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., 09/17/2021
E.g., 09/17/2021

The automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment does not permit an officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home to search a vehicle parked there. Officer McCall saw the driver of an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame commit a traffic infraction. The driver eluded McCall’s attempt to stop the motorcycle. A few weeks later, Officer Rhodes saw an orange and black motorcycle traveling well over the speed limit, but the driver got away from him, too. The officers compared notes, determined that the two incidents involved the same motorcyclist, and that the motorcycle likely was stolen and in the possession of Ryan Collins. After discovering photographs on Collins’ Facebook page showing an orange and black motorcycle parked at the top of the driveway of a house, Rhodes tracked down the address of the house, drove there, and parked on the street. It was later established that Collins’ girlfriend lived in the house and that Collins stayed there a few nights per week. From the street, Rhodes saw what appeared to be a motorcycle with an extended frame covered with a white tarp, parked at the same angle and in the same location on the driveway as in the Facebook photo. Rhodes, who did not have a warrant, walked toward the house. He stopped to take a photograph of the covered motorcycle from the sidewalk, and then walked onto the residential property and up to the top of the driveway to where the motorcycle was parked. Rhodes removed the tarp, revealing a motorcycle that looked like the one from the speeding incident. He ran a search of the license plate and vehicle identification numbers, which confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen. Rhodes photographed the uncovered motorcycle, put the tarp back on, left the property, and returned to his car to wait for Collins. When Collins returned, Rhodes approached the door and knocked. Collins answered, agreed to speak with Rhodes, and admitted that the motorcycle was his and that he had bought it without title. Collins was charged with receiving stolen property. He unsuccessfully sought to suppress the evidence that Rhodes obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the motorcycle. He was convicted and his conviction was affirmed on appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed. The Court characterized the case as arising “at the intersection of two components of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence: the automobile exception to the warrant requirement and the protection extended to the curtilage of a home.” After reviewing the law on these doctrines, the Court turned to whether the location in question is curtilage. It noted that according to photographs in the record, the driveway runs alongside the front lawn and up a few yards past the front perimeter of the house. The top portion of the driveway that sits behind the front perimeter of the house is enclosed on two sides by a brick wall about the height of a car and on a third side by the house. A side door provides direct access between this partially enclosed section of the driveway and the house. A visitor endeavoring to reach the front door would have to walk partway up the driveway, but would turn off before entering the enclosure and instead proceed up a set of steps leading to the front porch. When Rhodes searched the motorcycle, it was parked inside this partially enclosed top portion of the driveway that abuts the house. The Court concluded that the driveway enclosure here is properly considered curtilage. The Court continued, noting that by physically intruding on the curtilage, the officer not only invaded the defendant’s fourth amendment interest in the item searched—the motorcycle—but also his fourth amendment interest in the curtilage of his home. Finding the case an “easy” one, the Court concluded that the automobile exception did not justify an invasion of the curtilage. It clarified: “the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself.” The Court rejected Virginia’s request that it expand the scope of the automobile exception to permit police to invade any space outside an automobile even if the Fourth Amendment protects that space. It continued:

Just as an officer must have a lawful right of access to any contraband he discovers in plain view in order to seize it without a warrant, and just as an officer must have a lawful right of access in order to arrest a person in his home, so, too, an officer must have a lawful right of access to a vehicle in order to search it pursuant to the automobile exception. The automobile exception does not afford the necessary lawful right of access to search a vehicle parked within a home or its curtilage because it does not justify an intrusion on a person’s separate and substantial Fourth Amendment interest in his home and curtilage.

It also rejected Virginia’s argument that the Court’s precedent indicates that the automobile exception is a categorical one that permits the warrantless search of a vehicle anytime, anywhere, including in a home or curtilage. For these and other reasons discussed in the Court’s opinion, the Court held that “the automobile exception does not permit an officer without a warrant to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.” It left for resolution on remand whether Rhodes’ warrantless intrusion on the curtilage may have been reasonable on a different basis, such as the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.

Using a drug-sniffing dog on a homeowner’s porch to investigate the contents of the home is a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The Court’s reasoning was based on the theory that the officers engaged in a physical intrusion of a constitutionally protected area. Applying that principle, the Court held:

The officers were gathering information in an area belonging to [the defendant] and immediately surrounding his house—in the curtilage of the house, which we have held enjoys protection as part of the home itself. And they gathered that information by physically entering and occupying the area to engage in conduct not explicitly or implicitly permitted by the homeowner.

