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., 09/25/2021
E.g., 09/25/2021

A dog sniff that prolongs the time reasonably required for a traffic stop violates the Fourth Amendment. After an officer completed a traffic stop, including issuing the driver a warning ticket and returning all documents, the officer asked for permission to walk his police dog around the vehicle. The driver said no. Nevertheless, the officer instructed the driver to turn off his car, exit the vehicle and wait for a second officer. When the second officer arrived, the first officer retrieved his dog and led it around the car, during which time the dog alerted to the presence of drugs. A search of the vehicle revealed a large bag of methamphetamine. All told, 7-8 minutes elapsed from the time the officer issued the written warning until the dog’s alert. The defendant was charged with a drug crime and unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence seized from his car, arguing that the officer prolonged the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion to conduct the dog sniff. The defendant was convicted and appealed. The Eighth Circuit held that the de minimus extension of the stop was permissible. The Supreme Court granted certiorari “to resolve a division among lower courts on the question whether police routinely may extend an otherwise-completed traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion, in order to conduct a dog sniff.”

The Court reasoned that an officer may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop, but “he may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.” The Court noted that during a traffic stop, beyond determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, an officer’s mission includes “ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop” such as checking the driver’s license, determining whether the driver has outstanding warrants, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance. It explained: “These checks serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.” A dog sniff by contrast “is a measure aimed at detect[ing] evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.” (quotation omitted). It continued: “Lacking the same close connection to roadway safety as the ordinary inquiries, a dog sniff is not fairly characterized as part of the officer’s traffic mission.”

Noting that the Eighth Circuit’s de minimus rule relied heavily on Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977) (per curiam) (reasoning that the government’s “legitimate and weighty” interest in officer safety outweighs the “de minimis” additional intrusion of requiring a driver, already lawfully stopped, to exit the vehicle), the Court distinguished Mimms:

Unlike a general interest in criminal enforcement, however, the government’s officer safety interest stems from the mission of the stop itself. Traffic stops are “especially fraught with danger to police officers,” so an officer may need to take certain negligibly burdensome precautions in order to complete his mission safely. On-scene investigation into other crimes, however, detours from that mission. So too do safety precautions taken in order to facilitate such detours. Thus, even assuming that the imposition here was no more intrusive than the exit order in Mimms, the dog sniff could not be justified on the same basis. Highway and officer safety are interests different in kind from the Government’s endeavor to detect crime in general or drug trafficking in particular. (citations omitted)

The Court went on to reject the Government’s argument that an officer may “incremental[ly]” prolong a stop to conduct a dog sniff so long as the officer is reasonably diligent in pursuing the traffic-related purpose of the stop, and the overall duration of the stop remains reasonable in relation to the duration of other traffic stops involving similar circumstances. The Court dismissed the notion that “by completing all traffic-related tasks expeditiously, an officer can earn bonus time to pursue an unrelated criminal investigation.” It continued:

If an officer can complete traffic-based inquiries expeditiously, then that is the amount of “time reasonably required to complete [the stop’s] mission.” As we said in Caballes and reiterate today, a traffic stop “prolonged beyond” that point is “unlawful.” The critical question, then, is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket . . . but whether conducting the sniff “prolongs”—i.e., adds time to—“the stop”. (citations omitted).

In this case, the trial court ruled that the defendant’s detention for the dog sniff was not independently supported by individualized suspicion. Because the Court of Appeals did not review that determination the Court remanded for a determination by that court as to whether reasonable suspicion of criminal activity justified detaining the defendant beyond completion of the traffic infraction investigation.

Using a drug-sniffing dog on a homeowner’s porch to investigate the contents of the home is a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The Court’s reasoning was based on the theory that the officers engaged in a physical intrusion of a constitutionally protected area. Applying that principle, the Court held:

The officers were gathering information in an area belonging to [the defendant] and immediately surrounding his house—in the curtilage of the house, which we have held enjoys protection as part of the home itself. And they gathered that information by physically entering and occupying the area to engage in conduct not explicitly or implicitly permitted by the homeowner.

Slip Op. at pp. 3-4. In this way the majority did not decide the case on a reasonable expectation of privacy analysis; the concurring opinion came to the same conclusion on both property and reasonable expectation of privacy grounds.

