Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


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., 06/21/2024
E.g., 06/21/2024

In this case, the Court held, in an opinion by Justice Kagan, that the flight of a person suspected of a misdemeanor offense does not categorically justify an officer’s warrantless entry into a home.  Instead, an officer must consider all the circumstances in a case involving the pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant to determine whether there is an exigency that would excuse the warrant requirement.

A California highway patrol officer attempted to stop the petitioner Lange’s car after observing him driving while playing loud music through his open windows and repeatedly honking his horn. Lange, who was within 100 feet of his home, did not stop.  Instead, he drove into his attached garage. The officer followed Lange into the garage, where he questioned Lange and saw that Lange was impaired. Lange was subsequently charged with the misdemeanor of driving under the influence of alcohol and a noise infraction.

Lange moved to suppress the evidence obtained after the officer entered his garage, arguing that the warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied Lange’s motion, and the appellate division affirmed. The California Court of Appeal also affirmed, concluding that an officer’s hot pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect is always permissible under the exigent circumstances to the warrant requirement. The United States Supreme Court rejected the categorial rule applied by the California Court of Appeal and vacated the lower court’s judgment.

In rejecting a categorial exception for hot pursuit in misdemeanor cases, the Court noted that the exceptions allowing warrantless entry into a home are “‘jealously and carefully drawn,’ in keeping with the ‘centuries-old principle’ that the ‘home is entitled to special protection.’” Slip op. at 6. Assuming without deciding that United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38 (1976), created a categorical exception that allows officers to pursue fleeing suspected felons into a home, the Court reasoned that applying such a rule to misdemeanors, which “run the gamut of seriousness” from littering to assault would be overbroad and would result in treating a “dangerous offender” and “scared teenager” the same. Slip op. at 11. Instead, the Court explained that the Fourth Amendment required that the exigencies arising from a misdemeanant’s flight be assessed on a case-by-case basis – an approach that “will in many, if not most, cases allow a warrantless home entry.” Id. The Court explained that “[w]hen the totality of the circumstances shows an emergency — such as imminent harm to others, a threat to the officer himself, destruction of evidence, or escape from the home” law enforcement officers may lawfully enter the home without a warrant. Id. The Court also cited as support the lack of a categorical rule in common law that would have permitted a warrantless home entry in every misdemeanor pursuit.

Justice Kavanaugh concurred, observing that “there is almost no daylight in practice” between the majority opinion and the concurrence of Chief Justice Roberts, in which the Chief Justice concluded that pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanant constitutes an exigent circumstance. The difference between the two approaches will, Justice Kavanaugh wrote, be academic in most cases as those cases will involve a recognized exigent circumstance such as risk of escape, destruction of evidence, or harm to others in addition to flight.

Justice Thomas concurred on the understanding that the majority’s articulation of the general case-by-case rule for evaluating exceptions to the warrant requirement did not foreclose historical categorical exceptions. He also wrote to opine that even if the state courts on remand concluded the officer’s entry was unlawful, the federal exclusionary rule did not require suppression. Justice Kavanaugh joined this portion of Justice Thomas’s concurrence.

The Chief Justice, joined by Justice Alito, concurred in the judgment. The Chief Justice criticized the majority for departing from the well-established rule that law enforcement officers may enter premises without a warrant when they are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect – regardless of what offense the suspect was suspecting of doing before he fled. He characterized the rule adopted by the Court as “famously difficult to apply.” Roberts, C.J., concurrence, slip op. at 14. The Chief Justice concurred rather than dissenting because the California Court of Appeals assumed that hot pursuit categorically permits warrantless entry. The Chief Justice would have vacated the lower court’s decision to allow consideration of whether the circumstances in this case fell within an exception to the general rule, such as a case in which a reasonable officer would not believe that the suspect fled into the home to thwart an otherwise proper arrest.

The petitioner appealed from his impaired driving conviction on the basis that the State violated the Fourth Amendment by withdrawing his blood while he was unconscious without a warrant following his arrest for impaired driving. A Wisconsin state statute permits such blood draws. The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the petitioner’s convictions, though no single opinion from that court commanded a majority, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide “[w]hether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.”  

Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Breyer and Justice Kavanaugh announced the judgment of the court and wrote the plurality opinion. The plurality noted at the outset that the Court’s opinions approving the general concept of implied consent laws did not rest on the idea that such laws create actual consent to the searches they authorize, but instead approved defining elements of such statutory schemes after evaluating constitutional claims in light of laws developed over the years to combat drunk driving. The plurality noted that the Court had previously determined that an officer may withdraw blood from an impaired driving suspect without a warrant if the facts of a particular case establish exigent circumstances. Missouri v.McNeely, 569 U.S. 141 (2013); Schmerber v. California, 384 U. S. 757, 765 (1966). While the natural dissipation of alcohol is insufficient by itself to create per se exigency in impaired driving cases, exigent circumstances may exist when that natural metabolic process is combined with other pressing police duties (such as the need to address issues resulting from a car accident) such that the further delay necessitated by a warrant application risks the destruction of evidence. The plurality reasoned that in impaired driving cases involving unconscious drivers, the need for a blood test is compelling and the officer’s duty to attend to more pressing needs involving health or safety (such as the need to transport an unconscious suspect to a hospital for treatment) may leave the officer no time to obtain a warrant. Thus, the plurality determined that when an officer has probable cause to believe a person has committed an impaired driving offense and the person’s unconsciousness or stupor requires him to be taken to the hospital before a breath test may be performed, the State may almost always order a warrantless blood test to measure the driver’s blood alcohol concentration without offending the Fourth Amendment. The plurality did not rule out that in an unusual case, a defendant could show that his or her blood would not have been withdrawn had the State not sought blood alcohol concentration information and that a warrant application would not have interfered with other pressing needs or duties. The plurality remanded the case because the petitioner had no opportunity to make such a showing.

Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment only, writing separately to advocate for overruling Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141 (2013), in favor of a rule that the dissipation of alcohol creates an exigency in every impaired driving case that excuses the need for a warrant. 

Justice Sotomayer, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, dissented, reasoning that the Court already had established that there is no categorical exigency exception for blood draws in impaired driving cases, although exigent circumstances might justify a warrantless blood draw on the facts of a particular case. The dissent noted that in light of that precedent, Wisconsin’s primary argument was always that the petitioner consented to the blood draw through the State’s implied-consent law. Certiorari review was granted on the issue of whether this law provided an exception to the warrant requirement. The dissent criticized the plurality for resting its analysis on the issue of exigency, an issue it said Wisconsin had affirmatively waived.

Justice Gorsuch dissented by separate opinion, arguing that the Court had declined to answer the question presented, instead upholding Wisconsin’s implied consent law on an entirely different ground, namely the exigent circumstances doctrine. 

The police may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. This decision involved a pair of cases in which both defendants were arrested and cell phones were seized. In both cases, officers examined electronic data on the phones without a warrant as a search incident to arrest. The Court held that “officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting such a search.” The Court noted that “the interest in protecting officer safety does not justify dispensing with the warrant requirement across the board.” In this regard it added however that “[t]o the extent dangers to arresting officers may be implicated in a particular way in a particular case, they are better addressed through consideration of case-specific exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as the one for exigent circumstances.” Next, the Court rejected the argument that preventing the destruction of evidence justified the search. It was unpersuaded by the prosecution’s argument that a different result should obtain because remote wiping and data encryption may be used to destroy digital evidence. The Court noted that “[t]o the extent that law enforcement still has specific concerns about the potential loss of evidence in a particular case, there remain more targeted ways to address those concerns. If the police are truly confronted with a ‘now or never’ situation—for example, circumstances suggesting that a defendant’s phone will be the target of an imminent remote-wipe attempt—they may be able to rely on exigent circumstances to search the phone immediately” (quotation omitted). Alternatively, the Court noted, “if officers happen to seize a phone in an unlocked state, they may be able to disable a phone’s automatic-lock feature in order to prevent the phone from locking and encrypting data.” The Court noted that such a procedure would be assessed under case law allowing reasonable steps to secure a scene to preserve evidence while procuring a warrant. Turning from an examination of the government interests at stake to the privacy issues associated with a warrantless cell phone search, the Court rejected the government’s argument that a search of all data stored on a cell phone is materially indistinguishable the other types of personal items, such as wallets and purses. The Court noted that “[m]odern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse” and that they “differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person.” It also noted the complicating factor that much of the data viewed on a cell phone is not stored on the device itself, but rather remotely through cloud computing. Concluding, the Court noted:

We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.

Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest.

(Slip Op at. p. 25). And finally, the Court noted that even though the search incident to arrest does not apply to cell phones, other exceptions may still justify a warrantless search of a particular phone, such as exigent circumstances.

The Court held that in drunk driving investigations, the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not constitute an exigency in every case sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant. After stopping the defendant’s vehicle for speeding and crossing the centerline, the officer noticed several signs that the defendant was intoxicated and the defendant acknowledged that he had consumed “a couple of beers.” When the defendant performed poorly on field sobriety tests and declined to use a portable breath-test device, the officer placed him under arrest and began driving to the stationhouse. But when the defendant said he would again refuse to provide a breath sample, the officer took him to a nearby hospital for blood testing where a blood sample was drawn. The officer did not attempt to secure a warrant. Tests results showed the defendant’s BAC above the legal limit. The defendant was charged with impaired driving and he moved to suppress the blood test. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, concluding that the exigency exception to the warrant requirement did not apply because, apart from the fact that as in all intoxication cases, the defendant’s blood alcohol was being metabolized by his liver, there were no circumstances suggesting the officer faced an emergency in which he could not practicably obtain a warrant. The state supreme court affirmed, reasoning that Schmerber v. California, 384 U. S. 757 (1966), required lower courts to consider the totality of the circumstances when determining whether exigency permits a nonconsensual, warrantless blood draw. The state court concluded that Schmerber “requires more than the mere dissipation of blood-alcohol evidence to support a warrantless blood draw in an alcohol-related case.” The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a split of authority on the question whether the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream establishes a per se exigency that suffices on its own to justify an exception to the warrant requirement for nonconsensual blood testing in drunk driving investigations. The Court affirmed. The Court began by noting that under Schmerber and the Court’s case law, applying the exigent circumstances exception requires consideration of all of the facts and circumstances of the particular case. It went on to reject the State’s request for a per se rule for blood testing in drunk driving cases, declining to “depart from careful case-by-case assessment of exigency.” It concluded: “while the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood may support a finding of exigency in a specific case, as it did in Schmerber, it does not do so categorically. Whether a warrantless blood test of a drunk-driving suspect is reasonable must be determined case by case based on the totality of the circumstances.”

