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
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.

An officer on patrol ran the license plate of the car the defendant was driving and discovered that the license plate was registered to another car. The officer initiated a traffic stop. As the officer approached the driver’s side of the car, he noticed that the defendant had raised his hands in the air. On inquiry, the defendant denied the presence of any weapons in the car. When the officer explained that the mismatched license plate served as the reason for the traffic stop, the defendant responded that he had just purchased the car in a private sale that day. The defendant produced his driver’s license, the car’s registration, and bill of sale. The officer sensed that the defendant seemed nervous and was “blading his body” as he searched for the requested documentation. Slip op. at ¶ 3.

When the officer ran the defendant’s information through the police database, he found that the defendant had been charged with multiple violent crimes and offenses related to weapons over the span of several years. When the officer returned, he asked the defendant to step out of the car with the intent of conducting a frisk of defendant’s person and a search of the vehicle. The defendant consented to be frisked for weapons, and a pat down of the defendant’s clothing revealed no weapons or other indicia of contraband. The defendant refused to grant consent to search the car, but the officer explained that he was going to conduct a limited search of car nonetheless based on the defendant’s “criminal history . . . and some other things.” Slip op. at ¶ 5. The officer found a baggie of powder cocaine and arrested the defendant.

The defendant was indicted for possession of cocaine. At trial, the defendant file a motion to suppress, which the trial court ultimately denied. The defendant agreed to plead guilty to felony possession of cocaine and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia. The defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, affirmed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress. The defendant appealed to the Supreme Court based on the dissenting opinion from the Court of Appeals.

The defendant’s first argument was that the officer did not have a reasonable suspicion that defendant was armed. In rejecting this argument, the Court noted that the officer rendered uncontroverted testimony that he conducted a late-night traffic stop of the defendant’s vehicle in a high-crime area and encountered the defendant who acted very nervous, appeared to purposely hamper the officer’s open view of the defendant’s entry into the vehicle’s center console, and possessed a criminal history which depicted a “trend in violent crime.” Slip op. at ¶ 18. The Court thus concluded that the officer’s suspicion of the defendant’s potentially armed and dangerous status was reasonable.

The defendant next argued that the Terry search of defendant’s vehicle represented an unconstitutional extension of the traffic stop. The Court rejected this argument, noting that the testimony rendered by the officer as to the actual chain of events and the observations by the officer which culminated in the Terry search did not equate to a conclusion that the officer unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop.

The defendant finally argued that the Court’s correction of the trial court’s supposed error should result in an outcome which vacates the trial court’s order and overturns defendant’s conviction. The Court concluded that the unconflicted evidence introduced by the State at the suppression hearing was sufficient for the trial court to make findings of fact and conclusions of law that the investigating officer had reasonable suspicion to conduct a Terry search of the defendant’s person and car. The Court thus left the lower court’s ruling undisturbed.

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Hudson, dissented. She wrote that the result reached by the majority is a decision inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment and fails to consider the racial dynamics underlying reasonable suspicion determinations.

