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., 10/21/2021
E.g., 10/21/2021

The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress heroin discovered following a search of the defendant during a traffic stop. A tactical narcotics officer noticed a Lincoln sedan weaving in and out of heavy traffic at high speeds, nearly causing multiple collisions. The vehicle pulled into a Sonic Drive-In parking lot next to an unoccupied Honda. The defendant, a passenger in the Lincoln, exited the vehicle, approached the Honda, and placed his hand inside the passenger window of that vehicle. The driver of the Honda appeared and spoke with the defendant briefly. The defendant then returned to the Lincoln and the vehicle drove away. No one in the Lincoln had ordered any food. Based on his experience, the officer concluded that the defendant had participated in a drug transaction. Other officers then saw the Lincoln go to a gas station. A second officer radioed that the vehicle continued to be driven in a careless and reckless manner, at approximately 15 miles per hour over the speed limit. After the vehicle left the gas station, the first officer stopped it for reckless driving and speeding. Four other officers participated in the stop; all five officers were in uniform. The first officer approached the passenger side of the vehicle, while two others approached the driver’s side. The officer approaching the passenger side saw the defendant reach toward the floorboard. Because he did not know whether the defendant had a weapon or was trying to conceal contraband, the officer asked the defendant to show his hands. The defendant raised his hands, which were daubed in a light pink substance that the defendant stated was fabric softener. The officer ordered the defendant out of the vehicle and asked whether he was attempting to conceal something. The defendant denied doing so. The officer testified that when he asked for the defendant’s consent to search his person the defendant gave consent saying, “go ahead.” The defendant testified that he never consented to a search. When the officer proceeded to pat down the defendant he noticed a larger than normal bulge near the groin area that was not consistent with “male parts.” The officer then detained the defendant in handcuffs, believing that he had contraband on his person. The officer asked the defendant if he had anything inside of his underwear and the defendant said that he did. The officer asked the defendant if he would retrieve the item and the defendant said he would. The officer removed the handcuffs, the defendant reached into his pants and produced a plastic bag containing heroin. He was then placed under arrest.

                  The court first found that the defendant consented to the search, rejecting the defendant’s argument that his consent was not voluntary given the coercive environment fostered by the police. The defendant argued that his race is highly relevant to the determination of whether he voluntarily consented to the search because people of color will view a “request” to search by the police as an inherently coercive command, and he cited various studies in support of this claim. The court agreed that the defendant’s race may be a relevant factor in considering whether consent was voluntary. However, aside from the studies presented by the defendant, the record is devoid of any indication that the defendant’s consent in this case was involuntary. To the contrary, the circumstances show that the defendant’s consent was freely and intelligently made. Although multiple officers were present, only the first officer interacted with the defendant. When the officer approached the vehicle he asked the defendant whether he had anything illegal and the defendant said that he did not. The officer then asked if he could search the defendant’s person, to which the defendant responded “go ahead.” No other conversation occurred. There is no evidence that the defendant was unaware of his ability to refuse the request or that he feared retribution had he done so. There is no indication that the officer made threats, used harsh language, or raised his voice. There is no evidence of any physical contact with the defendant. Additionally, the officers’ firearms remain holstered throughout the encounter.

                  The court next rejected the defendant’s argument that the scope of his consent to search his person did not include a frisk of his private parts, and lacking probable cause or exigent circumstances to justify such a search, the pat down of his groin area was unconstitutional. The court concluded that because the defendant’s consent encompassed the sort of limited frisk that was performed, neither probable cause nor exigency was required to justify the search. The pat down of the defendant’s groin area was within the bounds of what a reasonable person would have expected the search to include. The officer limited his pat down to the outer layer of the defendant’s clothing. He did not reach into the defendant’s pants to search his undergarments or directly touch his groin area. Nothing about the search involved the exposure of the defendant’s privates to the officer or to the public. And there is no evidence that the groin pat down was conducted in an unreasonably offensive manner. Thus, the court concluded that a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have understood his consent to include the sort of limited outer pat down that was performed here.

                  Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the officer’s continued detention of him after searching his groin area was not justified by the plain feel doctrine. During the pat down the officer felt a bulge that he determined was not consistent with male body parts and was obviously contraband. When coupled with the totality of the circumstances already observed by the officer, this discovery amounted to reasonable suspicion justifying further detention of the defendant to question him about the contents of his clothing.

Seizure of cocaine was justified under the “plain feel” doctrine. While searching the defendant the officer “felt a large bulge” in his pocket and immediately knew based on its packing that it was narcotics.

The evidence supported the trial court’s finding that based on an officer’s training and experience, he immediately formed the opinion that a bulge in the defendant’s pants contained a controlled substance when conducting a pat down. The officer was present at the location to execute a search warrant in connection with drug offenses.

Remanding for a determination of whether the officer had probable cause to seize a crack cocaine cookie during a frisk, where the trial court improperly applied a standard of reasonable suspicion to the plain feel doctrine.

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