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., 09/21/2021
E.g., 09/21/2021

Ruling in a civil suit against the District of Columbia and five of its police officers brought by individuals arrested for holding a raucous, late-night party in a house they did not have permission to enter, the Court held that the officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers and were entitled to qualified immunity. As to probable cause, the Court concluded that “[c]onsidering the totality of the circumstances, the officers made an entirely reasonable inference that the partygoers were knowingly taking advantage of a vacant house as a venue for their late-night party.” (quotation omitted). In this respect, the Court noted the condition of the house, including among other things that multiple neighbors told the officers that the house had been vacant for several months and that the house had virtually no furniture and few signs of inhabitance. The Court also noted the partygoers’ conduct, including among other things that the party was still going strong when the officers arrived after 1 am, with music so loud that it could be heard from outside; upon entering, multiple officers smelled marijuana; partygoers left beer bottles and cups of liquor on the floor; the living room had been converted into a makeshift strip club; and the officers found upstairs a group of men with a single, naked woman on a bare mattress—the only bed in the house—along with multiple open condom wrappers and a used condom. The Court further noted the partygoers’ reaction to the officers, including scattering and hiding at the sight of the uniformed officers. Finally, the Court noted the partygoers’ vague and implausible answers to the officers’ questions about who had given them permission to be at the house. The Court went on to hold that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

On appeal from a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, State v. Parisi, ___ N.C. App. ___, 817 S.E.2d 228 (2018) (discussed in an earlier blog post by Shea Denning, https://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/got-probable-cause-for-impaired-driving/), the Supreme Court held that the trial court erred by granting the defendant’s motion to suppress in this impaired driving case. The Supreme Court considered whether the trial courts’ findings—which are conclusive on appeal if supported by competent evidence—supported the ultimate conclusions of law. Here, where the trial court made findings that the defendant admitted to consuming three beers, that defendant’s eyes were red and glassy, that a moderate odor of alcohol emanated from defendant’s person, and that the defendant exhibited multiple indicia of impairment while performing various sobriety tests, the Supreme Court had “no hesitation” in concluding that those facts sufficed, as a matter of law, to support the officer’s decision to arrest the defendant for impaired driving.

The court per curiam affirmed a decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 814 S.E.2d 618 (2018), holding that because an officer had probable cause to arrest the defendant for impaired driving, the trial court erred by granting the defendant’s motion to suppress. Here, the trooper “clocked” the defendant traveling at 80 miles per hour in a 65 mile per hour zone on a highway. As the trooper approached the defendant’s vehicle, the defendant abruptly moved from the left lane of the highway into the right lane, nearly striking another vehicle before stopping on the shoulder. During the stop, the trooper noticed a moderate odor of alcohol emanating from the defendant and observed an open 24-ounce container of beer in the cup-holder next to the driver’s seat. The defendant told the trooper that he had just purchased the beer, and was drinking it while driving down the highway. The defendant admitted that he had been drinking heavily several hours before the encounter with the trooper. The trooper did not have the defendant perform any field sobriety tests but did ask the defendant to submit to two Alco-sensor tests, both of which yielded positive results for alcohol. The Court of Appeals noted that while swerving alone does not give rise to probable cause, additional factors creating dangerous circumstances may, as was the case here.

State v. Biber, 365 N.C. 162 (June 16, 2011)

The court reversed a decision of the Court of Appeals and held that probable cause supported the defendant’s arrest for drug possession. In the decision below, the Court of Appeals held that there was insufficient evidence that the defendant had constructive possession of the substance at issue, found in a motel room’s bathroom light fixture while the defendant and two others were present. Although the case was before the Court of Appeals on an adverse ruling on a suppression motion, the court reached the issue of sufficiency of the evidence. The North Carolina Supreme Court concluded that the Court of Appeals applied the wrong analysis, conflating the sufficiency of the evidence standard with the standard that applies when assessing whether officers had probable cause to arrest. The court went on to conclude that unchallenged facts supported the trial court’s conclusion that the officers had probable cause to arrest. Specifically, responding officers knew they were being dispatched to a motel to assist its manager in determining whether illegal drug use was occurring in Room 312, after a complaint had been made. The officers’ initial conversation with the manager confirmed the possibility of suspicious activities. When the door to the room was opened, they saw a woman with a crack pipe and drug paraphernalia next to her. The woman fled to the bathroom, ignoring instructions to open the door while she flushed the toilet. A search of the bathroom revealed a bag of what looked like narcotics in the light fixture. The defendant ignored instructions to remain still. When asked, the defendant claimed the room was his and that a bag containing clothing was his.

