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., 02/08/2023
E.g., 02/08/2023

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.

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 Sherriff’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.  

 

In this Guilford County case, defendant appealed his attempted heroin trafficking and possession of a firearm convictions pursuant to a plea agreement that preserved his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of defendant’s motion. 

The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office conducted a narcotics investigation in May of 2019. As part of the investigation, a confidential informant made several purchases of heroin from a person who was associated with defendant. During a purchase set up by the confidential informant, the seller was observed getting into a black SUV, a vehicle later spotted by an officer at a fuel pump near the arranged buy. After spotting the black SUV officers detained defendant, who was operating the SUV, and searched the vehicle, finding heroin and a loaded firearm. At trial, defendant moved to suppress the warrantless search and seizure, which the trial court denied after finding probable cause for the search. 

Reviewing defendant’s appeal, the Court of Appeals first examined the challenged findings of fact related to the officers’ testimony. Defendant argued that inconsistences between the testimony of the two officers meant that both could not be considered credible, and certain other findings of fact were inconsistent with the evidence presented. The court explained that slight inconsistencies between the testimony of two witnesses did not prevent both from being credible, and the trial court is tasked with evaluating the evidence and resolving inconsistencies. Because competent evidence supported the findings of fact even with the slight inconsistences, the court rejected defendant’s challenges. 

The court then reviewed the probable cause for a search of defendant’s SUV and the seizure of heroin and a firearm found inside the vehicle. The court explained that the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment requires that the “vehicle be in a public vehicular area and the police have probable cause.” Slip Op. at 16. The first issue was whether defendant’s SUV was in a “public vehicular area” when searched; defendant argued that the area next to a fuel pump did not fall under the definition provided by G.S. § 20-4.01(32). The court explained that a “service station” is gas station for purposes of the statute, and although the fuel pump area may not be a “driveway, road, alley, or parking lot” as listed by the statute, this list is intended to be illustrative and not limiting. Slip Op. at 19. After examining applicable precedent, the court held that “the driving or parking area adjacent to a fuel pump at a service station is a ‘public vehicular area’” for purposes of G.S. § 20-4.01(32). 

After determining that defendant’s SUV was in a public vehicular area, the court turned to the probable cause for searching the vehicle. Defendant argued that the plain view and plain smell doctrines could not support the search of the vehicle. Regarding the plain view doctrine, the court pointed out that the vehicle was in a public vehicular area and near the location of the drug buy the officers were observing. For the plain smell doctrine, the court noted that there was no applicable precedent regarding the smell of heroin supporting a search, but ample precedent used the smell of other narcotics, such as marijuana and cocaine, to support probable cause for a search. The court saw “no reason to treat the plain smell of heroin any differently than the plain smell of marijuana or cocaine” for purposes of the plain smell doctrine, and affirmed the trial court’s determination of probable cause for the search. Slip Op. at 29. 

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 claim that counsel was ineffective by failing to object to the admission of cocaine found during an officer’s warrantless search of the defendant’s vehicle; the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State was required to prove that the defendant’s car was “readily mobile” in order for the automobile exception to the warrant requirement to apply. An officer searched the vehicle after smelling a strong odor of marijuana and seeing an individual sitting in the passenger seat with marijuana on his lap. The cocaine was found during a subsequent search of the vehicle. The vehicle was parked on the street when the search occurred and no evidence suggested that it was incapable of movement.

Although a search of the defendant’s vehicle was not proper under Gant, it was authorized under the automobile exception where officers had probable cause that the vehicle contained marijuana. After officers saw a vehicle execute a three-point turn in the middle of an intersection, strike a parked vehicle, and continue traveling on the left side of the road, they activated their blue lights to initiate a traffic stop. Before the vehicle stopped, they saw a brown beer bottle thrown from the driver’s side window. After the driver and passenger exited the vehicle, the officers detected an odor of alcohol and marijuana from the inside of the car and discovered a partially consumed bottle of beer in the center console. The defendant was arrested for hit and run and possession of an open container, put in handcuffs, and placed in the back of the officers’ cruiser. One of the officers searched the vehicle and retrieved the beer bottle from the center console, a grocery bag containing more beer, and a plastic baggie containing several white rocks, which turned out to be cocaine, in car’s glove compartment. After the defendant was charged with possession of cocaine and other offenses, he moved to suppress the evidence found pursuant to the search of his car. The court concluded that although a search of the car was not proper under Gant, it was proper under the automobile exception. Specifically, the fact that the officers smelled a strong odor of marijuana inside the vehicle provided probable cause to search.

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