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., 06/14/2024
E.g., 06/14/2024
State v. Lewis, 372 N.C. 576 (Aug. 16, 2019)

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 ___, 812 S.E.2d 730 (2018) (unpublished), the Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the decisions of the Court of Appeals.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.

State v. Jordan [Duplicated], ___ N.C. App. ___, 2022 NCCOA 215 (Apr. 5, 2022) temp. stay granted, ___ N.C. ___, 871 S.E.2d 101 (Apr 21 2022)

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police received a report of a stolen car and information about its possible location. Officers went to the location, which was part residence and part commercial establishment. A car matching the description of the stolen vehicle was in the back parking lot. As police watched, a man came out of the building and approached the car as if to enter it. He noticed the unmarked police car and immediately returned to the building, alerting the occupants to the presence of police. Police pulled into the driveway intending to detain the man. The defendant opened the door of the building from inside and the man who had approached the stolen car went inside, although the door was left open. An officer approached and asked the man to come out and speak with police before immediately stepping into the building through the open door. That officer noticed a safe next to the defendant and saw the defendant close the safe, lock it, and place the key in his pocket. More officers arrived on scene and noticed drug paraphernalia in plain view. Officers swept the house and discovered a gun in a bedroom. At this point, officers established that a man inside either owned or leased the building and requested his consent to search. The man initially refused but assented when officers threatened to place everyone in handcuffs and to obtain a search warrant. The defendant informed officers that anything they found in the home was not his and that he did not live there. He denied owning the safe, but a woman who was present at the time later informed officers that the safe belonged to the defendant. Officers obtained a search warrant for the safe and discovered money, drugs, paraphernalia, and a gun inside. The defendant was subsequently charged with trafficking, firearm by felon, habitual felon, and other offenses. He moved to suppress. The trial court denied the motion, apparently on the basis that the defendant lacked standing (although because no written order was entered, the findings and conclusions of the trial court were not easily determined). The defendant was convicted at trial of the underlying offenses and pled guilty to having obtained habitual felon status. The trial court imposed a minimum term of 225 months in consecutive judgments. On appeal, a unanimous panel of the Court of Appeals reversed.

(1) The defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the building. He opened the door when it was knocked and was one of only four people inside the home at a late hour. The defendant further had apparent permission to keep the safe inside and clearly had an interest in it as the person with its key and the ability to exclude others. While the defendant did not own or lease the property, this was not enough to defeat his expectation of privacy. The defendant also disclaimed ownership of the safe to police, and the State argued that this amounted to abandonment, defeating any privacy interest in the safe. The court disagreed, noting that the defendant only made that remark after the police illegally entered the home and that abandonment does not apply in such a situation. In its words: “[W]hen an individual ‘discards property as the product of some illegal police activity, he will not be held to have voluntarily abandoned the property or to have necessarily lost his reasonable expectation of
privacy with respect to it[.]’” Jordan Slip op. at 14 (citation omitted). Thus, the defendant had standing to challenge the police entry and search.

(2) The trial court determined that officers had reasonable suspicion to speak with the man who was seen approaching the stolen car. However, this did not justify warrantless entry into the home. The State argued that the entry was supported by exigent circumstances, in that the keys to the stolen car and the drug paraphernalia seen inside the building could have been easily destroyed. However, there was no evidence that the first officer who approached the home saw any drug paraphernalia at the time and the officer therefore could not have had a legitimate concern about its destruction. There was likewise no explanation from the State regarding the need for immediate warrantless entry to preserve the car keys evidence. Because officers had already seen the man approach the car with the keys and because possession of a stolen car may be established by constructive possession, there was no immediate need to obtain the car keys. Further, there was no immediate risk of destruction of evidence where the occupants of the home left the door open, and an officer entered the home within “moments” of arrival. Exigent circumstances therefore did not support the warrantless entry.

(3) The State also argued that the person with a property interest in the building gave valid consent, and that this consent removed any taint of the initial illegal entry. Illegally obtained evidence may be admissible where the link between the illegal police activity and the discovery of evidence is sufficiently attenuated. Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590, 603-04 (1975). Here, the taint of the illegal entry had not dissipated. Officers obtained consent soon after entering the home, no intervening circumstances arose between the entry and the obtaining of consent, and officers purposefully and flagrantly entered the building without a warrant or probable cause. Any consent was therefore tainted by the initial police illegality and could not justify the search.

(4) Although police did ultimately obtain a search warrant for the safe, the information contained in the search warrant application was based on information obtained by police after they were inside the building. There was no evidence that officers saw any drugs prior to entry, so any evidence obtained as a result was the fruit of the poisonous tree. Without the drugs evidence, the stolen car in the parking lot, the man walking up to the stolen car, and his abrupt return from the car to the building did not supply probable cause to search the building or safe. According to the court:

Because the affidavit supporting the issuance of the search warrant, stripped of the facts obtained by the officers’ unlawful entry into the residence, does not give rise to probable cause to search the residence for the evidence of drugs and drug paraphernalia described in the warrant, ‘the warrant and the search conducted under it were illegal and the evidence obtained from them was fruit of the poisonous tree.’ Id. at 24.

The denial of the motion to suppress was therefore reversed and the case was remanded for any further proceedings.

In this Buncombe County case, the defendant was convicted by a jury of possession with intent to sell or deliver fentanyl, possession of fentanyl, possession of firearm by a felon, and maintaining a building for keeping or selling controlled substances. Officers conducted a search of the defendant’s home when they believed it to be the place where another man, Robert Jones, obtained drugs that were sold to a confidential informant. That suspicion was based on officers’ multiple observations of Jones visiting the defendant’s address for short periods before engaging in controlled purchases, including an incident in which officers conducted a traffic stop on Jones immediately after he visited the defendant’s address, which prompted Jones to ingest narcotics while officers were pursuing him. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained pursuant to the search, arguing that the warrant affidavit lacked sufficient probable cause. The trial court denied the motion.

Over a dissent, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. The majority concluded that the affidavit lacked sufficient facts to establish probable cause in that it did not describe how much time passed between Jones leaving the defendant’s house and being pulled over, how Jones obtained drugs, or why law enforcement believed the defendant’s address was the source of supply. The Court thus concluded that the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress, and that the defendant was entitled to a new trial.

A dissenting judge would have concluded that the affidavit provided a sufficient basis for probable cause to search the defendant’s residence. The judge noted that the affidavit’s references to drug purchases by Jones in “recent days” was a specific enough reference to the passage of time, and the trial court’s reference to officers’ stop of Jones after leaving the defendant’s residence as “immediate” was accurate under a commonsense reading of the warrant.

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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