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., 01/25/2022
E.g., 01/25/2022
State v. Lowe, 369 N.C. 360 (Dec. 21, 2016)

Reversing the Court of Appeals, the court held that a search of a vehicle located on the premises was within the scope of the warrant. The vehicle in question was parked in the curtilage of the residence and was a rental car of the defendant, an overnight guest at the house. If a search warrant validly describes the premises to be searched, a car on the premises may be searched even though the warrant contains no description of the car. In departing from this general rule, the Court of Appeals held that the search of the car was invalid because the officers knew that the vehicle in question did not belong to the suspect in the drug investigation. Noting that the record was unclear as to what the officers knew about ownership and control of the vehicle, the court concluded; “Nonetheless, regardless of whether the officers knew the car was a rental, we hold that the search was within the scope of the warrant.”

In this case in which the defendant was convicted of drug trafficking and related charges, the court held that although the trial court erred by finding that a vehicle was within the curtilage of the defendant’s residence, it properly found that officers had probable cause to search the vehicle. Officers conducted a drug investigation of the defendant, including surveillance of his residence. During the investigation, a confidential police informant arranged and engaged in a controlled purchase of heroin from the defendant’s residence. A couple of months later the same confidential informant conducted another controlled purchase of heroin at the defendant’s residence. Officers saw the confidential informant purchase the drugs from the defendant at the trunk of a black 1985 Mercury Grand Marquis parked on the other side of the road from the defendant’s residence. Officers saw the vehicle regularly parked in this location during their investigation. As a result of the investigation, Officer Kimel got a search warrant for the defendant’s residence; the warrant did not mention the Grand Marquis. When the officers arrived to execute the search warrant, Kimel saw the vehicle parked across the street. The back and sides of the residence were surrounded by a 7- or 8-foot-high chain link fence; a short wooden fence was in the front of the residence. Kimel asked another officer have his K-9 sniff the vehicle. The dog gave a positive alert for drugs. Kimel obtained the keys to the vehicle from the defendant’s pocket and searched the car. In the trunk, officers found the defendant’s wallet, guns, ammunition, a digital scale, and drugs. After the defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress evidence obtained from the search of the vehicle, the defendant pled guilty to multiple drug charges, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. On appeal the defendant argued that the officers searched the vehicle without either a search warrant or probable cause.

            The court began by holding that the trial court erred by concluding that the vehicle was within the curtilage of the residence while parked on the side of a public street opposite the home and outside the home’s fenced-in area. The State had conceded this issue at oral argument.

            The court went on to find however that the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle based on: the controlled purchases by the informant, during which times the Grand Marquis was always present; the officers’ observation of a drug transaction taking place at the trunk of the Grand Marquis; the Grand Marquis parked on a public street near the defendant’s residence during the officers’ investigation; the defendant’s possession of the keys to the Grand Marquis; and the K-9’s positive alert outside of the vehicle for the potential presence of narcotics. It concluded: “Based upon the automobile being located on a public road exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, probable cause justified the officers in conducting the warrantless search of the Grand Marquis.”

            In so holding, the court declined to consider the defendant’s argument, raised for the first time on appeal, that the reliability of the K-9 was not sufficiently established under Florida v. Harris, 568 U.S. 237 (2013), noting that a party may not assert on appeal a theory that was not raised at the trial court. It further noted that the K-9 sniff was not a search and the dog’s positive alert provided support for the trial court’s determination that officers had probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle. The court did however note that officers had probable cause to search the vehicle even without the sniff.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the search of the premises was unreasonable. The defendant argued that because the officers deliberately waited until he vacated the premises before breaking open the door without knocking and announcing their presence, they violated the statutory knock and announce requirement. Here, before executing the warrant a detective loudly announced three times that officers would be entering the residence to execute the search warrant. After waiting a reasonable time and hearing no response officers made a forced entry into the residence. These facts establish that no statutory violation occurred.

In a drug case, officers properly knocked and announced their presence when executing a search warrant. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the period of time between the knock and announcement and the entry into the house was too short. It concluded that because the search warrant was based on information that marijuana was being sold from the house and because that drug could be disposed of easily and quickly, the brief delay between notice and entry was reasonable.

Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981) (officers executing a search warrant may detain occupants on the premises while the search is conducted), does not justify the detention of occupants beyond the immediate vicinity of the premises covered by a search warrant. In this case, the defendant left the premises before the search began and officers waited to detain him until he had driven about one mile away. The Court reasoned that none of the rationales supporting the Summers decision—officer safety, facilitating the completion of the search, and preventing flight—apply with the same or similar force to the detention of recent occupants beyond the immediate vicinity of the premises. It further concluded that “[a]ny of the individual interests is also insufficient, on its own, to justify an expansion of the rule in Summers to permit the detention of a former occupant, wherever he may be found away from the scene of the search.” It stated: “The categorical authority to detain incident to the execution of a search warrant must be limited to the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched.” The Court continued, noting that Summers also relied on the limited intrusion on personal liberty involved with detaining occupants incident to the execution of a search warrant. It concluded that where officers arrest an individual away from his or her home, there is an additional level of intrusiveness. The Court declined to precisely define the term “immediate vicinity,” leaving it to the lower courts to make this determination based on “the lawful limits of the premises, whether the occupant was within the line of sight of his dwelling, the ease of reentry from the occupant’s location, and other relevant factors.”

The defendant was cleaning his car in the street adjacent to his girlfriend’s apartment when several law enforcement officers arrived to execute a search warrant for the apartment. Before entering the apartment, a law enforcement officer approached the defendant and asked for his driver’s license.  Officers remained outside with the defendant while the search warrant was executed.  Defendant later consented to a search of his vehicle, where officers found marijuana, paraphernalia, and a firearm.  He was charged with drug crimes and possession of firearm by a felon.

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence seized from the search of his vehicle on the basis that the officers obtained the evidence as a result of an unlawful, suspicionless seizure.  The court of appeals in State v. Thompson, ___ N.C. App. ___, 809 S.E.2d 340 (2018) (Thompson I) determined, over a dissent, that the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s suppression motion did not resolve a pivotal issue of fact. Thus, the court vacated the judgment and remanded for further findings.  

The North Carolina Supreme Court vacated Thompson I and remanded for reconsideration in light of State v. Wilson, 371 N.C. 920 (2018). Wilson addressed the authority of law enforcement officers to detain a person who arrives on the scene while a search warrant is being executed.  Wilson held that pursuant to the rule announced by the United States Supreme Court in Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981), a search warrant authorizes the detention of (1) occupants, (2) who are within the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched, and (3) who are presented during the execution of a search warrant for the premises. An occupant is a person who poses a real threat to the safe and efficient execution of a search warrant.

On remand, and again over a dissent, the court of appeals held that the defendant was not an occupant of the searched premises. The court noted that he remained inside his vehicle and did not attempt to approach the apartment or otherwise interfere with the search. Thus, the court found no circumstances to indicate that the defendant posed a threat to the safe and efficient execution of the search. The court therefore again vacated the trial court’s judgment and remanded the matter to the trial court for resolution of material factual disputes, pursuant to Thompson I.

The dissent would have held that the defendant was an occupant of the premises as he was within the line of sight of the apartment being searched and was a threat to enter or attempt to enter the premises.

Officers did not unreasonably seize the defendant in connection with execution of the search warrant. The defendant asserted that his seizure was unreasonable because it occurred two miles away from the residence in question. The court noted in part that the warrant authorized a search of both the premises and the defendant.

The defendant in this drug case moved to suppress evidence discovered on his person by a law enforcement officer who was part of a team of officers executing a search warrant at the defendant’s residence.  At the time of the execution of the warrant, the defendant, who the day before had sold heroin to a confidential informant at the subject premises, was standing outside his grandfather’s home situated roughly 60 yards away.  Upon arriving to execute the search warrant, the officer noticed the defendant outside his grandfather’s home, approached him, and ordered him to submit to a pat-down where the officer discovered fentanyl in his pants pocket.  Analyzing the propriety of the seizure of the defendant under both Michigan v. Summers and Terry v. Ohio, the court determined that the seizure was illegal. 

The court explained that under Michigan v. Summers and related North Carolina cases including State v. Wilson, 371 N.C. 920 (2018), “a warrant to search for contraband founded on probable cause implicitly carries with it the limited authority to detain (1) the occupants, (2) who are within the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched, and (3) who are present during the execution of a search warrant.”  Relying on reasoning from State v. Thompson, 267 N.C. App. 101 (2019) that a person is an “occupant” of premises for purposes of Summers when he or she poses a real threat to the safe and efficient execution of the search, the court concluded that the defendant, who was “simply leaning up against the rail” outside his grandfather’s house and “did not take any action to raise any suspicion of criminal activity on his part” did not pose such a threat and therefore was not at that time an “occupant” of the premises subject to the search warrant.

The court then determined, largely because the particular officer who seized the defendant was unaware of the defendant’s sale of heroin to the confidential informant, that there was no basis for the officer to seize the defendant under Terry v. Ohio and that the inevitable discovery doctrine was inapplicable.  Finally, the court remanded the case to the trial court to correct clerical errors arising from judgment forms that were inconsistent with the sentence rendered orally in open court.

