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., 10/18/2021
E.g., 10/18/2021

This Carteret County drug case involved a challenge to a search warrant for the defendant’s home. A detective observed what he believed to be a drug transaction occur in a parking lot between a Jeep and another car. He knew the occupants of the Jeep and their address. The detective also knew that they had previously been involved in illegal drug sales. Both cars were followed by police. The car was stopped for traffic violations, and the woman inside ultimately admitted to having purchased heroin in the parking lot from one of the people inside the Jeep. The Jeep was separately followed to the occupants’ residence. Officers obtained a warrant to search the house, and the defendant (who lived at the house, but was not one of the occupants of the Jeep) was charged with trafficking in cocaine. His motion to suppress was denied and he pled guilty, reserving his right to appeal the denial of the motion. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed (here) [Jeff Welty blogged about that decision, here]. Judge Zachary dissented and would have found that the warrant application failed to establish a nexus to the home, comparing the facts to those of State v. Campbell, 282 N.C .125 (1972) (conclusory allegations of drug dealing without underlying facts tying the home to criminal activity were insufficient to establish nexus to search residence). The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed.

The court agreed that a search warrant for a residence must demonstrate some nexus between the suspected criminal activity and the home. “Such connection need not be direct, but cannot be merely conclusory.” Slip op. at 6. Comparing cases, the court determined that the affidavit here established a sufficient connection to the home. The detective observed a probable drug transaction and was familiar with the subjects in the Jeep, including their drug histories and address. Coupled with the close-in-time admission from the buyer that she purchased heroin from one of the men and the fact that another officer followed the Jeep from the site of the suspected buy to the residence, the search warrant affidavit supported an inference that drugs or evidence of drug dealing would be found in the home. In the court’s words:

It is true that [the detective’s] affidavit did not contain any evidence that drugs were actually being sold at the apartment. But our case law makes clear that such evidence was not necessary for probable cause to exist. Rather, the affiant was simply required to demonstrate some nexus between the apartment . . . and criminal activity. Id. at 10 (emphasis in original).

The warrant was therefore supported by probable cause and comported with the Fourth Amendment. Concluding, the court observed: “In so holding, we break no new legal ground, and instead apply well-established principles of law to the facts presented.” Id. at 11.

State v. Frederick, 371 N.C. 547 (Oct. 26, 2018)

On appeal from a decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 814 S.E.2d 855 (2018), the court per curiam affirmed. The Court of Appeals had held, over a dissent, that the search warrant of the defendant’s residence was supported by probable cause. The warrant was supported by the following information: A detective received information from a reliable confidential source regarding a mid-level drug dealer who sold MDMA, heroin, and crystal methamphetamine. The source had previously provided truthful information that the detective could corroborate, and the source was familiar with the packaging and sale of the drugs in question. The source had assisted the detective with the purchase of MDMA one week prior to the issuance of the search warrant. For that purchase, the detective gave the source money to purchase the drugs. The source met a middleman with whom he then traveled to the defendant’s residence. The detective saw the middleman enter the residence and return to the source after approximately two minutes. The detective found this conduct indicative of drug trafficking activity based on his training and experience. The source then met with the detective, and provided him with MDMA. A subsequent purchase of drugs occurred 72 hours prior to the issuance of the search warrant. The details of that transaction were very similar, except that the officer also saw two males enter the residence and exit approximately two minutes later, conduct he believed to be indicative of drug trafficking activity. The Court of Appeals held that this was sufficient to establish probable cause.

On appeal from a decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 791 S.E.2d 505 (2016), the court affirmed in a per curiam opinion. Over a dissent, the Court of Appeals had held that the search warrant was supported by sufficient probable cause. At issue was the reliability of information provided by a confidential informant. Applying the totality of the circumstances test, and although the informant did not have a “track record” of providing reliable information, the court found that the informant was sufficiently reliable. The court noted that the information provided by the informant was against her penal interest (she admitted purchasing and possessing marijuana); the informant had a face-to-face communication with the officer, during which he could assess her demeanor; the face-to-face conversation significantly increase the likelihood that the informant would be held accountable for a tip that later proved to be false; the informant had first-hand knowledge of the information she conveyed; the police independently corroborated certain information she provided; and the information was not stale (the informant reported information obtained two days prior).