Ryburn v. Huff, 565 U.S. 469 (Jan. 23, 2012)

The Court reversed a Ninth Circuit ruling that officers were not entitled to qualified immunity in a § 1983 action that arose after the officers entered a home without a warrant. When officers responded to a call from a high school, the principal informed them that a student, Vincent Huff, was rumored to have written a letter threatening to “shoot up” the school. The officers learned that Vincent had been absent two days, that he was a victim of bullying, and that a classmate believed him to be capable of carrying out the alleged threat. Officers found these facts concerning in light of training suggesting to them that these characteristics are common among perpetrators of school shootings. When the officers went to Vincent’s home and knocked at the door, no one answered. They then called the home phone and no one answered. When they called Vincent’s mother’s cell phone, she reported that she and Vincent were inside. Vincent and Mrs. Huff then came outside to talk with the officers. Mrs. Huff declined an officer’s request to continue the discussion inside. When an officer asked Mrs. Huff if there were any guns in the house, she immediately turned around and ran inside. The officers followed and eventually determined the threat to be unfounded. The Huffs filed a § 1983 action. The District Court found for the officers, concluding that they were entitled to qualified immunity because Mrs. Huff’s odd behavior, combined with the information the officers gathered at the school, could have led reasonable officers to believe that there could be weapons inside the house, and that family members or the officers themselves were in danger. A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit disagreed with the conclusion that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, determining that reasonable officers could have come to the conclusion that the Fourth Amendment permitted them to enter the residence if there was an objectively reasonable basis for fearing that violence was imminent. It further determined that a reasonable officer could have come to such a conclusion based on the facts as found by the trial court.

Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452 (May. 16, 2011)

The Court reversed and remanded a decision of the Kentucky Supreme Court and held that the exigent circumstances rule applies when police, by knocking on the door of a residence and announcing their presence, cause the occupants to attempt to destroy evidence. Police officers set up a controlled buy of crack cocaine outside an apartment complex. After an undercover officer watched the deal occur, he radioed uniformed officers to move in, telling them that the suspect was moving quickly toward the breezeway of an apartment building and urging them to hurry before the suspect entered an apartment. As the uniformed officers ran into the breezeway, they heard a door shut and detected a strong odor of burnt marijuana. At the end of the breezeway they saw two apartments, one on the left and one on the right; they did not know which apartment the suspect had entered. Because they smelled marijuana coming from the apartment on the left, they approached that door, banged on it as loudly as they could and announced their presence as the police. They heard people and things moving inside, leading them to believe that drug related evidence was about to be destroyed. The officers then announced that they were going to enter, kicked in the door, and went in. They found three people inside: the defendant, his girlfriend, and a guest who was smoking marijuana. During a protective sweep, the officers saw marijuana and powder cocaine in plain view. In a subsequent search, they found crack cocaine, cash, and drug paraphernalia. The police eventually entered the apartment on the right, where they found the suspected drug dealer who was the initial target of their investigation. On these facts, the state supreme court determined that the exigent circumstances rule did not apply because the police should have foreseen that their conduct would prompt the occupants to attempt to destroy evidence. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected this interpretation stating, “the exigent circumstances rule justifies a warrantless search when the conduct of the police preceding the exigency is reasonable.” It concluded: “Where, as here, the police did not create the exigency by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment, warrantless entry to prevent the destruction of evidence is reasonable and thus allowed.” The Court did not rule on whether exigent circumstances existed in this case.

An officer’s entry into a home without a warrant was reasonable under the emergency aid doctrine. Responding to a report of a disturbance, a couple directed officers to a house where a man was "going crazy." A pickup in the driveway had a smashed front, there were damaged fence posts along the side of the property, and the home had three broken windows, with the glass still on the ground outside. The officers saw blood on the pickup and on clothes inside the truck, as well as on one of the doors to the house. They could see the defendant screaming and throwing things inside the home. The back door was locked and a couch blocked the front door. The Court concluded that it would be objectively reasonable to believe that the defendant’s projectiles might have a human target (such as a spouse or a child), or that the defendant would hurt himself in the course of his rage.

State v. Romano, 369 N.C. 678 (June 9, 2017)

The court held, in this DWI case, that in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Birchfield v. North Dakota (search incident to arrest doctrine does not justify the warrantless taking of a blood sample; as to the argument that the blood tests at issue were justified based on the driver’s legally implied consent to submit to them, the Court concluded: “motorists cannot be deemed to have consented to submit to a blood test on pain of committing a criminal offense”), and Missouri v. McNeely (natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not constitute an exigency in every case sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant; exigency must be determined on a case-by-case basis), G.S. 20-16.2(b) (allowing blood draw from an unconscious person) was unconstitutional as applied to defendant because it permitted a warrantless search that violates the Fourth Amendment. An officer, relying on G.S. 20-16.2(b), took possession of the defendant’s blood from a treating nurse while the defendant was unconscious without first obtaining a warrant. The court rejected the State’s implied consent argument: that because the case involved an implied consent offense, by driving on the road, the defendant consented to having his blood drawn for a blood test and never withdrew this statutorily implied consent before the blood draw. It continued:

Here there is no dispute that the officer did not get a warrant and that there were no exigent circumstances. Regarding consent, the State’s argument was based solely on N.C.G.S. § 20-16.2(b) as a per se exception to the warrant requirement. To be sure, the implied-consent statute, as well as a person’s decision to drive on public roads, are factors to consider when analyzing whether a suspect has consented to a blood draw, but the statute alone does not create a per se exception to the warrant requirement. The State did not present any other evidence of consent or argue that under the totality of the circumstances defendant consented to a blood draw. Therefore, the State did not carry its burden of proving voluntary consent. As such, the trial court correctly suppressed the blood evidence and any subsequent testing of the blood that was obtained without a warrant.