The court affirmed per curiam Steinkrause v. Tatum, 201 N.C. App. 289 (Dec. 8, 2009) (holding, over a dissent, that there was probable cause to arrest the defendant for impaired driving in light of the severity of the one-car accident coupled with an odor of alcohol).

The defendant was charged with impaired driving, was convicted in district court, appealed to superior court, and prevailed on a motion to suppress at a pretrial hearing in superior court. The State appealed. (1) The Court of Appeals rejected the State’s argument that the superior court judge lacked jurisdiction to enter a written order after the State gave oral notice of appeal at the conclusion of the hearing at which the judge granted the motion to suppress. At the hearing, the trial judge stated that the State could not establish a nexus between the person the officer saw driving and the defendant who later walked up to the officer. The Court found that the judge’s written order was a chronicle of the findings and conclusions he decided at the motion hearing and was not a new order affecting the merits of the case. (2) The Court rejected the State’s argument that certain findings of fact were not supported by the evidence. In regard to the green pickup truck that the defendant was allegedly driving, the trial judge found that the arresting officer testified that he did not see the truck park or anyone get in or out of the truck. The State asserted that the officer testified that he observed a video at the mini-mart where the truck was parked showing the defendant getting out of the truck. The Court found that the officer testified that the video was lost because he left the flash drive containing the video in his patrol car when he took the car to a mechanic. The Court held that the trial judge determines the credibility of witnesses, the weight to be given to testimony, and reasonable inferences. “The trial court was free to give no weight to [the officer’s] testimony regarding viewing the Mini-mart video.” (3) The Court rejected the State’s argument that probable cause existed to arrest the defendant for impaired driving. The Court found that the trial judge’s findings supported his conclusion that the State failed to show that the defendant was driving and, although the truck was registered to the defendant, failed to establish a connection between the driver of the truck and the defendant.

In this case involving drug charges and a charge of driving without an operator’s license, the court declined to address the defendant’s argument that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to prolong the traffic stop and search the defendant, finding that the search was justified as a search incident to arrest for two offenses for which the officer had probable cause to arrest. An officer was on the lookout for a gold Kia sedan in connection with an earlier incident at the Green Valley Inn. As the officer was monitoring an intersection, he saw a Kia sedan drive through a red light. The officer conducted a traffic stop. The officer approached the vehicle and immediately saw an open beer container in the center console. The officer asked the defendant for his license and registration. The defendant said he did not have a license but handed over a Pennsylvania ID card, with a shaky hand. After noticing the defendant’s red, glassy eyes and detecting an odor of alcohol from the vehicle, the officer asked the defendant to exit the car so that he could search it and have the defendant perform sobriety tests. Before searching the vehicle the officer frisked the defendant. As the officer returned to his police car to check the defendant’s license for outstanding warrants, the defendant spontaneously handed the officer his car keys. Because it was cold, the officer allowed the defendant to sit in the back of the patrol car as he ran the license and warrant checks. The officer determined that the defendant’s license was expired, the vehicle was not registered to the defendant, and the defendant had no outstanding warrants. While sitting in the officer’s vehicle, the defendant voluntarily made a variety of spontaneous statements and asked the officer if he could drive him back to the Green Valley Inn after the traffic stop completed. After doing the license and warrants check, the officer conducted standardized field sobriety tests, which were performed to his satisfaction. He then asked for and got consent to search the defendant, finding powder and crack cocaine in the defendant’s pockets.

          On appeal, the defendant argued that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the stop after determining that the defendant was not intoxicated. The court however concluded that the officer did not need reasonable suspicion to extend the stop; the court reasoned that because the officer had probable cause to justify arrest, the search was justified as a search incident to arrest. Specifically, the officer’s discovery of the open container and that the defendant was driving without an operator’s license gave the officer probable cause to arrest. An officer may conduct a warrantless search incident to a lawful arrest; a search is incident to an arrest even if conducted prior to the formal arrest.

          For similar reasons, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that his consent to search was invalid because it was given while the stop was unduly prolonged. The court reasoned that because probable cause existed for the arrest and the search was justified as a search incident to an arrest, the defendant’s consent was unnecessary.

          The court went on to hold that even if the search was unlawful, discovery of the contraband on the defendant’s person was inevitable. Here, the officer testified that he would not have allowed the defendant to drive away from the traffic stop because he was not licensed to operate a motor vehicle. The officer testified that he would have searched the defendant before giving him a ride or transporting him to jail because of his practice of searching everyone transported in his patrol car. Also, the defendant repeatedly asked the officer if he would give him a ride back to the Green Valley Inn. Thus, the State established that the cocaine would have been inevitably discovered because the officer would have searched the defendant for weapons or contraband before transporting him to another location or jail.