State v. Allman, 369 N.C. 292 (Dec. 21, 2016)

Reversing the Court of Appeals, the court held that because the magistrate had a substantial basis to find that probable cause existed to issue the search warrant, the trial court erred by granting the defendant’s motion to suppress. The affidavit stated that an officer stopped a car driven by Jeremy Black. Black’s half-brother Sean Whitehead was a passenger. After K-9 alerted on the car, a search found 8.1 ounces of marijuana packaged in a Ziploc bag and $1600 in cash. The Ziploc bag containing marijuana was inside a vacuum sealed bag, which in turn was inside a manila envelope. Both individuals had previously been charged on several occasions with drug crimes. Whitehead maintained that the two lived at Twin Oaks Dr. The officer went to that address and found that although neither individual lived there, their mother did. The mother informed the officer that the men lived at 4844 Acres Drive and had not lived at Twin Oaks Drive for years. Another officer went to the Acres Drive premises and determined that its description matched that given by the mother and that a truck outside the house was registered to Black. The officer had experience with drug investigations and, based on his training and experience, knew that drug dealers typically keep evidence of drug dealing at their homes. Supported by the affidavit, the officer applied for and received a search warrant to search the Acres Drive home. Drugs and paraphernalia were found. Based on the quantity of marijuana and the amount of cash found in the car, the fact that the marijuana appeared to be packaged for sale, and Whitehead’s and Black’s criminal histories, it was reasonable for the magistrate to infer that the brothers were drug dealers. Based on the mother’s statement that the two lived at the Acres Drive premises, the fact that her description of that home matched its actual appearance, and that one of the trucks there was registered to Black, it was reasonable for the magistrate to infer that the two lived there. And based on the insight from the officer’s training and experience that evidence of drug dealing was likely to be found at their home and that Whitehead lied about where the two lived, it was reasonable for the magistrate to infer that there could be evidence of drug dealing at the Acres Drive premises. Although nothing in the affidavit directly connected the defendant’s home with evidence of drug dealing, federal circuit courts have held that a suspect drug dealer’s lie about his address in combination with other evidence of drug dealing can give rise to probable cause to search his home. Thus, under the totality of the circumstances there was probable cause to support search warrant.

State v. Lowe, 369 N.C. 360 (Dec. 21, 2016)

Affirming the Court of Appeals, the court held that a search warrant authorizing a search of the premises where the defendant was arrested was supported by probable cause. The affidavit stated that officers received an anonymous tip that Michael Turner was selling, using and storing narcotics at his house; that Turner had a history of drug related arrests; and that a detective discovered marijuana residue in the trash from Turner’s residence, along with correspondence addressed to Turner. Under the totality of the circumstances there was probable cause to search the home for controlled substances.

In this drug trafficking case, a warrant to search the defendant’s person and vehicle was supported by probable cause. After a three-month investigation prompted by a confidential informant’s tip that the defendant was dealing heroin, Detective Cole obtained a warrant to search the defendant’s residence for evidence of drug dealing. The warrant also authorized the search of a specified Range Rover and of the defendant. On appeal the defendant argued that the searches of his person and vehicle were not supported by probable cause. He conceded that there was probable cause to search the house. The court rejected the defendant’s argument noting that a confidential informant known to law enforcement stated that the defendant was using the Range Rover to transport heroin and other drugs to and from the residence and was selling drugs from the vehicle. The ensuing investigation included authorized GPS tracking of the Range Rover and visual surveillance of the defendant and the vehicle. It revealed that the defendant appeared to reside at the residence and that he frequented locations known for drug sales. Additionally at one point the defendant was stopped in the vehicle which displayed a fictitious or altered tag and when the defendant’s driving privileges had been suspended or revoked. Officers performed “trash pulls” at the residence which found paraphernalia that tested positive for heroin and cocaine, as well as bills and other papers indicating that the defendant lived there. The most recent trash pull occurred within one week of the search. These facts support the trial court’s conclusion that there was probable cause to issue the warrant to search the defendant and the Range Rover. The confidential informant’s statements were corroborated by a month’s-long investigation, the drug evidence recovered from the multiple trash pulls was not stale, and the allegations sufficiently linked the defendant and the Range Rover to the residence and the known drug evidence.

In this felony counterfeit trademark goods case, the court held that a search warrant was supported by probable cause. A Special Agent obtained a search warrant to search the residence and vehicles at 13606 Coram Place in Charlotte, North Carolina. The affidavit indicated that the Agent had 26 years of law enforcement experience and investigated thousands of counterfeit merchandise cases. It stated that in May 2013 a County police officer informed the Agent that the defendant was found in possession of possible counterfeit items and was charged with violating the peddlers license ordinance. The items seized were later confirmed to be counterfeit. In October 2013, as part of a compliance check/counterfeit merchandise interdiction operation at a shipping hub in Charlotte, the Agent intercepted two packages from a known counterfeit merchandise distributor in China, addressed to the defendant at the residence in question. The boxes contained counterfeit items. The Agent attempted a controlled delivery of the packages at the residence but no one was home. Two other packages previously delivered by the shipper were on the porch. The Agent contacted the defendant, who agreed to meet with him and agreed to bring the two packages. The defendant consented to a search of the packages and they were found to contain counterfeit merchandise. The defendant said that she did not realize the merchandise was counterfeit and voluntarily surrendered all of the merchandise. She was issued a warning. In November 2013, while the Agent was working as part of a compliance check at a football game, the defendant was found selling counterfeit items. The defendant was charged with felony criminal use of counterfeit trademark and pled guilty to the lesser misdemeanor charge. During another compliance check outside of the Charlotte Convention Center in May 2015 the Agent found a booth with a large display of counterfeit items. The booth was unmanned but business cards listed the owner as “Tammy.” The Agent verified that the address listed in the search warrant was the premises of the defendant, Tammy Renee Howard. During a search of the premises pursuant to the warrant at issue hundreds of counterfeit items with an approximate retail value of $2 million were seized. The defendant was indicted and unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence seized pursuant to the search. The defendant was convicted and appealed. On appeal the defendant asserted that the affidavit failed to contain sufficient evidence to support a reasonable belief that evidence of counterfeit items would be found at the premises. The affidavit included evidence of counterfeit merchandise being delivered to the premises, evidence that the defendant continued to conduct her illegal business after warnings and arrests, and evidence that the officer confirmed that the defendant resided at the premises. The defendant also argued that the evidence in the affidavit was stale, noting that the only evidence linking the premises with criminal activity allegedly took place in October 2013, some 20 months prior to the issuance of the warrant. However the evidence showed that the defendant was conducting a business involving counterfeit goods over a number of years at numerous locations and involving the need to acquire counterfeit merchandise from China. The court however found that a remand was required because the trial court failed to provide any rationale during its ruling from the bench to explain or support the denial of the motion. It thus remanded for the trial court to make appropriate conclusions of law to substantiate its ruling.