Concluding that a dog sniff “was up to snuff,” the Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court and held that the dog sniff in this case provided probable cause to search a vehicle. The Court rejected the holding of the Florida Supreme Court which would have required the prosecution to present, in every case, an exhaustive set of records, including a log of the dog’s performance in the field, to establish the dog’s reliability. The Court found this “demand inconsistent with the ‘flexible, common-sense standard’ of probable cause. It instructed:

In short, a probable-cause hearing focusing on a dog’s alert should proceed much like any other. The court should allow the parties to make their best case, consistent with the usual rules of criminal procedure. And the court should then evaluate the proffered evidence to decide what all the circumstances demonstrate. If the State has produced proof from controlled settings that a dog performs reliably in detecting drugs, and the defendant has not contested that showing, then the court should find probable cause. If, in contrast, the defendant has challenged the State’s case (by disputing the reliability of the dog overall or of a particular alert), then the court should weigh the competing evidence. In all events, the court should not prescribe, as the Florida Supreme Court did, an inflexible set of evidentiary requirements. The question—similar to every inquiry into probable cause—is whether all the facts surrounding a dog’s alert, viewed through the lens of common sense, would make a reasonably prudent person think that a search would reveal contraband or evidence of a crime.  A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test.

Applying that test to the drug dog’s sniff in the case at hand, the Court found it satisfied.

State v. Warren, 368 N.C. 756 (Mar. 18, 2016)

On appeal pursuant from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 775 S.E.2d 362 (2015), the court per curiam affirmed. In this post-Rodriguez case, the court of appeals had held that the officer had reasonable suspicion to extend the scope and duration of a routine traffic stop to allow a police dog to perform a drug sniff outside the defendant’s vehicle. The court of appeals noted that under Rodriguez v. United States, ___ U.S. ___, 191 L.Ed. 2d 492 (2015), an officer who lawfully stops a vehicle for a traffic violation but who otherwise does not have reasonable suspicion that any crime is afoot beyond a traffic violation may execute a dog sniff only if the check does not prolong the traffic stop. It further noted that earlier N.C. case law applying the de minimus rule to traffic stop extensions had been overruled by Rodriguez. The court of appeals continued, concluding that in this case the trial court’s findings support the conclusion that the officer developed reasonable suspicion of illegal drug activity during the course of his investigation of the traffic offense and was therefore justified to prolong the traffic stop to execute the dog sniff. Specifically:

Defendant was observed and stopped “in an area [the officer] knew to be a high crime/high drug activity area[;]” that while writing the warning citation, the officer observed that Defendant “appeared to have something in his mouth which he was not chewing and which affected his speech[;]”that “during his six years of experience [the officer] who has specific training in narcotics detection, has made numerous ‘drug stops’ and has observed individuals attempt to hide drugs in their mouths and . . . swallow drugs to destroy evidence[;]” and that during their conversation Defendant denied being involved in drug activity “any longer.”

State v. Miller, 367 N.C. 702 (Dec. 19, 2014)

The court held that a police dog’s instinctive action, unguided and undirected by the police, that brings evidence not otherwise in plain view into plain view is not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Responding to a burglar alarm, officers arrived at the defendant’s home with a police dog, Jack. The officers deployed Jack to search the premises for intruders. Jack went from room to room until he reached a side bedroom where he remained. When an officer entered to investigate, Jack was sitting on the bedroom floor staring at a dresser drawer, alerting the officer to the presence of drugs. The officer opened the drawer and found a brick of marijuana. Leaving the drugs there, the officer and Jack continued the protective sweep. Jack stopped in front of a closet and began barking at the closet door, alerting the officer to the presence of a human suspect. Unlike the passive sit and stare alert that Jack used to signal for the presence of narcotics, Jack was trained to bark to signal the presence of human suspects. Officers opened the closet and found two large black trash bags on the closet floor. When Jack nuzzled a bag, marijuana was visible. The officers secured the premises and obtained a search warrant. At issue on appeal was whether Jack’s nuzzling of the bags in the closet violated the Fourth Amendment. The court of appeals determined that Jack’s nuzzling of the bags was an action unrelated to the objectives of the authorized intrusion that created a new invasion of the defendant’s privacy unjustified by the exigent circumstance that validated the entry. That court viewed Jack as an instrumentality of the police and concluded that “his actions, regardless of whether they are instinctive or not, are no different than those undertaken by an officer.” The Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that “Jack’s actions are different from the actions of an officer, particularly if the dog’s actions were instinctive, undirected, and unguided by the police.” It held:

If a police dog is acting without assistance, facilitation, or other intentional action by its handler (. . . acting “instinctively”), it cannot be said that a State or governmental actor intends to do anything. In such a case, the dog is simply being a dog. If, however, police misconduct is present, or if the dog is acting at the direction or guidance of its handler, then it can be readily inferred from the dog’s action that there is an intent to find something or to obtain information. In short, we hold that a police dog’s instinctive action, unguided and undirected by the police, that brings evidence not otherwise in plain view into plain view is not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment or Article I, Section 20 of the North Carolina Constitution. Therefore, the decision of the Court of Appeals that Jack was an instrumentality of the police, regardless of whether his actions were instinctive, is reversed. (citation omitted)

Ultimately, the court remanded for the trial court to decide whether Jack’s nuzzling in this case was in fact instinctive, undirected, and unguided by the officers.

In this case from Burke County, an officer observed the defendant driving ten miles over the speed limit and believed that the vehicle’s window tint was illegal. When the officer approached, he smelled a slight odor of marijuana and a strong odor of cologne. He also observed that the car windows were not tinted but rather had “shades” covering them. While running license and background checks of the defendant, the officer called for a canine unit and a backup officer. When he returned to the defendant’s vehicle, the odor of marijuana was stronger. The defendant denied having drugs in the car and gave no indications of impairment during field sobriety testing. While the officer was writing a warning ticket, a canine unit arrived. The dog alerted on the car, and the defendant ultimately admitted that a gun was inside. A search revealed the gun, cash, digital scales, cocaine, and synthetic opioids. The defendant moved to suppress. He also sought to admit evidence of a relationship between the backup officer on scene and a woman whose house the defendant had been at immediately before the stop and challenged the reliability of the canine sniff. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, allowed a limited offer of proof regarding the relationship between the woman and the officer (but excluded the evidence as irrelevant), and found the canine was reliable. The defendant pled guilty to trafficking opium and appealed.

(1) The stop of the defendant’s car was supported by reasonable suspicion based on the officer’s observation of speeding (which was confirmed by radar), as well as the suspected window tint violation. The officer developed additional reasonable suspicion of a drug offense based on the odor of marijuana emanating from the defendant’s car. The canine unit arrived on scene 12 minutes into the traffic stop and conducted its sniff of the defendant’s car within one minute while the stopping officer was writing a warning ticket. The officer therefore acted within the mission of the stop throughout the encounter and the stop was not improperly extended. The search of the defendant’s car was also supported by probable cause based on the odor of marijuana and the positive canine alert.

(2) The defendant complained that his offer of proof regarding the relationship between one officer on the scene and a woman whose house the defendant had traveled from prior to the stop was improperly limited. The Court of Appeals noted that “a trial court may limit an offer of proof by allowing counsel to articulate what a defendant’s showing would have been by identifying witnesses and presenting a detailed forecast of evidence for the record.” Walton Slip op. at 11. Here, the fact of the relationship was established before the trial court and that was a sufficient offer of proof on the issue. The court also found that because this officer was not the stopping officer and had limited involvement in the case, the trial court did not commit prejudicial error in limiting or excluding this evidence.

(3) The defendant also argued that the trial court incorrectly found the canine was properly trained and reliable. Under Florida v. Harris, 568 U.S. 237 (2013), a certified or well-trained canine’s alert can supply probable cause to search under the totality of circumstances. A defendant is permitted to demonstrate that the animal was not properly trained or reliable in arguing against probable cause based on the alert. The defendant pointed to the fact that one of the dog’s certifications was expired at the time of the sniff. The court rejected this a determinative factor, finding the dog had been repeatedly certified by two different organizations and had at least one unexpired certification at the time. This was sufficient evidence of the dog’s reliability, absent any showing by the defendant that its training or performance was deficient. The fact that the officer handling the canine had gaps in his training inconsistent with departmental policies was similarly not determinative. While the officer’s training is a relevant consideration in the analysis, this alone was insufficient to overcome the showing that the dog was properly trained and reliable.

The case was therefore affirmed in all respects.

Use of a dog by officers to sweep the common area of a storage facility, altering them to the presence of drugs in the defendant’s storage unit, did not implicate a legitimate privacy interest protected by the Fourth Amendment.

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