Probable cause supported the defendant’s second arrest for impaired driving. After the defendant’s first arrest for DWI, he signed a written promise to appear and was released. Thirty minutes later Officer Hall saw the defendant in the driver’s seat of his vehicle at a gas station, with the engine running. The defendant had an odor of alcohol, slurred speech, red, glassy eyes, and was unsteady on his feet. The defendant told the officer that he was driving his vehicle to his son’s residence. The officer did not perform field sobriety tests because the defendant was unable to safely stand on his feet. Based on the defendant’s prior blood-alcohol reading--done less than two hours before the second incident--and the officer’s training about the rate of alcohol elimination from the body, the officer formed the opinion that the defendant still had alcohol in his system. The defendant was arrested a second time for DWI and, because of his first arrest, driving while license revoked. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence in connection with his second arrest. The State appealed and the court reversed. The court began by determining that certain findings made by the trial court were not supported by competent evidence. The court then held that probable cause supported the defendant’s second arrest. The defendant admitted that he drove his vehicle between his two encounters with the police. During the second encounter, Hall observed that the defendant had red, glassy eyes, an odor of alcohol, slurred speech and was unsteady on his feet to the extent that it was unsafe to conduct field sobriety tests. While Hall did not observe the defendant’s driving behavior, he had personal knowledge that the defendant had a blood alcohol concentration of .16 one hour and 40 minutes prior to the second encounter. And Hall testified that based on standard elimination rates of alcohol for an average individual, the defendant probably still would be impaired.

In this murder case, officers had probable cause to arrest the defendant. Thus, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress incriminating statements made by the defendant after arrest. After law enforcement discovered a woman’s body inside an abandoned, burned car, officers arrested the defendant. During question after arrest, the defendant implicated himself in the woman’s murder. He unsuccessfully moved to suppress those incriminating statements and challenged the trial court’s denial of his suppression motion on appeal. At the time the officers arrested the defendant, they had already visited the victim’s home and found a knife on the chair near a window with the cut screen. When they questioned the victim’s boyfriend, he admitted that he was with the defendant at the victim’s home on the night of the murder and that, after the victim locked the two men out of her house, the boyfriend cut the screen, entered the house through the window, unlocked the door from the inside, and let the defendant in. These facts and circumstances constituted sufficient, reasonably trustworthy information from which a reasonable officer could believe that the defendant had committed a breaking and entering. Thus, regardless of whether the officers had probable cause to arrest the defendant for murder, they had probable cause to arrest the defendant for that lesser crime.

In this armed robbery and murder case, the trial court did not err by concluding that law enforcement officers had probable cause to arrest the defendant. Among other things, the defendant placed a telephone call using the victim’s cell phone about 20 minutes before the victim’s death was reported to law enforcement; the defendant spent the previous night at the victim’s residence; the victim’s son had last seen his father with the defendant; the victim’s Smith and Wesson revolver was missing and a Smith and Wesson revolver was found near the victim’s body; and the defendant was seen on the day of the victim’s death driving an automobile matching the description of one missing from the victim’s used car lot.

An officer had probable cause to arrest the defendant for DWI. After the officer stopped the defendant’s vehicle, he smelled a moderate odor of alcohol coming from the defendant and noticed that the defendant’s eyes were red and glassy. Upon administration of an HGN test the officer observed five of six indicators of impairment. The defendant was unable to provide a breath sample for an alco-sensor, which the officer viewed as willful refusal. The defendant admitted that he had consumed three beers, though he said his last consumption was nine hours prior. The officer arrested at the defendant for DWI. The court held: “Without even considering defendant’s multiple failed attempts to provide an adequate breath sample on an alco-sensor device, we hold the trial court’s findings support its conclusion that there was probable cause to arrest defendant for DWI.”

An officer had probable cause to arrest the defendant for DWI. The officer responded to a call involving operation of a golf cart and serious injury to an individual. The defendant admitted to the officer that he was the driver of the golf cart. The defendant had “very red and glassy” eyes and “a strong odor of alcohol coming from his breath.” The defendant’s clothes were bloody, and he was very talkative, repeating himself several times. The defendant’s mannerisms were “fairly slow” and the defendant placed a hand on the deputy’s patrol car to maintain his balance. The defendant stated that he had “6 beers since noon” and he submitted to an Alco-Sensor test, which was positive for alcohol.

