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., 06/26/2024
E.g., 06/26/2024

In this Avery County case, defendant appealed his conviction for possession of methamphetamine, arguing error in denying his motion to suppress the results from a search. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding no error. 

Defendant was pulled over for driving while his license was revoked. The officer who pulled defendant over asked him to step out of the vehicle so that he could pat him down for weapons. During the pat down, the officer found a pill bottle, and the defendant told the officer the pills were Percocet. The bottle was not a prescription pill bottle. The officer handcuffed defendant and told him he was being detained for having the Percocet pills in a non-prescription bottle. The officer then searched defendant’s person, finding a bag of methamphetamine in defendant’s boot. After defendant was indicted for felony possession of methamphetamine, he moved to suppress the results of the search, arguing no probable cause. The trial court denied the motion, and defendant was subsequently convicted.  

Considering defendant’s argument, the Court of Appeals first noted the “plain feel doctrine” allows admission of contraband found during a protective frisk if the incriminating nature of the contraband is immediately apparent to the officer. Slip Op. at 7. The State pointed to State v. Robinson, 189 N.C. App. 454 (2008), as supporting the officer’s actions in the current case; the court rejected this comparison, noting that the supporting circumstances of location and nervousness of the suspect from Robinson were not present here. Slip Op. at 8. The court also rejected the assertion that the unlabeled pill bottle gave the officer probable cause to seize it. However, even if the search and seizure violated defendant’s constitutional rights, the court concluded “the methamphetamine found in defendant’s boot was still admissible because the contraband’s discovery was shown to be inevitable.” Id. at 9. Testimony from the officer at the suppression hearing supported the assumption that he would have arrested defendant for driving with a revoked license if he had not found the contraband. This triggered the “inevitable discovery doctrine” and justified admission of the contraband evidence despite the lack of probable cause for the search. Id. at 10. 

Judge Stading concurred in the result only. 

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.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. The State established inevitable discovery with respect to a search of the defendant’s vehicle that had previously been illegally seized where the evidence showed that an officer obtained the search warrant for the vehicle based on untainted evidence.

In a case in which the defendant was convicted of soliciting a child by computer and attempted indecent liberties on a child, the trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s laptop would have been inevitably discovered. The trial court ordered suppressed the defendant’s statements to officers during questioning. In those statements the defendant told officers that he owned a laptop that was located on his bed at the fire station. The trial court denied the defendant’ motion to suppress evidence retrieved from his laptop, concluding that it would have been inevitably discovered. The court found that the State had not presented any evidence--from the investigating officers or anyone else--supporting this conclusion.

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