State v. McCrary, 368 N.C. 571 (Dec. 18, 2015)

In a per curiam opinion, the supreme court affirmed the decision below, State v. McCrary, 237 N.C. App. 48 (2014), to the extent it affirmed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to dismiss. In this DWI case, the court of appeals had rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss, which was predicated on a flagrant violation of his constitutional rights in connection with a warrantless blood draw. Because the defendant’s motion failed to detail irreparable damage to the preparation of his case and made no such argument on appeal, the court of appeals concluded that the only appropriate action by the trial court under the circumstances was to consider suppression of the evidence as a remedy for any constitutional violation. Noting that the trial court did not have the benefit of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Missouri v. McNeely, ___ U.S. ___, 133 S. Ct. 1552 (2013), in addition to affirming that portion of the court of appeals opinion affirming the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion to dismiss, the supreme court remanded to the court of appeals “with instructions to that court to vacate the portion of the trial court’s 18 March 2013 order denying defendant’s motion to suppress and further remand to the trial court for (1) additional findings and conclusions—and, if necessary—a new hearing on whether the totality of the events underlying defendant’s motion to suppress gave rise to exigent circumstances, and (2) thereafter to reconsider, if necessary, the judgments and commitments entered by the trial court on 21 March 2013.”

State v. Grice, 367 N.C. 753 (Jan. 23, 2015)

(1) Reversing the court of appeals, the court held that officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment by seizing marijuana plants seen in plain view. After receiving a tip that the defendant was growing marijuana at a specified residence, officers went to the residence to conduct a knock and talk. Finding the front door inaccessible, covered with plastic, and obscured by furniture, the officers noticed that the driveway led to a side door, which appeared to be the main entrance. One of the officers knocked on the side door. No one answered. From the door, the officer noticed plants growing in several buckets about 15 yards away. Both officers recognized the plants as marijuana. The officers seized the plants, returned to the sheriff’s office and got a search warrant to search the home. The defendant was charged with manufacturing a controlled substance and moved to suppress evidence of the marijuana plants. The trial court denied the motion and the court of appeals reversed. The supreme court began by finding that the officers observed the plants in plain view. It went on to explain that a warrantless seizure may be justified as reasonable under the plain view doctrine if the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place from where the evidence could be plainly viewed; the evidence’s incriminating character was immediately apparent; and the officer had a lawful right of access to the object itself. Additionally, it noted, “[t]he North Carolina General Assembly has . . . required that the discovery of evidence in plain view be inadvertent.” The court noted that the sole point of contention in this case was whether the officers had a lawful right of access from the driveway 15 yards across the defendant’s property to the plants’ location. Finding against the defendant on this issue, the court stated: “Here, the knock and talk investigation constituted the initial entry onto defendant’s property which brought the officers within plain view of the marijuana plants. The presence of the clearly identifiable contraband justified walking further into the curtilage.” The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the seizure was improper because the plants were on the curtilage of his property, stating:

[W]e conclude that the unfenced portion of the property fifteen yards from the home and bordering a wood line is closer in kind to an open field than it is to the paradigmatic curtilage which protects “the privacies of life” inside the home. However, even if the property at issue can be considered the curtilage of the home for Fourth Amendment purposes, we disagree with defendant’s claim that a justified presence in one portion of the curtilage (the driveway and front porch) does not extend to justify recovery of contraband in plain view located in another portion of the curtilage (the side yard). By analogy, it is difficult to imagine what formulation of the Fourth Amendment would prohibit the officers from seizing the contraband if the plants had been growing on the porch—the paradigmatic curtilage—rather than at a distance, particularly when the officers’ initial presence on the curtilage was justified. The plants in question were situated on the periphery of the curtilage, and the protections cannot be greater than if the plants were growing on the porch itself. The officers in this case were, by the custom and tradition of our society, implicitly invited into the curtilage to approach the home. Traveling within the curtilage to seize contraband in plain view within the curtilage did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

(citation omitted). (2) The court went on to hold that the seizure also was justified by exigent circumstances, concluding: “Reviewing the record, it is objectively reasonable to conclude that someone may have been home, that the individual would have been aware of the officers’ presence, and that the individual could easily have moved or destroyed the plants if they were left on the property.”

In this Buncombe County case, defendant appealed his convictions for driving while impaired and reckless driving, arguing (1) there was insufficient evidence that he was driving the vehicle, and (2) error in denying his motion to suppress the results of a warrantless blood draw. The Court of Appeals majority found no error. 

In November of 2014, a trooper responded to a single vehicle accident and found a heavily damaged pickup truck against a steel fence off the side of the road. Defendant was inside the vehicle, unconscious and seriously injured. The trooper noticed the smell of alcohol and open beer cans in the vehicle. Defendant was the owner of the wrecked vehicle and there were no other people at the scene of the accident. At the hospital, the trooper ordered a warrantless blood draw. The results of this blood draw were that defendant was intoxicated, and these results were admitted at trial. The jury subsequently convicted defendant of drunk driving solely on the grounds that his blood alcohol level was above the legal limit under G.S. 20-138.1(a)(2).  

The Court of Appeals first considered (1), noting that admitting opinion testimony from the trooper that defendant was operating the vehicle was improper, as the trooper did not observe defendant actually drive the pickup truck. The court explained this was not reversible error because the trial court provided a curative instruction to the jury, directing them to disregard the trooper’s testimony that defendant was the driver. The court found that sufficient evidence beyond the trooper’s testimony supported finding that defendant was the driver, justifying denial of defendant’s motion to dismiss. 

