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
State v. Smith, 371 N.C. 469 (Sept. 21, 2018)

In a per curiam opinion in this felon in possession of a firearm case, the court reversed the Court of Appeals for reasons stated in the dissenting opinion below, thus holding that the shotgun could be seized as conrtaband in plain view.

In the opinion below, ___ N.C. App. ___, 804 S.E.2d 235 (2017), the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. Three officers entered the defendant’s apartment to execute arrest warrants issued for misdemeanors. While two officers made the in-home arrest, the third conducted a protective sweep of the defendant’s apartment, leading to the discovery and seizure of the stolen shotgun. The shotgun was leaning against the wall in the entry of the defendant’s bedroom. The bedroom door was open and the shotgun was visible, in plain view, from the hallway. The officer walked past the shotgun when checking the defendant’s bedroom to confirm that no other occupants were present. After completing the sweep, the officer secured the shotgun “to have it in . . . control and also check to see if it was stolen.” The officer located the serial number on the shotgun and called it into the police department, which reported that the gun was stolen. The officer then seized the weapon. The defendant moved to suppress the shotgun, arguing that the officer lacked authority to conduct a protective sweep and that the seizure could not be justified under the plain view doctrine. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress. The Court of Appeals began by finding that the protective sweep was proper, and there was no dissent on this issue. It held that the officer was authorized to conduct a protective sweep, without reasonable suspicion, because the rooms in the apartment—including the bedroom where the shotgun was found--were areas immediately adjoining the place of arrest from which an attack could be immediately launched. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the bedroom area was not immediately adjoining the place of arrest. The defendant was in the living room when the officers placed him in handcuffs. The third officer immediately conducted the protective sweep of the remaining rooms for the sole purpose of determining whether any occupants were present who could launch an attack on the officers. Every room in the apartment was connected by a short hallway and the apartment was small enough that a person hiding in any area outside of the living room could have rushed into that room without warning. Based on the size and layout of the apartment, the trial court properly concluded that all of the rooms, including the bedroom where the shotgun was found, were part of the space immediately adjoining the place of arrest and from which an attack could have been immediately launched.

The Court of Appeals went on to hold however, over a dissent, that the plain view doctrine could not justify seizure of the shotgun. The defendant argued that the seizure could not be justified under the plain view doctrine because the incriminating nature of the shotgun was not immediately apparent. He also argued that the officer conducted an unlawful search, without probable cause, by manipulating the shotgun to reveal its serial number. The court concluded that observing the shotgun in plain view did not provide the officer with authority to seize the weapon permanently where the State’s evidence failed to establish that, based on the objective facts known to him at the time, the officer had probable cause to believe that the weapon was contraband or evidence of a crime. The officers were executing arrest warrants for misdemeanor offenses and were not aware that the defendant was a convicted felon. Before the seizure, the officer asked the other officers in the apartment if the defendant was a convicted felon, which they could not confirm. The court went on to find that the incriminating character of the shotgun became apparent only upon some further action by the officers, here, exposing its serial number and calling that number into the police department. Such action constitutes a search, separate and apart from the lawful objective of the entry. The search cannot be justified under the plain view doctrine because the shotgun’s incriminating nature was not immediately apparent. There was no evidence to indicate that the officer had probable cause to believe that the shotgun was stolen. It was only after the unlawful search that he had reason to believe it was evidence of a crime. The dissent--which was adopted by the supreme court--concluded that regardless of whether the officer knew that defendant was a felon or knew that the shotgun was stolen, it was immediately apparent that the shotgun was contraband. One of the regular conditions of the defendant’s probation was that he possess no firearms. Thus, the dissenting judge concluded, under the regular terms and conditions of probation, the shotgun was contraband. The dissenting judge continued: “Given that the officers were serving a warrant for a probation violation, it was immediately apparent that the shotgun was contraband.”

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.”

The court remanded for findings of fact as to the third element of the plain view analysis. Investigating the defendant’s involvement in the theft of copper coils, an officer walked onto the defendant’s mobile home porch and knocked on the door. From the porch, the officer saw the coils in an open trailer parked at the home. The officer then seized the coils. The court noted that under the plain view doctrine, a warrantless seizure is lawful if the officer views the evidence from a place where he or she has legal right to be; it is immediately apparent that the items observed constitute evidence of a crime, are contraband, or are subject to seizure based upon probable cause; and the officer has a lawful right of access to the evidence itself. The court found that the officer viewed the coils from the porch, a location where he had a legal right to be. In the course of its ruling, the court clarified that inadvertence is not a necessary condition of a lawful search pursuant to the plain view doctrine. Next, noting in part that the coils matched the description of goods the officer knew to be stolen, the court concluded that the trial court’s factual findings supported its conclusion that it was immediately apparent to the officer that the coils were evidence of a crime. On the third element of the test however—whether the officer had a lawful right of access to the evidence—the trial court did not make the necessary findings. Specifically, the court noted:

Here, the trial court failed to make any findings regarding whether the officer[] had legal right of access to the coils in the trailer. The trial court did not address whether the trailer was located on private property leased by defendant, private property owned by the mobile home park, or public property. It also did not make any findings regarding whether, assuming that the trailer was located on private property, the officer[] had legal right of access either by consent or due to exigent circumstances.

In a drug case, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress when an officer saw the item in question—a bong—in plain view while standing on the defendant’s front porch and looking through the open front door. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the officer had no right to be on the porch. The officer responded to a call regarding a dog shooting, the defendant confirmed that his dog was shot by a neighbor, and the officer went to the defendant's residence to investigate. Once there he encountered a witness from whom he sought to obtain identification as he followed her to the porch.

State v. Carter, 200 N.C. App. 47 (Sept. 15, 2009)

Holding that the plain view exception to the warrantless arrest rule did not apply. When the officer approached the defendant’s vehicle from the passenger side to ask about an old and worn temporary tag, he inadvertently noticed several whole papers in plain view on the passenger seat. The officer then returned to his cruiser to call for backup. When the officer came back to the defendant’s vehicle to arrest the defendant, the previously intact papers had been torn to pieces. Under the plain view doctrine, police may seize contraband or evidence if (1) the officer was in a place where the officer had a right to be when the evidence was discovered; (2) the evidence was discovered inadvertently; and (3) it was immediately apparent to the police that the items observed were evidence of a crime or contraband. The court found that the first two prongs of the test were satisfied but that the third prong was not. It concluded that the officer’s suspicion that the defendant was trying to conceal information on the papers was not sufficient to bypass the warrant requirement.

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