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., 06/20/2024
E.g., 06/20/2024

On appeal from a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 810 S.E. 2d 719 (2018) (discussed in an earlier blog post by Shea Denning,, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision that an officer’s warrantless search of a defendant’s USB drive following a prior search by a private individual violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. While examining a thumb drive belonging to the defendant, the defendant’s girlfriend saw an image of her 9-year-old granddaughter sleeping, exposed from the waist up. Believing the image was inappropriate, the defendant’s girlfriend contacted the sheriff’s office and gave them the thumb drive. Later, a detective conducted a warrantless search of the thumb drive to locate the image in question, during which he discovered other images of what he believed to be child pornography before he found the photograph of the granddaughter. At that point the detective applied for and obtained a warrant to search the contents of the thumb drive for “contraband images of child pornography and evidence of additional victims and crimes.” The initial warrant application relied only on information from the defendant’s girlfriend, but after the State Bureau of Investigation requested additional information, the detective included information about the images he found in his initial search of the USB drive. The SBI’s forensic examination turned up 12 images, ten of which had been deleted and archived in a way that would not have been viewable without special forensic capabilities. After he was charged with multiple sexual exploitation of a minor and peeping crimes, the defendant filed a pretrial motion to suppress all of the evidence obtained as a result of the detective’s warrantless search. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the girlfriend’s private viewing of the images frustrated the defendant’s expectation of privacy in them, and that the detective’s subsequent search therefore did not violate the Fourth Amendment. After his trial and conviction, the defendant appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress. 

The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that the girlfriend’s opening of the USB drive and viewing some of its contents did not frustrate the defendant’s privacy interest in the entire contents of the device. To the contrary, digital devices can retain massive amounts of information, organized into files that are essentially containers within containers. Because the trial court did not make findings establishing the precise scope of the girlfriend’s search, it likewise could not find that the detective had the level of “virtual certainty” contemplated by United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109 (1984), that the device contained nothing else of significance, or that a subsequent search would not tell him anything more than he already had been told. The search therefore was not permissible under the private-search doctrine. The court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for consideration of whether the warrant would have been supported by probable cause without the evidence obtained through the unlawful search.

Justice Newby dissented, writing that the majority’s application of the virtual certainty test needlessly eliminates the private-search doctrine for electronic storage devices unless the private searcher opens every file on the device.

In this Watauga County case, defendant appealed his conviction for possession of methamphetamine, arguing error in the denial of his motion to suppress the results of a search of his vehicle. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial.

In October of 2020, a Watauga County Sheriff’s Deputy saw defendant driving a black truck through an intersection in Boone. The deputy was familiar with defendant and knew defendant had outstanding warrants for possession of methamphetamine, so he initiated a traffic stop. A canine unit was called to the scene and conducted a walk-around of the vehicle; after the dog alerted, the deputies searched the vehicle and found a bag with methamphetamine and a substance that appeared to be marijuana. However, after defendant was arrested and indicted for possession of these substances, it was determined that the marijuana was actually hemp, and charges for possession of marijuana were dismissed.

The court summarized defendant’s issue on appeal as whether officers “need probable cause to use a drug-detection dog to sniff a vehicle for narcotics when the dog is unable to distinguish between contraband and noncontraband.” Slip Op. at 10. Defendant argued Fourth Amendment precedent holding the use of a drug-sniffing dog does not constitute a search must be reexamined now that a dog might alert to hemp, as the person may have a legitimate privacy interest in noncontraband. The court found that the privacy interest did not apply as the “drug-sniffing dog was trained and certified to alert on methamphetamine, and [d]efendant did not create a ‘legitimate privacy interest’ as to the methamphetamine simply by storing it in the same bag with the hemp,” and concluded “the Fourth Amendment does not protect against the discovery of contraband, detectable by the drug-sniffing dog, because [d]efendant decided to package noncontraband beside it.” Id. at 18. Applying the motor vehicle exception, the court found probable cause to search the vehicle based on the positive alert by the dog, and the deputies’ knowledge of defendant’s outstanding warrants and previous seizures from defendant of methamphetamine.  


The court reversed and remanded for further findings of fact regarding the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of a search of the digital contents of a GPS device found on the defendant’s person which, as a result of the search, was determined to have been stolen. The court held that under Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014), the search was not justified as a search incident to arrest. As to whether the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the GPS device, the court held that a defendant may have a legitimate expectation of privacy in a stolen item if he acquired it innocently and does not know that the item was stolen. Here, evidence at the suppression hearing would allow the trial court to conclude that defendant had a legitimate possessory interest in the GPS. However, because the trial court failed to make a factual determination regarding whether the defendant innocently purchased the GPS device, the court reversed and remanded for further findings of fact, providing additional guidance for the trial court in its decision.

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