Considering (2), the court explained that exigent circumstances supporting a warrantless blood draw almost always exist where a defendant is unconscious and being taken to a hospital. In Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 139 S. Ct. 2525 (2019), the Supreme Court’s plurality held that normally law enforcement may order a warrantless blood draw when the suspect is unconscious and taken to a hospital for treatment, but that the defendant must have an opportunity to argue the lack of exigency and show an “unusual case” that would require a warrant. Slip Op. at 8. Here, the court found that defendant had such an opportunity, and found no error in admitting the results of the blood draw. 

Judge Tyson concurred in the judgment on (1), but dissented by separate opinion regarding (2), disagreeing with the majority’s application of Mitchell and the admission of the results obtained through the warrantless blood draw. 

In this Edgecombe County case, defendant appealed his convictions for second-degree murder and aggravated serious injury by vehicle, arguing error in the denial of his motion to suppress a warrantless blood draw and motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence. The Court of Appeals found no error and affirmed. 

In June of 2015, defendant crossed the centerline of a highway and hit another vehicle head on, causing the death of one passenger. Officers responding to the scene interviewed defendant, and noted his responses seemed impaired and the presence of beer cans in his vehicle. A blood draw was performed at the hospital, although the officer ordering the draw did not read defendant his Chapter 20 implied consent rights or obtain a search warrant before the draw. The results of defendant’s blood draw showed a benzodiazepine, a cocaine metabolite, two anti-depressants, an aerosol propellant, and a blood-alcohol level of 0.02.  

Reviewing defendant’s argument that no exigent circumstances supported the warrantless draw of his blood, the Court of Appeals first noted that defense counsel failed to object to the admission of the drug analysis performed on defendant’s blood, meaning his arguments regarding that exhibit were overruled. The court then turned to the exigent circumstances exception to justify the warrantless search, noting that the investigation of the scene took significant time and defendant was not taken to the hospital until an hour and forty-five minutes afterwards. Acknowledging Supreme Court precedent “that the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream cannot, standing alone, create an exigency in a case of alleged impaired driving sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant,” the court looked for additional justification in the current case. Slip Op. at 11. Here the court found such justification in the shift change occurring that would prevent the officer from having assistance, and the delay in going to obtain a warrant from the magistrate’s office that would add an additional hour to the process. These circumstances supported the trial court’s finding of exigent circumstances. 

The court then turned to defendant’s argument that insufficient evidence was admitted to establish he was impaired at the time of the accident. The record contained evidence that defendant had beer cans in his truck along with an aerosol can of Ultra Duster, and several witnesses testified as to defendant’s demeanor and speech after the accident. The record also contained a blood analysis showing defendant had five separate impairing substances in his system at the time of the accident, “alcohol, benzyl ethylene (a cocaine metabolite), Diazepam (a benzodiazepine such as Valium), Citalopram (an anti-depressant) and Sertraline (another anti-depressant called “Zoloft”).” Id. at 16. The court found that based on this evidence there was sufficient support for denying defendant’s motion.

State v. Jordan, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2022 NCCOA 215 (Apr. 5, 2022) temp. stay granted, ___ N.C. ___, 871 S.E.2d 101 (Apr 21 2022)

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police received a report of a stolen car and information about its possible location. Officers went to the location, which was part residence and part commercial establishment. A car matching the description of the stolen vehicle was in the back parking lot. As police watched, a man came out of the building and approached the car as if to enter it. He noticed the unmarked police car and immediately returned to the building, alerting the occupants to the presence of police. Police pulled into the driveway intending to detain the man. The defendant opened the door of the building from inside and the man who had approached the stolen car went inside, although the door was left open. An officer approached and asked the man to come out and speak with police before immediately stepping into the building through the open door. That officer noticed a safe next to the defendant and saw the defendant close the safe, lock it, and place the key in his pocket. More officers arrived on scene and noticed drug paraphernalia in plain view. Officers swept the house and discovered a gun in a bedroom. At this point, officers established that a man inside either owned or leased the building and requested his consent to search. The man initially refused but assented when officers threatened to place everyone in handcuffs and to obtain a search warrant. The defendant informed officers that anything they found in the home was not his and that he did not live there. He denied owning the safe, but a woman who was present at the time later informed officers that the safe belonged to the defendant. Officers obtained a search warrant for the safe and discovered money, drugs, paraphernalia, and a gun inside. The defendant was subsequently charged with trafficking, firearm by felon, habitual felon, and other offenses. He moved to suppress. The trial court denied the motion, apparently on the basis that the defendant lacked standing (although because no written order was entered, the findings and conclusions of the trial court were not easily determined). The defendant was convicted at trial of the underlying offenses and pled guilty to having obtained habitual felon status. The trial court imposed a minimum term of 225 months in consecutive judgments. On appeal, a unanimous panel of the Court of Appeals reversed.

(1) The defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the building. He opened the door when it was knocked and was one of only four people inside the home at a late hour. The defendant further had apparent permission to keep the safe inside and clearly had an interest in it as the person with its key and the ability to exclude others. While the defendant did not own or lease the property, this was not enough to defeat his expectation of privacy. The defendant also disclaimed ownership of the safe to police, and the State argued that this amounted to abandonment, defeating any privacy interest in the safe. The court disagreed, noting that the defendant only made that remark after the police illegally entered the home and that abandonment does not apply in such a situation. In its words: “[W]hen an individual ‘discards property as the product of some illegal police activity, he will not be held to have voluntarily abandoned the property or to have necessarily lost his reasonable expectation of
privacy with respect to it[.]’” Jordan Slip op. at 14 (citation omitted). Thus, the defendant had standing to challenge the police entry and search.