On an appeal from a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 785 S.E.2d 746 (2016), the court reversed, concluding that the stop at issue was not unduly prolonged. An officer puller over the defendant for several traffic violations. During the traffic stop that ensued, officers discovered heroin inside a bag in the car. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the search was unduly prolonged under Rodriguez. The trial court denied the motion and the Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the stop had been unduly prolonged. The Supreme Court reversed. After initiating the stop, the officer asked the defendant, the vehicle’s sole occupant, for his license and registration. The defendant’s hand trembled as he provided his license. Although the car was a rental vehicle, the defendant was not listed as a driver on the rental agreement. The officer noticed that the defendant had two cell phones, a fact he associated, based on experience, with those transporting drugs. The defendant was stopped on I-85, a major drug trafficking thoroughfare. When the officer asked the defendant where he was going, the defendant said he was going to his girlfriend’s house on Century Oaks Drive and that he had missed his exit. The officer knew however that the defendant was well past the exit for that location, having passed three exits that would have taken him there. The defendant said that he recently moved to North Carolina. The officer asked the defendant to step out of the vehicle and sit in the patrol car, telling him that he would receive a warning, not a ticket. At this point the officer frisked the defendant, finding $372 in cash. The defendant sat in the patrol car while the officer ran the defendant’s information through law enforcement databases, and the two continued to talk. The defendant gave contradictory statements about his girlfriend. Although the defendant made eye contact with the officer when answering certain questions, he looked away when asked about his girlfriend and where he was traveling. The database checks revealed that the defendant was issued a driver’s license in 2000 and that he had a criminal history in North Carolina starting in 2001, facts contradicting his earlier claim to have just moved to the state. The officer asked the defendant for permission to search the vehicle. The defendant agreed to let the officer search the vehicle but declined to allow a search of a bag and two hoodies. When the officer found the bag and hoodies in the trunk, the defendant quickly objected that the bag was not his, contradicting his earlier statement, and said he did not want it searched. The officer put the bag on the ground and a police dog alerted to it. Officers opened the bag and found a large amount of heroin. The defendant did not challenge the validity of the initial stop. The court began by noting during a lawful stop, an officer can ask the driver to exit the vehicle. Next, it held that the frisk was lawful for two reasons. First, frisking the defendant before putting them in the patrol car enhanced the officer safety. And second, where, as here, the frisk lasted only 8-9 seconds it did not measurably prolong stop so as to require reasonable suspicion. The court went on to find that asking the defendant to sit in the patrol car did not unlawfully extend the stop. The officer was required to check three databases before the stop could be finished and it was not prolonged by having the defendant in the patrol car while this was done. This action took a few minutes to complete and while it was being done, the officer was free to talk with the defendant “at least up until the moment that all three database checks had been completed.” The court went on to conclude that the conversation the two had while the database checks were running provided reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop. It noted that I-85 is a major drug trafficking corridor, the defendant was nervous and had two cell phones, the rental car was in someone else’s name, the defendant gave an illogical account of where he was going, and cash was discovered during the frisk. All of this provided reasonable suspicion of drug activity that justified prolonging the stop shortly after the defendant entered the patrol car. There, as he continued his conversation with the officer, he gave inconsistent statements about his girlfriend and the database check revealed that the defendant had not been truthful about a recent move to North Carolina. This, combined with the defendant’s broken eye contact, allowed the officer to extend the stop for purposes of the dog sniff.

State v. Morton, 363 N.C. 737 (Dec. 11, 2009)

For reasons stated in a dissent to the opinion below, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals ruling that the trial judge erred by concluding that a frisk was justified because officers had reasonable suspicion to believe that the defendant was armed or dangerous. The dissent had concluded that, under the totality of the circumstances, the officers had reasonable suspicion to frisk the defendant for officer safety.

The defendant was stopped by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer for a broken taillight and a passenger seatbelt violation. A second officer arrived shortly after the stop. The stopping officer saw an approximately five-inch closed pocketknife in the center console between the driver and passenger. The officer then asked the defendant to step out of the car so the knife could be secured and to check the defendant for weapons. The defendant exited the car and stated that having the knife was not a crime. The officer agreed, stating he was acting out of officer safety. The defendant stated he was not armed and did not consent to a frisk. When the officer said he was “just going to pat [Defendant] down,” the defendant said, “all right,” and raised his arms. The officer felt a bulge the size of a “large grape” near the defendant’s exterior coat pocket but could not locate the item within the pocket. The officer suspected the item was marijuana and asked the defendant about it. The defendant replied that it was an item he purchased from a store. When asked to remove the item, the defendant produced several items wrapped in plastic, telling the officer, “It’s not illegal, man.” The officer then grabbed the bulge from the outside, lifted the defendant’s coat, and reached inside an interior pocket. The defendant repeatedly asked for a supervisor on scene and protested: “This is not a Terry frisk, man. You’re illegally searching me.” At one point the defendant pushed the officer’s arm away. The officer did not remove his hands from the defendant’s pockets and the defendant eventually fled, falling nearby. As the defendant got up from the fall, the officer observed the defendant “digging in his waistband.”  The defendant was then tased and arrested at gunpoint. A bag was found nearby containing crack and powder cocaine. More crack, marijuana, and cash were found on the defendant. The defendant stated the drugs were for personal use during arrest processing. He was charged with possession with intent to sell or deliver cocaine and possession of cocaine and moved to suppress.

The trial court denied the motion. It found the frisk was not based on reasonable suspicion and was therefore unconstitutional, but the defendant’s act of fleeing sufficiently attenuated that violation from the discovery of evidence. The defendant was convicted of two counts of possession of cocaine at trial and appealed. A divided Court of Appeals reversed.

