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 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.”

In this Vance County case, the state appealed from an order granting defendant’s motion to suppress evidence seized from his person and inside a house. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the matter to the trial court. 

While attempting to arrest defendant for an outstanding warrant, officers of the Henderson Police Department noticed the odor of marijuana coming from inside the house where defendant and others were located. All of the individuals were known to be members of a criminal gang. After frisking defendant, an officer noticed baggies of heroin in his open coat pocket. The officers also performed a protective sweep of the residence, observing digital scales and other drug paraphernalia inside. After a search of defendant due to the baggies observed in plain view during the frisk, officers found heroin and marijuana on his person, along with almost $2,000 in fives, tens and twenties. After receiving a search warrant for the house, the officers found heroin, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, and firearms inside. Defendant was indicted on drug possession, criminal enterprise, and possession of firearm by a felon charges. Before trial, the trial court granted defendant’s motion to suppress, finding that there was no probable cause to detain defendant or to enter the residence. 

The Court of Appeals first established the basis for detaining and frisking defendant, explaining that officers had a “reasonable suspicion” for frisking defendant under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), as they had a valid arrest warrant for defendant for a crime involving a weapon, knew he was a member of a gang, and saw another individual leave the house wearing a ballistic vest. Slip Op. at 14. Applying the “plain view” doctrine as articulated in State v. Tripp, 381 N.C. 617 (2022), and State v. Grice, 367 N.C. 753 (2015), the court found that the search was constitutional and the arresting officer’s eventual seizure of the “plastic baggies he inadvertently and ‘plainly viewed’” was lawful. Slip Op. at 16. 

The court then turned to the trial court’s ruling that the warrantless entry of officers into the house to conduct a protective sweep was unlawful. Noting applicable precedent, the court explained “[t]he Supreme Court of the United States, the Supreme Court of North Carolina, and this Court have all recognized and affirmed a law enforcement officer’s ability to conduct a protective sweep both as an exigent circumstance and for officer’s safety when incident to arrest.” Id. at 16-17. The court found that the officers had both justifications here, as defendant was a member of a gang and known for violence involving weapons, and the officers were unsure whether any other people remained inside the house. 

Finally, the court examined the probable cause supporting the search warrant for the house. Defendant argued that the smell of marijuana could not support probable cause due to it being indistinguishable from industrial hemp. Looking to applicable precedent such as State v. Teague, 2022-NCCOA-600, ¶ 58 (2022), the court noted that the Industrial Hemp Act did not modify the state’s burden of proof, but also noted that like in Teague, the smell of marijuana was not the only basis for probable cause in this case. Slip Op. at 25. Here the court found the drugs in defendant’s pocket and the drug paraphernalia observed during the protective sweep also supported probable cause. 

State v. Dial, 228 N.C. App. 83 (June 18, 2013)

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence discovered as a result of a protective sweep of his residence where the officers had a reasonable belief based on specific and articulable facts that the residence harbored an individual who posed a danger to the officers’ safety. Officers were at the defendant’s residence to serve an order for arrest. Although the defendant previously had answered his door promptly, this time he did not respond after an officer knocked and announced his presence for 10-15 minutes. The officer heard shuffling on the other side of the front door. When two other officers arrived, the first officer briefed them on the situation, showed them the order for arrest, and explained his belief that weapons were inside. When the deputies again approached the residence, “the front door flew open,” the defendant exited and walked down the front steps with his hands raised, failing to comply with the officers’ instructions. As soon as the first officer reached the defendant, the other officers entered the home and performed a protective sweep, lasting about 30 seconds. Evidence supporting the protective sweep included that the officers viewed the open door to the residence as a “fatal funnel” that could provide someone inside with a clear shot at the officers, the defendant’s unusually long response time and resistance, the known potential threat of weapons inside the residence, shuffling noises that could have indicated more than one person inside the residence, the defendant’s alarming exit from the residence, and the defendant’s own actions that led him to be arrested in the open doorway.

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