Slip Op. at pp. 3-4. In this way the majority did not decide the case on a reasonable expectation of privacy analysis; the concurring opinion came to the same conclusion on both property and reasonable expectation of privacy grounds.

In this Guilford County case, the defendant was on post-release supervision (PRS) for a previous felony. The Department of Public Safety deemed him to be a “high-risk offender” and a “validated gang member,” and thus included him in a May 2017 search operation conducted jointly with other state and federal law enforcement agencies. During that operation, officers searched the defendant’s residence and found a firearm in his bedside table, which led to a new criminal charge for possession of firearm by a felon. In response to the new criminal charge the defendant moved to suppress the handgun as the fruit of an illegal warrantless search, arguing that a warrantless search of his residence was unconstitutional under the federal and state constitutions in that it was not authorized by statute or as a matter of consent.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress, but the Court of Appeals reversed, agreeing that a warrantless search of the defendant’s home violated both the federal and state constitutions. The court distinguished Samson v. California, 547 U.S. 843 (2006), a case in which the Supreme Court upheld a warrantless search of a California parolee, limiting the reach of that case to situations in which the supervisee chooses supervision in the community (and its attendant conditions) over imprisonment. In North Carolina, defendants do not choose post-release supervision; to the contrary, by statute they may not refuse it. G.S. 15A-1368.2(b). Moreover, the statutory search condition applicable to post-release supervisees, G.S. 15A-1368.4(e)(10), allows searches only of the supervisee’s person, not of his or her premises. The Court of Appeals next rejected the State’s argument that the search was valid under the “catch-all” provision of G.S. 15A-1368.4(c), which allows the Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission (the Commission) to impose conditions it believes reasonably necessary to ensure a supervisee will lead a law-abiding life. Applying the rule of statutory construction that the specific controls the general, the court took the existence of a specific statutory search condition for PRS limited to searches of the person as an indication that the General Assembly did not intend to grant the Commission general authority to allow other searches by way of the catch-all provision. The court also noted that related statutes applicable to searches of post-release supervisees who are sex offenders (G.S. 15A-1368.4(b1)), probationers (G.S. 15A-1343(b)(13)), and parolees (G.S. 15A-1374(b)(11)), expressly authorize searches of a defendant’s premises in addition to his or her person. The court viewed the omission of any similar language related to the defendant’s premises in the PRS condition as a demonstration of the General Assembly’s intent to limit the scope of the PRS search condition to searches of a defendant’s person.

Finally, the Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant that he did not voluntarily consent to the search of his residence. The officers who conducted the search informed the defendant that the search was permitted pursuant to the terms of his post-release supervision. However, as noted above, the Commission actually lacked the statutory authority to impose that condition. Under the logic of Bumper v. North Carolina, 391 U.S. 543 (1968), if “consent” to a search is based upon an officer’s belief that the officer has legal authority to conduct the search, but that belief turns out to be mistaken, then the purported consent is not valid. Moreover, as also noted above, the defendant had no statutory right to refuse PRS. The Court of Appeals concluded that the law could not “prejudice Defendant for agreeing to something he had no legal right to refuse.” Slip op. at 64.

In the absence of valid consent or an authorizing statute, the warrantless search was presumptively unreasonable and unconstitutional, and the trial court thus erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress the firearm and other evidence found during the search. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order denying the motion suppress, vacated the judgment entered pursuant to the defendant’s plea, and remanded the matter for additional proceedings.

In this drug case, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. After receiving a tip that the defendant was growing marijuana at his home, officers drove there for a knock and talk. They pulled into the driveway and parked in front of the defendant’s car, which was parked at the far end of the driveway, beside the home. The garage was located immediately to the left of the driveway. An officer went to the front door to knock, while two detectives remained by the garage. A strong odor of marijuana was coming from the garage area. On the defendant’s front door was a sign reading “inquiries” with his phone number, and a second sign reading “warning” with a citation to several statutes. As soon as the defendant opened the front door, an officer smelled marijuana. The officer decided to maintain the residence pending issuance of a search warrant. After the warrant was obtained, a search revealed drugs and drug paraphernalia.

            The court began by rejecting the defendant’s argument that the officers engaged in an unconstitutional search and seizure by being present in his driveway and lingering by his garage. Officers conducting a knock and talk can lawfully approach a home so long as they remain within the permissible scope afforded by the knock and talk. Here, given the configuration of the property any private citizen wishing to knock on the defendant’s front door would drive into the driveway, get out, walk between the car and the path so as to stand next to the garage, and continue on the path to the front porch. Therefore, the officers’ conduct, in pulling into the driveway by the garage, getting out of their car, and standing between the car and the garage, was permitted. Additionally the officers were allowed to linger by the garage while their colleague approached the front door. Thus, “the officers’ lingering by the garage was justified and did not constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment.”

