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., 09/22/2021
E.g., 09/22/2021

On appeal from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 809 S.E.2d 340 (2018), the court per curiam vacated and remanded to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of State v. Wilson, ___ N.C. ___, 821 S.E.2d 811 (2018). In the decision below the majority held, in relevant part, that where the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s suppression motion failed to resolve disputed issues of fact central to the court’s ability to conduct a meaningful appellate review, the case must be remanded for appropriate findings of fact. In its order denying the defendant’s suppression motion, the trial court concluded that, at the time defendant was asked for consent to search his car, he had not been seized. On appeal, the defendant challenged that conclusion, asserting that because the officers retained his driver’s license, a seizure occurred. It was undisputed that the law enforcement officers’ interactions with the defendant were not based upon suspicion of criminal activity. Thus, if a seizure occurred it was in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The State argued that the trial court’s findings of fact fail to establish whether the officers retained the defendant’s license or returned it to him after examination. The Court of Appeals agreed, noting that the evidence was conflicting on this critical issue and remanding for appropriate findings of fact. As noted, the Supreme Court remanded for reconsideration in light of Wilson. In Wilson,a felon in possession of a firearm case, the Supreme Court held that Michigan v. Summers justifies a seizure of the defendant where he posed a real threat to the safe and efficient completion of a search.

On discretionary review of a unanimous, unpublished decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 803 S.E.2d 698 (2017), in this felon in possession of a firearm case, the court held that Michigan v. Summers justifies a seizure of the defendant where he posed a real threat to the safe and efficient completion of a search and that the search and seizure of the defendant were supported by individualized suspicion. A SWAT team was sweeping a house so that the police could execute a search warrant. Several police officers were positioned around the house to create a perimeter securing the scene. The defendant penetrated the SWAT perimeter, stating that he was going to get his moped. In so doing, he passed Officer Christian, who was stationed at the perimeter near the street. The defendant then kept going, moving up the driveway and toward the house to be searched. Officer Ayers, who was stationed near the house, confronted the defendant. After a brief interaction, Officer Ayers searched the defendant based on his suspicion that the defendant was armed. Officer Ayers found a firearm in the defendant’s pocket. The defendant, who had previously been convicted of a felony, was arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He unsuccessfully moved to suppress at trial and was convicted. The Court of Appeals held that the search was invalid because the trial court’s order did not show that the search was supported by reasonable suspicion. The Supreme Court reversed holding “that the rule in Michigan v. Summers justifies the seizure here because defendant, who passed one officer, stated he was going to get his moped, and continued toward the premises being searched, posed a real threat to the safe and efficient completion of the search.” The court interpreted the Summers rule to mean that a warrant to search for contraband founded on probable cause implicitly carries with it the limited authority to detain occupants who are within the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched and who are present during the execution of a search warrant. Applying this rule, the court determined that “a person is an occupant for the purposes of the Summers rule if he poses a real threat to the safe and efficient execution of a search warrant.” (quotation omitted). Here, the defendant posed such a threat. It reasoned: “He approached the house being swept, announced his intent to retrieve his moped from the premises, and appeared to be armed. It was obvious that defendant posed a threat to the safe completion of the search.”

         Because the Summers rule only justifies detentions incident to the execution of search warrants, the court continued, considering whether the search of the defendant’s person was justified. On this issue the court held that “both the search and seizure of defendant were supported by individualized suspicion and thus did not violate the Fourth Amendment.”

In this drug case, the court held, deciding an issue of first impression, that an odor of marijuana emanating from inside a vehicle stopped at a checkpoint did not provide an officer with probable cause to conduct an immediate warrantless search of the driver. The defendant was driving the stopped vehicle; a passenger sat in the front seat. The officer was unable to establish the exact location of the odor but determined that it was coming from inside the vehicle. Upon smelling the odor, the officer ordered the defendant out of the vehicle and searched him, finding cocaine and other items. On appeal the defendant argued that although the officer smelled marijuana emanating from the vehicle, there was no evidence that the odor was attributable to the defendant personally. It was not contested that the officer had probable cause to search the vehicle. Probable cause to search a vehicle however does not justify search of a passenger. The State offered no evidence that the marijuana odor was attributable to the defendant. The court held: the officer “may have had probable cause to search the vehicle, but he did not have probable cause to search defendant.” 

In Re V.C.R., 227 N.C. App. 80 (May. 7, 2013)

Although an officer had reasonable suspicion to stop a juvenile, the officer’s subsequent conduct of ordering the juvenile to empty her pockets constituted a search and this search was illegal; it was not incident to an arrest nor consensual. The district court thus erred by denying the juvenile’s motion to suppress.

On what it described as an issue of first impression in North Carolina, the court held that a drug dog’s positive alert at the front side driver’s door of a motor vehicle does not give rise to probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of the person of a recent passenger of the vehicle who is standing outside the vehicle.

Probable cause and exigent circumstances supported an officer’s warrantless search of the defendant’s mouth by grabbing him around the throat, pushing him onto the hood of a vehicle, and demanding that he spit out whatever he was trying to swallow. Probable cause to believe that the defendant possessed illegal drugs and was attempting to destroy them was supported by information from three reliable informants, the fact that the defendant’s vehicle was covered in talcum powder, which is used to mask the odor of drugs, while conducting a consent search of the defendant’s person, the defendant attempted to swallow something, and that other suspects had attempted to swallow drugs in the officer’s presence. Exigent circumstances existed because the defendant attempted to swallow four packages of cocaine, which could have endangered his health.

There was probable cause supporting a warrantless search of the defendant. During a pat-down, an officer felt a digital scale in the defendant’s pocket and the defendant confirmed the nature of the object. The officer was justified in concluding that the scale was contraband given informant tips that defendant was selling drugs. Additionally, the defendant was coming from the area in which the informants claimed he was selling drugs, and he was acting nervously. The defendant did not challenge the trial court’s conclusion that exigent circumstances were present.

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