(2) The trial court determined that officers had reasonable suspicion to speak with the man who was seen approaching the stolen car. However, this did not justify warrantless entry into the home. The State argued that the entry was supported by exigent circumstances, in that the keys to the stolen car and the drug paraphernalia seen inside the building could have been easily destroyed. However, there was no evidence that the first officer who approached the home saw any drug paraphernalia at the time and the officer therefore could not have had a legitimate concern about its destruction. There was likewise no explanation from the State regarding the need for immediate warrantless entry to preserve the car keys evidence. Because officers had already seen the man approach the car with the keys and because possession of a stolen car may be established by constructive possession, there was no immediate need to obtain the car keys. Further, there was no immediate risk of destruction of evidence where the occupants of the home left the door open, and an officer entered the home within “moments” of arrival. Exigent circumstances therefore did not support the warrantless entry.

(3) The State also argued that the person with a property interest in the building gave valid consent, and that this consent removed any taint of the initial illegal entry. Illegally obtained evidence may be admissible where the link between the illegal police activity and the discovery of evidence is sufficiently attenuated. Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590, 603-04 (1975). Here, the taint of the illegal entry had not dissipated. Officers obtained consent soon after entering the home, no intervening circumstances arose between the entry and the obtaining of consent, and officers purposefully and flagrantly entered the building without a warrant or probable cause. Any consent was therefore tainted by the initial police illegality and could not justify the search.

(4) Although police did ultimately obtain a search warrant for the safe, the information contained in the search warrant application was based on information obtained by police after they were inside the building. There was no evidence that officers saw any drugs prior to entry, so any evidence obtained as a result was the fruit of the poisonous tree. Without the drugs evidence, the stolen car in the parking lot, the man walking up to the stolen car, and his abrupt return from the car to the building did not supply probable cause to search the building or safe. According to the court:

Because the affidavit supporting the issuance of the search warrant, stripped of the facts obtained by the officers’ unlawful entry into the residence, does not give rise to probable cause to search the residence for the evidence of drugs and drug paraphernalia described in the warrant, ‘the warrant and the search conducted under it were illegal and the evidence obtained from them was fruit of the poisonous tree.’ Id. at 24.

The denial of the motion to suppress was therefore reversed and the case was remanded for any further proceedings.

State v. Bucklew, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-659 (Dec. 7, 2021) temp. stay granted, 380 N.C. 288, 866 S.E.2d 900 (Jan 12 2022)

In this Martin County case, the defendant was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, felony serious injury by vehicle and driving while impaired for his driving of a vehicle after consuming prescription medications, crossing into oncoming traffic, hitting two other vehicles, and seriously injuring another driver.

(1) The defendant, who was seriously injured in the crash and was taken to the hospital, had a “few coherent moments” in which he agreed to allow his blood to be withdrawn and analyzed for evidence of impairment. The defendant subsequently moved to suppress evidence of the blood analysis on the basis that there was not probable cause to believe he was driving while impaired, the blood was withdrawn without a warrant, and there were no exigent circumstances. The trial court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals found no error. The Court first determined that the following evidence established probable cause: (a) a witness called 911 to report erratic driving by the defendant before the defendant crashed his vehicle into two other vehicles; (b) there were no skid marks at the scene to indicate that the defendant attempted to stop his vehicle; (c) the defendant admitted to taking oxycodone, valium, and morphine earlier in the day; and (d) after the crash, the defendant was lethargic, had slurred speech, droopy eyelids, and a blank stare. The Court then concluded that exigent circumstances existed as the officer did not have time to obtain a search warrant given the extent of the defendant’s injuries; indeed, the hospital postponed administering necessary pain medication to the defendant until after the State withdrew his blood. After the blood draw, the defendant was air-lifted to another hospital for a higher level of care.

(2) The defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to take judicial notice of the National Weather Station’s weather conditions (the “Weather Report”) on the date of the collision. The Court of Appeals disagreed, reasoning that the Weather Report was not a document of indisputable accuracy for purposes of Rule 201(b) of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence because it did not state the level of rain that was occurring at the time of the crash. Thus, the Court of Appeals reasoned, the trial court was not required to take judicial notice of the report under Rule 201(d), but was free to use its discretion pursuant to Rule 201(c). And, the Court of Appeals concluded, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by declining to take judicial notice of the Weather Report.

(3), (4) The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred in admitting testimony from an analyst regarding the analysis of defendant’s blood, the analyst’s report, and the accompanying chain of custody report. The Court of Appeals found no error. The Court determined that the analyst’s testimony and his report were admissible because, even though the analyst relied on data collected by and tests performed by others, the analyst himself analyzed and reviewed the data, forming his own independent expert opinion and writing his own report. The Court further held that the trial court did not err by admitting the chain of custody report because the State established an adequate chain of custody through testimony of the law enforcement officer who submitted the blood and the analyst who prepared the report.