(1) The State argued that the frisk was justified by the presence of the knife in the center console—since the defendant was armed, he was dangerous—and that the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. The majority disagreed. Two officers were present, the defendant was stopped for equipment violations only, and the stop occurred in the middle of the day in uptown Charlotte near the courthouse. The defendant was generally cooperative, did not attempt to conceal the knife, got out of the car (and away from the knife) upon request, and did not otherwise act suspiciously. These facts were “entirely inapposite” from cases where police had “reason to suspect the defendant possessed and concealed a dangerous weapon on their person, coupled with behavior giving rise to a suspicion the defendant may be dangerous.” Slip op. at 12-13 (emphasis in original) (distinguishing State v. Malachi, ___ N.C. App. ___, 825 S.E.2d 666 (2019)). The trial court therefore did not err in concluding the frisk was unconstitutional.

(2) Under the attenuation doctrine, evidence that would be subject to suppression via the exclusionary rule is nonetheless admissible when the connection between the illegal action of law enforcement and the evidence is “remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance.” See Utah v. Strieff, ___ U.S. ___, 136 S. Ct. 2056 (2016). Courts must examine the closeness in time between the police illegality and the discovery of the evidence, any intervening circumstances, and the “purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct” when deciding whether the attenuation exception applies. Duncan Slip op. at 16 (citation omitted). As to the first factor, Strieff held that only the passing of “substantial time” between the police misconduct and the discovery of evidence favors attenuation. Because the discovery of evidence here occurred within minutes of the illegal frisk, this factor weighed against attenuation. As to the second factor, the trial court found that the defendant committed the crime of resisting a public officer by fleeing the encounter—officers then had probable cause to arrest for that offense and to search incident to the arrest, which was a sufficient intervening circumstance. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that even if the frisk was within the mission of the stop, the officer’s search of the defendant’s pocket for suspected marijuana was not. “Because the traffic stop was unlawful at the point of [the officer’s] unconstitutional search, the defendant had ‘the right to resist [the] unlawful arrest.’” Id. at 21. The court rejected the State’s contention that the defendant could have resisted the search by lesser means, pointing out that the defendant repeatedly asked for a supervisor, repeatedly objected to the search, and tried to remove the officer’s hand from his pocket before fleeing. Thus, the defendant’s flight did not constitute a crime or intervening circumstance weighing in favor of attenuation. The court observed that the final factor, the purpose and flagrancy of law enforcement misconduct, was the most significant factor in the analysis. The trial court found the officers acted in good faith and that this supported application of the attenuation doctrine. The majority again disagreed. “Instead of taking the opportunity—indeed, at Defendant’s invitation—to deescalate the situation, [the officer] proceeded with the flagrantly unconstitutional search.” Id. at 26. These “extraordinary facts” weighed against attenuation and in favor of suppression. The trial court’s order denying the motion to suppress was therefore reversed and a new trial ordered.

Judge Tyson dissented. He would have found that the frisk was justified and that attenuation applied to the extent the search became illegal, as well as other grounds supporting the denial of the motion.

A police offer stopped at a gas station for a cup of coffee, and on his way inside he noticed the defendant standing outside the gas station, talking loudly and using abusive language on his cell phone. The clerk inside told the officer she thought the defendant was bothering other customers. The officer called for backup, approached the defendant, and asked him to end his conversation. The defendant complied “after some delay,” but then began shifting from foot to foot and looking from side to side. His nervous behavior made the officer concerned that he might have a weapon, so he asked the defendant if he could pat him down. The defendant hesitated, but then consented. While conducting the pat-down, the officer felt a soft, rubbery wad in the defendant’s pocket that the officer immediately believed to be narcotics packaged in plastic baggies. After completing the pat-down, the officer manipulated the rubbery wad again, ensuring it was what he believed it to be, and then reached into the defendant’s pocket and withdrew the object. The wad was made up of plastic baggie corners containing a white powdery substance that looked like cocaine and a tube of Orajel. The defendant stated that the substance was baking soda, which he mixed with Orajel to fool buyers into thinking it was cocaine. Field and lab testing confirmed the defendant’s statements. The defendant was charged with possession with intent to sell and deliver a counterfeit controlled substance. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the fruits of the search on the grounds that he was illegally detained, he did not consent to the search, and the search exceeded the scope of a permissible pat-down. The defendant pled guilty and appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling denying the motion. The defendant was not seized by the officers, who initially told him he should “finish his conversation elsewhere.” It was only when the defendant hesitated and began acting nervous that the officer became concerned that the defendant might be armed, and the defendant then consented to be searched for weapons. The counterfeit drugs discovered during that weapons search were admissible under the “plain feel” doctrine. Even before he manipulated the object a second time or removed it from the defendant’s pocket, the officer testified that based on his years of experience in narcotics investigations, it was “immediately apparent” to him that the object would be drugs in plastic packaging. After reviewing several cases on the plain feel doctrine, the court explained that the standard to be applied is analogous to the probable cause standard. In this case, the officer’s training and experience in narcotics investigations, the circumstances surrounding the defendant’s nervous behavior, and the readily apparent nature of the item in the defendant’s pocket established “that [the officer’s] subsequent manipulation of the objects and search of defendant’s pocket for confirmation was therefore supported by probable cause.”