(1) Because the officer saw the defendant drive through a red light, the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle. (2) Where upon stopping the defendant’s vehicle the officer smelled a strong odor of alcohol and saw that the defendant had red glassy eyes, the defendant failed field sobriety tests, and admitted to drinking before driving, the officer had probable cause to arrest the defendant for DWI.

The trial court properly granted the defendant’s motion to suppress where no probable cause supported the defendant’s arrest for impaired driving and unsafe movement. The defendant was arrested after he left a bar, got in his SUV and backed into a motorcycle that was illegally parked behind him. The officer relied on the following facts to support probable cause: the accident, the fact that the defendant had been at a bar and admitted to having three drinks (in fact he had four), the defendant’s performance tests, and the odor of alcohol on the defendant. However, the trial court found that the officer testified that the alcohol odor was “light.” Additionally, none of the officers on the scene observed the defendant staggering or stumbling, and his speech was not slurred. Also, the only error the defendant committed in the field sobriety tests was to ask the officer half-way through each test what to do next. When instructed to finish the tests, the defendant did so. The court concluded:

[W]hile defendant had had four drinks in a bar over a four-hour time frame, the traffic accident . . . was due to illegal parking by another person and was not the result of unsafe movement by defendant. Further, defendant's performance on the field sobriety tests and his behavior at the accident scene did not suggest impairment. A light odor of alcohol, drinks at a bar, and an accident that was not defendant's fault were not sufficient circumstances, without more, to provide probable cause to believe defendant was driving while impaired.

The court also rejected the State’s argument that the fact that the officer knew the defendant’s numerical reading from a portable breath test supported the arrest, noting that under G.S. 20-16.3(d), the alcohol concentration result from an alcohol screening test may not be used by an officer in determining if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the driver committed an implied consent offense, such as driving while impaired.

Probable cause supported the defendant’s arrest for DWI. When the officer stopped the defendant at a checkpoint, the defendant had bloodshot eyes and a moderate odor of alcohol. The defendant admitted to “drinking a couple of beers earlier” and that he “stopped drinking about an hour” before being stopped. Two alco-sensor tests yielded positive results and the defendant exhibited clues indicating impairment on three field sobriety tests. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that because he did not exhibit signs of intoxication such as slurred speech, glassy eyes, or physical instability, there was insufficient probable cause, stating: “as this Court has held, the odor of alcohol on a defendant’s breath, coupled with a positive alco-sensor result, is sufficient for probable cause to arrest a defendant for driving while impaired.”

Officers had probable cause to arrest the defendant for impaired driving. An officer saw the defendant lying behind a car on the ground, with his shirt over his head and his head in the sleeve hole. The defendant appeared unconscious. When the officer tried to arouse the defendant, he woke up and started chanting. His speech was slurred, he had a strong odor of alcohol, he was unsteady on his feet, and his eyes were bloodshot. The keys were in the ignition and the car was not running. Another officer searched the area and found no sign of anyone else present.

An officer had probable cause to arrest the defendant after he felt something hard between the defendant’s buttocks during a weapons pat down. Based on his training and experience the officer inferred that the defendant may have been hiding drugs in his buttocks. The court noted that the location of the item was significant, since the buttocks is an unlikely place for carrying legal substances. Additionally, the officer knew that the defendant was sitting in a car parked in a high crime area; a large machete was observed in the car; a passenger possessed what appeared to be cocaine; when officers began speaking with the vehicle’s occupants the defendant dropped a large sum of cash onto the floor; and after dropping the money on the floor, the defendant made a quick movement behind his back.

Because probable cause supported the issuance of arrest warrants for assault on a female, the defendants were shielded by public official immunity from the plaintiff’s claims based on false imprisonment and other grounds. The defendant officer told the magistrate that the plaintiff, a teacher, had “touched [the] breast area” of two minor female students after at least one of the students had covered herself with her arms and asked the plaintiff not to touch her. This evidence was enough for a reasonable person to conclude that an offense had been committed and that the plaintiff was the perpetrator.

A detailed tip by an individual, who originally called the police anonymously but then identified himself and met with the police in person, was sufficiently corroborated by the police to establish probable cause to arrest the defendant. 

There was probable cause to arrest the defendant for resisting, delaying, and obstructing when the defendant fled from an officer who was properly making an investigatory stop. Although the investigatory stop was not justified by the fact that a passenger in the defendant’s car was wanted on several outstanding warrants, it was justified by the fact that the defendant was driving a car that had no insurance and with an expired registration plate. It was immaterial that the officer had not explained the proper basis for the stop before the defendant fled. 

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