            The court went hold that by failing to raise the issue at the trial level, the defendant failed to preserve his argument that he revoked the officers’ implied license through his signage and that by ignoring this written revocation, the officers of violated the fourth amendment.

Because officers had permission from an occupant to enter a home where incriminating evidence was discovered, the subsequent search of the home was valid. Officers responded to a report of domestic violence at a home the defendant shared with his girlfriend Kristy Fink. A 911 call had reported the domestic violence incident and asserted that Fink suspected the defendant of being involved in an armed robbery of a Game Stop store a few days earlier. Officers knocked at the front door and the defendant and Fink answered and exited the home together. Pursuant to Police Department policy of separating parties on domestic calls, the officers separated the two for questioning. Officer Saine remained outside with the defendant, while Officer Francisco entered the home with Fink after being authorized by her to do so. Fink confirmed that the defendant assaulted her and corroborated the 911 caller’s information, telling Francisco that the incident began when she confronted the defendant about the robbery. Fink then led Francisco to a bedroom she shared with the defendant and showed him potentially incriminating evidence she had found prior to the incident. This included money and clothing matching the description of the robbery suspect’s clothing. When Saine entered the home at the defendant’s request for warmer clothing, Fink repeated to Saine what she had told Francisco. Officers got a search warrant and searched the home. The defendant was charged with armed robbery of the Game Stop store. The defendant unsuccessfully filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained from the search. The defendant was convicted and appealed.

            On appeal the defendant argued that because the officer’s initial entry into the home was illegal, the fruits of the subsequent search should have been suppressed. The court disagreed. Here, the defendant never objected to the officer’s entry into his home. Thus, the matter was not controlled by Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006), in which one spouse consented to the search and the other refused to give consent. The court further rejected the defendant’s argument that the officer’s entry into the home to investigate the allegations of domestic violence was mere subterfuge to investigate the robbery.

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.

Because an officer violated the defendant’s fourth amendment rights by searching the curtilage of his home without a warrant, the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. The officer saw a vehicle with its doors open at the back of a 150-yard driveway leading to the defendant’s home. Concerned that the vehicle might be part of a break-in or home invasion, the officer drove down the driveway, ran the vehicle’s tags, checked—but did not knock—on the front door, checked the windows and doors of the home for signs of forced entry, “cleared” the sides of the house, and then went through a closed gate in a chain-link fence enclosing the home’s backyard and approached the storm door at the back of the house. As the officer approached the door, which was not visible from the street, he smelled marijuana, which led to the defendant’s arrest for drug charges. At the suppression hearing, the State relied on two exceptions to the warrant requirement to justify the officer’s search of the curtilage: the knock and talk doctrine and the community caretaker doctrine. The court found however that neither exception applies. First, the officer did more than nearly knock and talk. Specifically, he ran a license plate not visible from the street, walked around the house examining windows and searching for signs of a break-in, and went first to the front door without knocking and then to a rear door not visible from the street and located behind a closed gate. “These actions went beyond what the U.S. Supreme Court has held are the permissible actions during a knock and talk.” Likewise, the community caretaker doctrine does not support the officer’s action. “The presence of a vehicle in one’s driveway with its doors open is not the sort of emergency that justifies the community caretaker exception.” The court also noted that because the fourth amendment’s protections “are at their very strongest within one’s home,” the public need justifying the community caretaker exception “must be particularly strong to justify a warrantless search of a home.”