In this possession of a firearm by a felon case, the trial court did not err by allowing evidence of a handgun a police officer removed from the defendant’s waistband during a lawful frisk that occurred after a lawful stop. Police received an anonymous 911 call stating that an African-American male wearing a red shirt and black pants had just placed a handgun in the waistband of his pants while at a specified gas station. Officer Clark responded to the scene and saw 6 to 8 people in the parking lot, including a person who matched the 911 call description, later identified as the defendant. As Clark got out of his car, the defendant looked directly at him, “bladed” away and started to walk away. Clark and a second officer grabbed the defendant. After Clark placed the defendant in handcuffs and told him that he was not under arrest, the second officer frisked the defendant and found a revolver in his waistband. The defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress evidence of the gun at trial. The court held that the trial court did not err by denying the motion to suppress. It began by holding that the anonymous tip was insufficient by itself to provide reasonable suspicion for the stop. However, here there was additional evidence. Specifically, as Clark exited his car, the defendant turned his body in such a way as to prevent the officer from seeing a weapon. The officer testified that the type of turn the defendant executed was known as “blading,” which is “[w]hen you have a gun on your hip you tend to blade it away from an individual.” Additionally the defendant began to move away. And, as the officers approached the defendant, the defendant did not inform them that he was lawfully armed. Under the totality of the circumstances, these facts support reasonable suspicion.

            The court then held that the frisk was proper. In order for a frisk to be proper officers must have reasonable suspicion that the defendant was armed and dangerous. Based on the facts supporting a finding of reasonable suspicion with respect to the stop, the officers had reasonable suspicion to believe that the defendant was armed. This, coupled with his struggle during the stop and continued failure to inform officers that he was armed, supported a finding that there was reasonable suspicion that the defendant was armed and dangerous.

(1) In this drug trafficking case, the officer had reasonable suspicion to extend a traffic stop. After Officer Ward initiated a traffic stop and asked the driver for his license and registration, the driver produced his license but was unable to produce a registration. The driver’s license listed his address as Raleigh, but he could not give a clear answer as to whether he resided in Brunswick County or Raleigh. Throughout the conversation, the driver changed his story about where he resided. The driver was speaking into one cell phone and had two other cell phones on the center console of his vehicle. The officer saw a vehicle power control (VPC) module on the floor of the vehicle, an unusual item that might be associated with criminal activity. When Ward attempted to question the defendant, a passenger, the defendant mumbled answers and appeared very nervous. Ward then determined that the driver’s license was inactive, issued him a citation and told him he was free to go. However, Ward asked the driver if he would mind exiting the vehicle to answer a few questions. Officer Ward also asked the driver if he could pat him down and the driver agreed. Meanwhile, Deputy Arnold, who was assisting, observed a rectangular shaped bulge underneath the defendant’s shorts, in his crotch area. When he asked the defendant to identify the item, the defendant responded that it was his male anatomy. Arnold asked the defendant to step out of the vehicle so that he could do a patdown; before this could be completed, a Ziploc bag containing heroin fell from the defendant’s shorts. The extension of the traffic stop was justified: the driver could not answer basic questions, such as where he was coming from and where he lived; the driver changed his story; the driver could not explain why he did not have his registration; the presence of the VPC was unusual; and the defendant was extremely nervous and gave vague answers to the officer’s questions. (2) The officer properly frisked the defendant. The defendant’s nervousness, evasiveness, and failure to identify what was in his shorts, coupled with the size and nature of the object supported a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was armed and dangerous.

