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

In three consolidated cases the Court held that while a warrantless breath test of a motorist lawfully arrested for drunk driving is permissible as a search incident to arrest, a warrantless blood draw is not. It concluded: “Because breath tests are significantly less intrusive than blood tests and in most cases amply serve law enforcement interests, we conclude that a breath test, but not a blood test, may be administered as a search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving. As in all cases involving reasonable searches incident to arrest, a warrant is not needed in this situation.” Having found that the search incident to arrest doctrine does not justify the warrantless taking of a blood sample, the Court turned to the argument that blood tests are justified based on the driver’s legally implied consent to submit to them. In this respect it concluded: “motorists cannot be deemed to have consented to submit to a blood test on pain of committing a criminal offense.”

The police may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. This decision involved a pair of cases in which both defendants were arrested and cell phones were seized. In both cases, officers examined electronic data on the phones without a warrant as a search incident to arrest. The Court held that “officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting such a search.” The Court noted that “the interest in protecting officer safety does not justify dispensing with the warrant requirement across the board.” In this regard it added however that “[t]o the extent dangers to arresting officers may be implicated in a particular way in a particular case, they are better addressed through consideration of case-specific exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as the one for exigent circumstances.” Next, the Court rejected the argument that preventing the destruction of evidence justified the search. It was unpersuaded by the prosecution’s argument that a different result should obtain because remote wiping and data encryption may be used to destroy digital evidence. The Court noted that “[t]o the extent that law enforcement still has specific concerns about the potential loss of evidence in a particular case, there remain more targeted ways to address those concerns. If the police are truly confronted with a ‘now or never’ situation—for example, circumstances suggesting that a defendant’s phone will be the target of an imminent remote-wipe attempt—they may be able to rely on exigent circumstances to search the phone immediately” (quotation omitted). Alternatively, the Court noted, “if officers happen to seize a phone in an unlocked state, they may be able to disable a phone’s automatic-lock feature in order to prevent the phone from locking and encrypting data.” The Court noted that such a procedure would be assessed under case law allowing reasonable steps to secure a scene to preserve evidence while procuring a warrant. Turning from an examination of the government interests at stake to the privacy issues associated with a warrantless cell phone search, the Court rejected the government’s argument that a search of all data stored on a cell phone is materially indistinguishable the other types of personal items, such as wallets and purses. The Court noted that “[m]odern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse” and that they “differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person.” It also noted the complicating factor that much of the data viewed on a cell phone is not stored on the device itself, but rather remotely through cloud computing. Concluding, the Court noted:

We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.

Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest.

(Slip Op at. p. 25). And finally, the Court noted that even though the search incident to arrest does not apply to cell phones, other exceptions may still justify a warrantless search of a particular phone, such as exigent circumstances.

We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.

Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest.

(Slip Op at. p. 25). And finally, the Court noted that even though the search incident to arrest does not apply to cell phones, other exceptions may still justify a warrantless search of a particular phone, such as exigent circumstances.

State v. Wilkerson, 363 N.C. 382 (Aug. 28, 2009)

Seizure and search of the defendant’s cell phone was proper as a search incident to arrest. The defendant was arrested for two murders shortly after they were committed. While in custody, he received a cell phone call, at which point the seizure occurred. [Note: The more recent Riley decision, above.]

(1) In this drug case, a search of the defendant’s person was a proper search incident to arrest. An officer stopped the defendant’s vehicle for driving with a revoked license. The officer had recognized the defendant and knew that his license was suspended. The officer arrested the defendant for driving with a revoked license, handcuffed him and placed him in the police cruiser. The officer then asked the defendant for consent to search the car. According to the officer the defendant consented. The defendant denied doing so. Although an initial search of the vehicle failed to locate any contraband, a K-9 dog arrived and “hit” on the right front fender and driver’s seat cushion. When a second search uncovered no contraband or narcotics, the officer concluded that the narcotics must be on the defendant’s person. The defendant was brought to the police department and was searched. The search involved lowering the defendant’s pants and long johns to his knees. During the search the officer pulled out, but did not pull down, the defendant’s underwear and observed the defendant’s genitals and buttocks. Cocaine eventually was retrieved from a hidden area on the fly of the defendant’s pants. The defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress the drugs and was convicted. On appeal, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the strip search could only have been conducted with probable cause and exigent circumstances. The court noted however that standard applies only to roadside strip searches. Here, the search was conducted incident to the defendant’s lawful arrest inside a private interview room at a police facility.

(2) The search of the defendant’s person, which included observing his buttocks and genitals, was reasonable. The defendant had argued that even if the search of his person could be justified as a search incident to an arrest, it was unreasonable under the totality of the circumstances. Rejecting this argument, the court noted that the search was limited to the area of the defendant’s body and clothing that would have come in contact with the cushion of the driver’s seat where the dog alerted; specifically, the area between his knees and waist. Moreover, the defendant was searched inside a private interview room at the police station with only the defendant and two officers present. The officers did not remove the defendant’s clothing above the waist. They did not fully remove his undergarments, nor did they touch his genitals or any body cavity. The court also noted the suspicion created by, among other things, the canine’s alert and the failure to discover narcotics in the car. The court thus concluded that the place, manner, justification and scope of the search of the defendant’s person was reasonable.

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.

A search of the defendant’s jacket incident to arrest was lawful. When the officer grabbed the defendant, the defendant ran. While attempting to evade capture, the defendant tried to punch the officer while keeping his right hand inside his jacket. The defendant refused to remove his hand from his jacket pocket despite being ordered to do so and the jacket eventually came off during the struggle. This behavior led the officer to believe that the defendant may be armed. After the defendant was subdued, handcuffed, and placed in a patrol vehicle, the officer walked about ten feet and retrieved the jacket from the ground. He searched the jacket and retrieved a bag containing crack cocaine.

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