Judge Stroud dissented, expressing the view that the trial court correctly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss because the defendant, due to his proximity to the premises and criminal history which involved possession of firearms, posed a real threat to the safe and efficient execution of the search warrant and thus was an “occupant” of the premises within the meaning of Summers.  Judge Stroud also would have found the frisk of the defendant to be valid under Terry and the confiscation of the drugs on his person to be supported by the plain view doctrine.

An officer executing a search warrant at a home reasonably believed that for officer safety he should pat down the defendant, who was present at the house when officers arrived to execute the search warrant. The search warrant application stated that illegal narcotics were being sold from the residence and that officers had conducted two previous controlled buys there, one only 72 hours earlier. When officers entered, they found six individuals, including defendant and saw drugs in plain view. Based on his experience as a narcotics officer, the officer testified to a connection between guns and drugs.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress statements made while a search warrant was being executed. The defendant and his wife were present when the search warrant was executed. After handcuffing the defendant, an officer escorted him to a bathroom, read him Miranda rights, and questioned him about drug activities in the apartment. While this procedure was applied to the defendant’s wife, an officer discovered a digital scale and two plastic bags of a white, powdery substance; the defendant then stated that the drugs were his not his wife’s. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he was arrested when he was moved to the bathroom and read his rights, noting that the questioning occurred during the search.

In this drug case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress evidence collected from his residence on the grounds that the inventory list prepared by the detective was unlawfully vague and inaccurate in describing the items seized. The defendant argued that the evidence gathered from his residence was obtained in substantial violation of G.S. 15A-254, which requires an officer executing a search warrant to write and sign a receipt itemizing the items taken. Specifically, he asserted that the inventory receipt was vague and inaccurate and thus failed to satisfy the statute’s requirements. In order for suppression to be warranted for a substantial violation of the statute, G.S. 15A-974 requires that the evidence be obtained as a result of officer’s unlawful conduct and that it would not have been obtained but for the unlawful conduct. Here, citing prior case law, the court held, in part, that because the evidence was seized before the inventory required by the statute had to be prepared, the defendant failed to show that the evidence would not have been obtained but for the alleged violations of G.S. 15A-254. The court held that G.S. 15A-254 “applies only after evidence has been obtained and does not implicate the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. In turn, because evidence cannot be obtained ‘as a result of’ a violation of [G.S.] 15A-254, [G.S.] 15A-974(a)(2) is inapplicable to either alleged or actual [G.S.] 15A-254 violations.”

The defendant was indicted for trafficking opium and possession of a firearm by a felon, and he filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained during a search of his residence on the grounds that the officers executing the search turned off their body cameras after conducting the initial walk-through of the residence. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding that there was no evidence of bad faith and no showing that any materially exculpatory evidence was lost – only potentially useful evidence was lost. The defendant pleaded guilty, and the trial court declined the defendant’s request to make a substantial assistance deviation at sentencing, but did make note of his assistance and imposed one consolidated sentence of 90 to 120 months. The defendant filed a notice of appeal and a petition for writ of certiorari.

The appellate court first found that the defendant failed to preserve his right to appeal because he did not give notice of his intent to appeal when the plea was entered. However, the court granted the petition for writ of certiorari and reached the merits on the grounds that the defendant’s trial counsel was responsible for this deficiency, rather than the defendant. Defendant’s appellate counsel filed a brief pursuant to Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967), stating that he could not find any meritorious issues to argue and asking the court to conduct its own review. The appellate court reviewed the record and the majority likewise concluded that there were no meritorious issues regarding the sufficiency of the indictments, denial of the motion to suppress, factual basis for the guilty plea, or sentencing. On the motion to suppress, the majority agreed with the trial court that there was no evidence of bad faith on the part of the officers in turning off their body cameras, since they were instructed to do so by a supervisor on scene after the walk-through was completed, and they were acting in accordance with their department’s policy. Additionally, the defendant was present during the execution of the search warrant, and there was no showing that any materially exculpatory evidence was lost. The majority therefore found no error.

Judge Murphy dissented, and would have remanded the case for appointment of new appellate counsel to brief issues of potential merit, including whether the officers’ execution of the search warrant may have violated the notice and entry requirements in G.S. 15A-249, and whether the trial court may have erred in its application of the substantial assistance provisions in G.S. 90-95(h)(5).

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the right to have a witness present for blood alcohol testing performed under G.S. 20-16.2 applies to blood draws taken pursuant to a search warrant. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that failure to allow a witness to be present for the blood draw violated his constitutional rights, holding that the defendant had no constitutional right to have a witness present for the execution of the search warrant.

Although an officer “inappropriately” took documents related to the defendant’s civil action against A&T and covered by the attorney-client privilege during his search of her residence, the trial court properly suppressed this material and the officer’s actions did not otherwise invalidate the search warrant or its execution.

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