Even if the defendant had properly preserved the issue, a frisk conducted during a valid traffic stop was proper where the officer knew that the defendant had prior drug convictions; the defendant appeared nervous; the defendant deliberately concealed his right hand and refused to open it despite repeated requests; and the officer knew from his training and experience that people who deal drugs frequently carry weapons and that weapons can be concealed in a hand. 

The trial court improperly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress. An officer saw the defendant walking in the middle of the street. The officer stopped the defendant to warn him about impeding the flow of street traffic. After issuing this warning, the officer frisked the defendant because of his “suspicious behavior,” specifically that the “appeared to be nervous and kept moving back and forth.” The court found that “the nervous pacing of a suspect, temporarily detained by an officer to warn him not to walk in the street, is insufficient to warrant further detention and search.”

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that an officer’s discovery of drugs in his buttocks occurred during a separate, second search after a pat down was completed. The drugs were found during a valid pat down for weapons.

An officer had a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot when he detained the defendant. After 10 pm the officer learned of a report of suspicious activity at Auto America. When the officer arrived at the scene he saw the defendant, who generally matched the description of one of the individuals reported, peering from behind a parked van. When the defendant spotted the officer, he ran, ignoring the officer’s instructions to stop. After a 1/8 mile chase, the officer found the defendant trying to hide behind a dumpster. The defendant’s flight and the other facts were sufficient to raise a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot.

In re D.B., 214 N.C. App. 489 (Aug. 16, 2011)

The trial court erred by admitting evidence obtained by an officer who exceeded the proper scope of a Terry frisk. After the officer stopped the juvenile, he did a weapons frisk and found nothing. When the officer asked the juvenile to identify himself, the juvenile did not respond. Because the officer thought he felt an identification card in the juvenile’s pocket during the frisk, he retrieved it. It turned out to be a stolen credit card, which was admitted into evidence. Although officers who lawfully stop a person may ask a moderate number of questions to determine his or her identity and to gain information confirming or dispelling the officers' suspicions that prompted the stop, no authority suggests that an officer may physically search a person for evidence of his identity in connection with a Terry stop.

State v. King, 206 N.C. App. 585 (Aug. 17, 2010)

An officer had reasonable suspicion to believe that the defendant was armed and dangerous justifying a pat-down frisk. Around midnight, the officer stopped the defendant’s vehicle after determining that the tag was registered to a different car; prior to the stop, the defendant and his passenger had looked oddly at the officer. After the stop, the defendant held his hands out of the window, volunteered that he had a gun, which was loaded, and when exiting the vehicle, removed his coat, even though it was cold outside. At this point, the pat down occurred. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his efforts to show that he did not pose a threat obviated the need for the pat down. It also rejected the defendant’s argument that the discovery of the gun could not support a reasonable suspicion that he still might be armed and dangerous; instead the court concluded that the confirmed presence of a weapon is a compelling factor justifying a frisk, even where that weapon is secured and out of the defendant’s reach. Additionally, the officer was entitled to formulate “common-sense conclusions,” based upon an observed pattern that one weapon often signals the presence other weapons, in believing that the defendant, who had already called the officer’s attention to one readily visible weapon, might be armed.

On remand, the court held that officers did not exceed the scope of the frisk by confiscating a digital scale from the defendant’s pocket. An officer testified that he knew the object was a digital scale based on his pat-down without manipulation of the object and that individuals often carry such scales in order to weigh controlled substances. When asked, the defendant confirmed that the object was a scale. These facts in conjunction with informant tips that the defendant was engaging in the sale of illegal drugs are sufficient to support the trial court’s conclusion that the officer was reasonable and justified in seizing the scale.

An officer had reasonable suspicion to frisk the defendant after stopping him for a traffic violation. Even though the officer could see something in the defendant’s clenched right hand, the defendant stated that he had nothing in his hand; the defendant appeared to be attempting to physically evade the officer; the defendant continually refused to show the officer what was in his hand; and the defendant raised his fist, suggesting an intent to strike the officer.

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