In this drug case, the court held that the affidavit provided sufficient probable cause for a search of the residence in question. The affidavit indicated that after the officer received an anonymous tip that drugs were being sold at the residence, he conducted a “refuse investigation” at the premises. The defendant asserted that this information was stale and could not properly support issuance of the warrant. The court noted that although the affidavit does not state when or over what period of time the tipster observed criminal activity at the residence, when the tipster relayed the information to the police or the exact date when the officer conducted the refuse search, the affidavit was based on more than just this information. Specifically, it included details regarding database searches indicating that the defendant had a waste and water utility account at the residence, that the defendant lived at the residence, that the officer was familiar with the residence and the defendant from his previous assignment as a patrol officer, and recounted the defendant’s prior drug charges. To the extent the information in the anonymous tip was stale, it was later corroborated by the refuse search in which the officer found a cup containing marijuana residue, plastic bags containing marijuana residue and a butane gas container that the officer said is consistent with potential manufacturing of butane hash oil. Also the affidavit stated that the officer conducted the refuse investigation on Thursday, “regular refuse day.” A common sense reading of the affidavit would indicate that this referred to the most recent Thursday, the date the affidavit was completed. The court continued noting that even if the anonymous tip was so stale as to be unreliable, the marijuana-related items obtained from the refuse search, the defendant’s criminal history, and the database searches linking the defendant to the residence provided a substantial basis upon which the magistrate could determine that probable cause existed.

In this attempted murder and robbery case, a search warrant was supported by probable cause. On appeal, the defendant argued that the warrant lacked probable cause because a statement by a confidential informant provided the only basis to believe the evidence might be found at the premises in question and the supporting affidavit failed to establish the informant’s reliability. The court disagreed. The detective’s affidavit detailed a meeting between an officer and the confidential informant in which the informant stated that he witnessed described individuals running from the crime scene and said that one of them entered the premises in question. The informant’s statement corroborated significant matters previously known to the police department, including the general time and location of the offenses, the victim’s physical description of his assailants, and the suspect’s possession of items similar in appearance to those stolen from the victim. The affidavit therefore demonstrated the informant’s reliability.

The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence seized during the executions of warrants to search his rental cabin and truck for stolen goods connected to a breaking and entering of a horse trailer. The defendant argued that the search warrant affidavit establish no nexus between the cabin and the criminal activity. The court found however “that under the totality of the circumstances, the accumulation of reasonable inferences drawn from information contained within the affidavit sufficiently linked the criminal activity to defendant’s cabin.” Among other things, the affidavit established that when one of the property owners hired the defendant to work at their farm, several tools and pieces of equipment went missing and were never recovered; immediately before the defendant moved out of state, someone broke into their daughter’s car and stole property; the defendant rented a cabin close to their property around the same time as the reported breaking and entering and larceny; and the defendant had prior convictions for first-degree burglary and felony larceny. Based on this and other evidence discussed in detail in the court’s opinion, the affidavit established a sufficient nexus between the criminal activity and the defendant’s cabin.

In this sexual exploitation of a minor case, the information contained in an officer’s affidavit was sufficient to provide probable cause for issuance of a search warrant for child pornography. In this case, an officer and certified computer forensic examiner identified child pornography through the use of a SHA1 algorithm; the officer downloaded and reviewed some of the images and compared SHA1 values to confirm that the files were child pornography. Although less detailed than the officer’s testimony at the hearing, the affidavit went into technical detail regarding law enforcement methods and software used to identify and track transmissions of child pornography over the Internet. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the affidavit’s identification of alleged pornographic images as known child pornography based upon computer information was insufficient and that the pictures themselves must be provided with the affidavit. 

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