(5) The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not err in denying defendant’s motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence. Defendant’s erratic driving, the severity of the crash, his admission to taking medications, his impaired behavior, and the results of the analysis of defendant’s blood provided substantial evidence of impaired driving. Defendant’s driving in an erratic and reckless manner while impaired and crashing into another vehicle without appearing to have braked, seriously injuring the other driver provided substantial evidence of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury. Finally, the serious injury to the other driver caused by defendant’s impaired driving provided substantial evidence of felony serious injury by vehicle.

Judge Dietz concurred in the judgment, writing separately to state that he would have resolved the suppression issue solely based on the evidence of impairment establishing probable cause and the exigency resulting from the need to draw blood before medical professionals administered additional medications.

In this impaired driving case the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress where exigent circumstances supported a warrantless blood draw. The defendant tested at .10 on a roadside test, was arrested at 2:48 AM and then was transported to the police department, where he arrived 18 minutes later. When the defendant refused to comply with further testing within 2 to 3 minutes after arriving at the police department, the detective decided to compel a blood test. The closest hospital was approximately 4 miles away from the police department and 8 miles from the magistrate’s office. The detective read the defendant his rights regarding the blood draw at the hospital at 3:24 AM and waited for the defendant to finish making a phone call before starting the blood draw at 3:55 AM. The detective testified that based on the information he had at the time, he thought the defendant was close to a blood alcohol level of .08. The detective further indicated that he thought it would have taken an additional hour to an hour and half to get a search warrant. The detective was the only officer on the scene and would have had to wait for another officer to arrive before he could travel to the magistrate to get the search warrant. The trial court’s finding regarding the detective’s reasonable belief that the delay would result in the dissipation of alcohol in the defendant’s blood was supported by competent evidence. Thus, the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress the blood draw.

Exigent circumstances justified the officers’ warrantless entry into the defendant’s home to arrest him. It was undisputed that the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant for driving while license revoked. They pulled into the defendant’s driveway behind him and activated blue lights as the defendant was exiting his vehicle and making his way toward his front door. The defendant did not stop for the blue lights and continued hurriedly towards the front door after the officers told him to stop. “At that point,” the court explained, “the officers had probable cause to arrest defendant for resisting a public officer and began a ‘hot pursuit’ of defendant.” The officers arrived at the front door just as the defendant was making his way across the threshold and were able to prevent him from closing the door. The officers then forced the front door open and detained and arrested the defendant just inside the door. The court held that the warrantless entry and arrest was proper under United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38 (1976). It explained: Hot pursuit been recognized as an exigent circumstance sufficient to justify a warrantless entry into a residence where there is probable cause, without consideration of immediate danger or destruction of evidence.

In this drug case, the trial court properly denied a motion to suppress where no illegal seizure of the defendant occurred during a knock and talk and where exigent circumstances justified the officers’ warrantless entry into the defendant’s home. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he was illegally seized during a knock and talk because he was coerced into opening the front door. The officers knocked on the front door a few times and stated that they were with the police only once during the 2-3 minutes it took the defendant to answer the door. There was no evidence that the defendant was aware of the officer’s presence before he opened the door. Blue lights from nearby police cars were not visible to the defendant and no takedown lights were used. The officers did not try to open the door themselves or demand that it be opened. The court concluded: “the officers did not act in a physically or verbally threatening manner” and no seizure of defendant occurred during the knock and talk. (2) Exigent circumstances supported the officers’ warrantless entry into the defendant’s home (the defendant did not challenge the existence of probable cause). Officers arrived at the defendant’s residence because of an informant’s tip that armed suspects were going to rob a marijuana plantation located inside the house. When the officers arrived for the knock and talk, they did not know whether the robbery had occurred, was in progress, or was imminent. As soon as the defendant open his door, an officer smelled a strong odor of marijuana. Based on that odor and the defendant’s inability to understand English, the officer entered the defendant’s home and secured it in preparation for obtaining a search warrant. On these facts, the trial court did not err in concluding that exigent circumstances warranted a protective sweep for officer safety and to ensure the defendant or others would not destroy evidence.

State v. Romano, 247 N.C. App. 212 (Apr. 19, 2016) aff’d, 369 N.C. 678 (Jun 9 2017)

In this DWI case, the court held that the trial court did not err by suppressing blood draw evidence that an officer collected from a nurse who was treating the defendant. The trial court had found that no exigency existed justifying the warrantless search and that G.S. 20-16.2, as applied in this case, violated Missouri v. McNeely. The court noted that in McNeely, the US Supreme Court held “the natural metabolization of alcohol in the bloodstream” does not present a “per se exigency that justifies an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement for nonconsensual blood testing in all drunk-driving cases.” Rather, it held that exigency must be determined based on the totality of the circumstances. Here, the officer never advised the defendant of his rights according to G.S. 20-16.2 and did not obtain his written or oral consent to the blood test. Rather, she waited until an excess of blood was drawn, beyond the amount needed for medical treatment, and procured it from the attending nurse. The officer testified that she believed her actions were reasonable under G.S. 20-16.2(b), which allows the testing of an unconscious person, in certain circumstances. Noting that it had affirmed the use of the statute to justify warrantless blood draws of unconscious DWI defendants, the court further noted that all of those decisions were decided before McNeely. Here, under the totality of the circumstances and considering the alleged exigencies, the warrantless blood draw was not objectively reasonable. The court rejected the State’s argument that the blood should be admitted under the independent source doctrine, noting that the evidence was never obtained independently from lawful activities untainted by the initial illegality. It likewise rejected the State’s argument that the blood should be admitted under the good faith exception. That exception allows officers to objectively and reasonably rely on a warrant later found to be invalid. Here, however, the officers never obtained a search warrant.

