-old defendant after he produced a valid license and registration and thus satisfied the primary purpose of the vehicle checkpoint. Specifically, when the officer approached the car, he saw an aluminum can between the driver’s and passenger’s seat, and the passenger was attempting to conceal the can. When the officer asked what was in the can, the defendant raised it, revealing a beer can.

Declining to consider the defendant’s challenge to the constitutionality of a vehicle checkpoint where officers did not stop the defendant’s vehicle as a part of the checkpoint but rather approached it after the defendant parked it on the street about 100-200 feet from the checkpoint.

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