No fourth amendment violation occurred when officers entered the defendant’s driveway to investigate a shooting. When detectives arrived at the defendant’s property they found the gate to his driveway open. The officers did not recall observing a “no trespassing” sign that had been reported the previous day. After a backup deputy arrived, the officers drove both of their vehicles through the open gate and up the defendant’s driveway. Once the officers parked, the defendant came out of the house and spoke with the detectives. The defendant denied any knowledge of a shooting and denied owning a rifle. However, the defendant’s wife told the officers that there was a rifle inside the residence. The defendant gave verbal consent to search the home. In the course of getting consent, the defendant made incriminating statements. A search of the home found a rifle and shotgun. The rifle was seized but the defendant was not arrested. After leaving and learning that the defendant had a prior felony conviction from Texas, the officers obtained a search warrant to retrieve the other gun seen in his home and a warrant for the defendant’s arrest. When officers returned to the defendant’s residence, the driveway gate was closed and a sign on the gate warned “Trespassers will be shot exclamation!!! Survivors will be shot again!!!” The team entered and found multiple weapons on the premises. At trial the defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress all of the evidence obtained during the detectives’ first visit to the property and procured by the search warrant the following day. He pled guilty and appealed. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that a “no trespassing” sign on his gate expressly removed an implied license to approach his home. While the trial court found that a no trespassing sign was posted on the day of the shooting, there was no evidence that the sign was present on the day the officers first visited the property. Also, there was no evidence that the defendant took consistent steps to physically prevent visitors from entering the property; the open gate suggested otherwise. Finally, the defendant’s conduct upon the detectives’ arrival belied any notion that their approach was unwelcome. Specifically, when they arrived, he came out and greeted them. For these reasons, the defendant’s actions did not reflect a clear demonstration of an intent to revoke the implied license to approach. The court went on to hold that the officers’ actions did not exceed the scope of a lawful knock and talk. Finally, it rejected the defendant’s argument his fourth amendment rights were violated because the encounter occurred within the curtilage of his home. The court noted that no search of the curtilage occurs when an officer is in a place where the public is allowed to be for purposes of a general inquiry. Here, they entered the property by through an open driveway and did not deviate from the area where their presence was lawful.

In this drug case, the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of a warrantless search of her residence. According to the court: “The trial court’s findings that the officers observed a broken window, that the front door was unlocked, and that no one responded when the officers knocked on the door are insufficient to show that they had an objectively reasonable belief that a breaking and entering had recently taken place or was still in progress, such that there existed an urgent need to enter the property” and that the search was justified under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. It continued:

In this case, the only circumstances justifying the officers’ entry into defendant’s residence were a broken window, an unlocked door, and the lack of response to the officers’ knock at the door. We hold that although these findings may be sufficient to give the officers a reasonable belief that an illegal entry had occurred at some point, they are insufficient to give the officers an objectively reasonable belief that a breaking and entering was in progress or had occurred recently.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress DNA evidence obtained from his discarded cigarette butt. When the defendant refused to supply a DNA sample in connection with a rape and murder investigation, officers sought to obtain his DNA by other means. After the defendant discarded a cigarette butt in a parking lot, officers retrieved the butt. The parking lot was located directly in front of the defendant’s four-unit apartment building, was uncovered, and included 5-7 unassigned parking spaces used by the residents. The area between the road and the parking lot was heavily wooded, but no gate restricted access to the lot and no signs suggested either that access to the parking lot was restricted or that the lot was private. After DNA on the cigarette butt matched DNA found on the victim, the defendant was charged with the crimes. At trial the defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress the DNA evidence. On appeal, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the seizure of the cigarette butt violated his constitutional rights because it occurred within the curtilage of his apartment:

[W]e conclude that the parking lot was not located in the curtilage of defendant’s building. While the parking lot was in close proximity to the building, it was not enclosed, was used for parking by both the buildings’ residents and the general public, and was only protected in a limited way. Consequently, the parking lot was not a location where defendant possessed “a reasonable and legitimate expectation of privacy that society is prepared to accept.”

Next, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that even if the parking lot was not considered curtilage, he still maintained a possessory interest in the cigarette butt since he did not put it in a trash can or otherwise convey it to a third party. The court reasoned that the cigarette butt was abandoned property. Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that even if officers lawfully obtained the cigarette butt, they still were required to obtain a warrant before testing it for his DNA because he had a legitimate expectation of privacy in his DNA. The court reasoned that the extraction of DNA from an abandoned item does not implicate the Fourth Amendment.

A search of the defendant’s garage pursuant to a search warrant was improper. Following up on a tip that the defendant was growing marijuana on his property, officers went to his residence. They knocked on the front door but received no response. They then went to the back of the house because they heard barking dogs and thought that an occupant might not have heard them knock. Once there they smelled marijuana coming from the garage and this discovery formed the basis for the search warrant. The court concluded that “the sound of barking dogs, alone, was not sufficient to support the detectives’ decision to enter the curtilage of defendant’s property by walking into the back yard of the home and the area on the driveway within ten feet of the garage.” The court went on to conclude that when the detectives smelled the odor of marijuana, “their purported general inquiry about the information received from the anonymous tip was in fact a trespassory invasion of defendant’s curtilage, and they had no legal right to be in that location.” The subsequent search based, in part, on the odor of marijuana was unlawful.

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