In this drug case, the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of a warrantless search of her residence. According to the court: “The trial court’s findings that the officers observed a broken window, that the front door was unlocked, and that no one responded when the officers knocked on the door are insufficient to show that they had an objectively reasonable belief that a breaking and entering had recently taken place or was still in progress, such that there existed an urgent need to enter the property” and that the search was justified under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. It continued:

In this case, the only circumstances justifying the officers’ entry into defendant’s residence were a broken window, an unlocked door, and the lack of response to the officers’ knock at the door. We hold that although these findings may be sufficient to give the officers a reasonable belief that an illegal entry had occurred at some point, they are insufficient to give the officers an objectively reasonable belief that a breaking and entering was in progress or had occurred recently.

In this DWI case, the court held that under Missouri v. McNeely (the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not constitute an exigency in every case sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant), exigent circumstances justified the warrantless blood draw. The officer was concerned about the dissipation of alcohol from the defendant’s blood because it took over an hour for the officer to establish probable cause to make his request for the defendant’s blood. The delay occurred because the defendant’s injuries and need for medical care prevented the officer from investigating the matter until he arrived at the hospital, where the defendant was taken after his accident. The officer was concerned about the delay in getting a warrant (about 40 minutes), including the need to wait for another officer to come to the hospital and stay with the defendant while he left to get the warrant. Additionally, the officer was concerned that if he waited for a warrant, the defendant would receive pain medication for his injuries, contaminating his blood sample.

In this DWI case, the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained from blood samples taken at a hospital without a search warrant where probable cause and exigent circumstances supported the warrantless blood draw. Noting the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Missouri v. McNeely (the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not constitute an exigency in every case sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant), the court found that the totality of the circumstances supported the warrantless blood draw. Specifically, when the defendant pulled up to a checkpoint, an officer noticed the odor of alcohol and the defendant admitted to drinking five beers. After the defendant failed field sobriety tests, he refused to take an intoxilyzer test. The officer then took the defendant to the hospital to have a blood sample taken without first obtaining a search warrant. The officer did this because it would have taken 4-5 hours to get the sample if he first had to travel to a magistrate for a warrant. The court noted however that the “’video transmission’ option that has been allowed by G.S. 15A-245(a)(3) [for communicating with a magistrate] . . . is a method that should be considered by arresting officers in cases such as this where the technology is available.” It also advised: “[W]e believe the better practice in such cases might be for an arresting officer, where practical, to call the hospital and the [magistrate’s office] to obtain information regarding the wait times on that specific night, rather than relying on previous experiences.”

State v. Miller, 228 N.C. App. 496 (Aug. 6, 2013) rev’d on other grounds, 367 N.C. 702 (Jan 1 2014)

Exigent circumstances—investigation of a possible burglary—supported officers’ warrantless entry into the defendant’s home. The police department received a burglar alarm report concerning a suspected breaking and entering at the defendant’s home. The first arriving officer noticed a broken back window and that all of the doors remained locked. Under these circumstances, the officer reasonably believed that the intruder could have still been in the home.

Probable cause and exigent circumstances supported an officer’s warrantless search of the defendant’s mouth by grabbing him around the throat, pushing him onto the hood of a vehicle, and demanding that he spit out whatever he was trying to swallow. Probable cause to believe that the defendant possessed illegal drugs and was attempting to destroy them was supported by information from three reliable informants, the fact that the defendant’s vehicle was covered in talcum powder, which is used to mask the odor of drugs, while conducting a consent search of the defendant’s person, the defendant attempted to swallow something, and that other suspects had attempted to swallow drugs in the officer’s presence. Exigent circumstances existed because the defendant attempted to swallow four packages of cocaine, which could have endangered his health.

Exigent circumstances existed for an officer to make a warrantless entry into the defendant’s home to ascertain whether someone inside was in need of immediate assistance or under threat of serious injury. The officer was summoned after motorists discovered a young, naked, unattended toddler on the side of a major highway. The officer was able to determine that the child was the defendant’s son with reasonable certainty and that the defendant resided at the premises in question. When the officer knocked and banged on front door, he received no response. The officer found the back door ajar. It would have taken the officer approximately two hours to get a search warrant for the premises.

G.S. 20-139.1(d1) (providing that in order to proceed with a non-consensual blood test without a warrant, there must be probable cause and the officer must have a reasonable belief that a delay in testing would result in dissipation of the person’s blood alcohol content), codifies exigent circumstances with respect to impaired driving and is constitutional. Competent evidence supported the trial court’s conclusions that the officer had a reasonable belief that a delay in testing would result in dissipation of the defendant’s blood alcohol content and that exigent circumstances existed; the facts showed, in part, that obtaining a warrant to procure the blood would have caused a two to three hour delay.

Exigent circumstances justified officers’ entry into a home. The officers were told by an informant told that she bought marijuana at the house. When they approached for a knock and talk, they detected a strong odor of marijuana, and saw the defendant with his upper body partially out of a window. The possible flight by the defendant and concern with destruction of evidence given the smell provided exigent circumstances.

Exigent circumstances supported officers’ warrantless entry into a mobile home to arrest the defendant pursuant to an outstanding warrant. The officers knew that the defendant previously absconded from a probation violation hearing and thus was a flight risk, that defendant had previously engaged in violent behavior and was normally armed, and when they announced their presence, they watched, through a window, as the defendant disappeared from view. The officers reasonably believed that the defendant was attempting to escape and presented a danger to the officers and others in the home.

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