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

On discretionary review of a consolidated appeal from two decisions of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 816 S.E.2d 212 (2018), and ___ N.C. App. ___, 812 S.E.2d 730 (2018) (unpublished), the Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the decisions of the Court of Appeals. A sheriff’s deputy arrested Robert Lewis, who had been recognized as the possible perpetrator of a string of bank robberies committed over two months. After arresting the defendant, an officer observed in plain sight a BB&T money bag on the floor of a Kia Optima that matched the description of a vehicle reportedly used to flee the scene of one of the robberies.  The officer also spoke with the defendant’s stepfather, who confirmed that the defendant lived at the residence. A detective prepared a search warrant application seeking permission to search the residence where the defendant was arrested, the Kia, and another vehicle reportedly used to flee a different robbery. The affidavit accompanying the search warrant application failed to disclose several pieces of information, including that the defendant lived at the residence to be searched, that the first detective had seen the Kia parked in front of the residence, and that the Kia contained the incriminating money bag. A magistrate nonetheless issued the warrant, which led to the seizure of more evidence linking the defendant to the robberies. After the defendant was indicted on multiple counts of armed robbery, kidnapping, and common law robbery, he filed motions to suppress, arguing that there was an insufficient connection between the items sought and the property to be searched, and that the search of the Kia was not permissible under the plain view doctrine. The trial court denied the motion. The defendant pled guilty, preserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress, which he did. The Court of Appeals deemed the detective’s warrant application sufficient to establish probable cause to search the cars but insufficient to establish probable cause to search the dwelling because the supporting affidavit failed to state that the defendant resided there.

The Supreme Court granted the parties’ petitions for discretionary review. As for the warrant to search the residence, though much of the information in the affidavit linked the defendant to the robberies, it failed to set forth the circumstances of the defendant’s arrest at this particular address, including how the detective initially obtained the address from officers in Johnston County, and how the defendant’s stepfather had confirmed where the defendant resided. Absent information linking the defendant to the residence, the magistrate lacked probable cause to issue a warrant to search it, and so the court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ ruling that the defendant’s motion to suppress should have been allowed. Regarding the search of the Kia, the court concluded that the limited information actually set out in the affidavit failed to establish probable cause for the search. As a result, the court reversed the portion of the Court of Appeals’ decision concluding that there was probable cause and remanded the case for consideration of the trial judge’s alternative finding that the vehicle search was valid under the plain view doctrine.

Justice Morgan, joined by Justice Newby, dissented in part, writing that he would have found probable cause for the search of the car based on the totality of the information contained in the search warrant application.

In this Cleveland County case, police were dispatched to a commercial business around 3 a.m. in response to a noise complaint. Upon arrival, they noticed a strong odor of burning marijuana and loud noises from a party within the building. The property owner-defendant approached police on scene and refused to consent to a search of the property. Officers applied for a search warrant. The defendant was ultimately charged with possession of firearm by felon based on the discovery of firearms inside, along with having obtained the status of habitual felon. He moved to suppress all evidence derived from the search, arguing that the warrant did not establish probable cause, was based on stale information, and was overbroad. Following the denial of his motion, the defendant was convicted of both offenses at trial. The Court of Appeals unanimously reversed.

The affidavit in support of the warrant alleged an investigation at the location and the odor of marijuana but failed to recount any specific time or date of the officer’s observation. This was fatal to a finding of probable cause. In the words of the court:

[W]e agree with Defendant that the affidavit in support of the search warrant application did not provide sufficient facts from which the magistrate could conclude there was probable cause because it did not specify when the purported events occurred nor did it indicate sufficient facts from which the magistrate could reasonably infer the timing of such events . . . Logan Slip op. at 12.

The trial court erred in considering information (the timing of the officer’s observations) not found within the four corners of the warrant. The denial of the motion to suppress was therefore reversed, the convictions vacated, and the matter remanded for a new trial. Because the court determined that the warrant application failed to establish probable cause, it did not consider the defendant’s other arguments regarding the validity of the warrant. Judge Gore and Judge Dillon concurred.

Officers obtained a search warrant to search the defendant’s house. They executed the warrant, found drugs, and charged the defendant with drug offenses. The defendant moved to suppress, arguing that the warrant contained material misrepresentations and did not provide probable cause to support the issuance of the warrant. A superior court judge denied the motion, and the defendant was convicted and appealed. The court of appeals reversed. (1) The trial judge did not set forth adequate conclusions of law. Although formal findings of fact are not required when the evidence regarding a motion to suppress is not in conflict, a judge must still provide conclusions of law, i.e., must explain the reason for the judge’s ruling. In this case, the defendant made multiple challenges to the warrant and the trial judge merely denied the motion without further explanation. (2) The warrant was not supported by probable cause. The application was based on information from a confidential and reliable informant. The informant claimed to have purchased drugs from the defendant in the past, but reported that the defendant had become more cautious recently and now would sell drugs only through a specific middleman. The informant reported that she had recently picked up the middleman, dropped the middleman off in “the general area of defendant’s home” and picked him up shortly thereafter in possession of drugs. The court of appeals concluded that this did not provide probable cause as the middleman was of unknown reliability and no one had observed him entering the defendant’s home. A dissenting judge would have found that the informant’s history of purchasing drugs from the defendant, plus what amounted to an imperfectly controlled purchase by the middleman, provided probable cause.

In this possession of a firearm by a felon case, the court held that the affidavit contained insufficient details to support issuance of the search warrant. When officers went to the defendant’s home to conduct a knock and talk, the defendant’s brother answered the door and invited them in. An officer asked if anyone else was present and the brother said he was alone. The brother however gave consent for an officer to check a back bedroom. In the bedroom the officer saw a woman lying on a bed and a “glass smoke pipe” on a dresser. The officer applied for and was issued a search warrant for the residence. A search of the home revealed a shotgun in the bedroom. After the defendant admitted that he owned the gun, he was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon. The defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress evidence from the search. The defendant was convicted and appealed. Applying the plain error standard, the court began by addressing whether the trial court did in fact err by denying the motion to suppress. Here, the affidavit stated that the officer saw a “smoke pipe used for methamphetamine” in the bedroom. It did not mention the officer’s training and experience, nor did the officer offer information explaining the basis for his belief that the pipe was being used to smoke methamphetamine as opposed to tobacco. The affidavit did not explain how the officer was qualified to distinguish between a pipe used for lawful versus unlawful purposes. And it did not purport to describe in any detail the appearance of the pipe or contain any indication as to whether it appeared to have been recently used. It further lacked any indication that information had been received connecting the defendant or his home to drugs. The court stated: “a pipe—standing alone--is neither contraband nor evidence of a crime.” Because the affidavit was insufficient to establish probable cause for issuance of the warrant, the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. The court went on to find that this error constituted plain error.

(1) In this methamphetamine trafficking case, the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence seized during execution of a search warrant. Noting that a factual showing sufficient to support probable cause “requires a truthful showing of facts,” the court rejected the defendant’s argument that a statement in the affidavit supporting the search warrant was made in reckless disregard for the truth. However, the court went on to find that the application for the search warrant and attached affidavit insufficiently connected the address in question to the objects sought. It noted that none of the allegations in the affidavit specifically refer to the address in question and none establish the required nexus between the objects sought (evidence of a methamphetamine lab) and the place to be searched. The court noted that the defendant’s refusal of an officer’s request to search the property cannot establish probable cause to search. (2) Although federal law recognizes a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule where evidence is suppressed pursuant to the federal Constitution, no good faith exception exists for violations of the North Carolina Constitution.

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