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

Pennsylvania State Troopers pulled over a car driven by Terrence Byrd. Byrd was the only person in the car. During the traffic stop the troopers learned that the car was rented and that Byrd was not listed on the rental agreement as an authorized driver. For this reason, the troopers told Byrd they did not need his consent to search the car, including its trunk where he had stored personal effects. A search of the trunk uncovered body armor and 49 bricks of heroin. The defendant was charged with federal drug crimes. He moved to suppress the evidence. The Federal District Court denied the motion and the Third Circuit affirmed. Both courts concluded that, because Byrd was not listed on the rental agreement, he lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the question whether a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car when he or she is not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement. The Government argued, in part, that drivers who are not listed on rental agreements always lack an expectation of privacy in the automobile based on the rental company’s lack of authorization alone. The Court found that “[t]his per se rule rests on too restrictive a view of the Fourth Amendment’s protections.” It held, in part: “the mere fact that a driver in lawful possession or control of a rental car is not listed on the rental agreement will not defeat his or her otherwise reasonable expectation of privacy.” The Court remanded on two arguments advanced by the Government: that one who intentionally uses a third party to procure a rental car by a fraudulent scheme for the purpose of committing a crime is no better situated than a car thief (who, the Court noted, would lack a legitimate expectation of privacy); and that probable cause justified the search in any event.

In this Guilford County case, defendant appealed after his guilty pleas to possession of a firearm by a felon and carrying a concealed firearm, arguing error in denying his motion to suppress because the smell of marijuana could not support probable cause. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding no error.

In January of 2021, Greensboro police received a report that a handgun was in plain view inside a parked car. Police officers observed a group of people getting into the car, and eventually pulled the car over for going 55 mph in a 45-mph zone. When the officers approached the vehicle, they smelled what they believed was marijuana, along with a strong cologne scent. Officers asked the driver about the smell of marijuana, and she explained that they were recently at a club where people were smoking outside. After that answer, officers conducted a probable cause search of the vehicle for narcotics. During the search, officers noticed what appeared to be marijuana next to where defendant was sitting, and conducted a Terry frisk of defendant, discovering a firearm in his waistband. Before trial, defendant filed a motion to suppress the results of the search, arguing the smell of marijuana could not support probable cause due to the recent legalization of hemp. The trial court denied the motion, and defendant subsequently pleaded guilty to the firearms charges through a plea agreement. 

Taking up defendant’s arguments, the Court of Appeals explained that defendant’s challenges fell into two areas. First, defendant challenged the trial court’s findings of fact that officers smelled marijuana, arguing the legalization of hemp made identifying marijuana by smell alone impossible. The court noted that “contrary to Defendant’s arguments, the legalization of industrial hemp did not eliminate the significance of detecting ‘the odor of marijuana’ for the purposes of a motion to suppress.” Slip Op. at 7. The court then considered defendant’s argument that the trial court misquoted the driver, writing that she said they were “in a club where marijuana was smoked” as opposed to at a club where people were smoking outside, with no mention of marijuana. Id. at 8. The court explained that even if the quotation was error, it did not undermine the finding of probable cause. Instead, the officers “detected the odor of marijuana plus a cover scent,” providing a basis for probable cause to search the vehicle. Id. at 9. 

In this Union County case, defendant appealed his convictions for trafficking in heroin by possession and by transportation, arguing error by (1) denying his motion to suppress based on insufficient probable cause, and (2) sentencing him for both convictions as possession is a lesser-included offense of trafficking. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

In November of 2020, a lieutenant with the Union County Sheriff’s Office received a call from a confidential informant regarding a man driving a Honda Accord who had recently left a known heroin trafficker’s house. Another officer received the report and initiated a traffic stop of defendant after observing him run a red light. A canine officer responded to the stop and conducted a search around the vehicle; the dog alerted at the passenger side door. A search of the vehicle found a plastic bag with brownish residue. Defendant moved to suppress the results of this search before trial, but the trial court denied the motion, finding the dog’s alert and the confidential informant’s tip supported probable cause. 

Taking up (1), the Court of Appeals outlined defendant’s arguments challenging both the reliability of the dog’s alert and the reliability of the confidential informant. Concerning the dog’s alert, defendant argued due to the legalization of hemp, the alert did not necessarily indicate illegal drugs, and thus could not represent probable cause. The court rejected this argument, explaining that caselaw supported a drug dog’s alert as probable cause to search the area where the dog alerted, and “[t]he legalization of hemp does not alter this well-established general principle.” Slip Op. at 7. The court noted that this argument also did not fit the facts of the case, as no officer noticed the smell of marijuana, and the confidential informant referenced heroin, which was also the substance found in the car. Because the dog’s alert alone formed sufficient probable cause, the court did not reach the confidential information argument. 

Arriving at (2), the court explained that “[d]efendant was sentenced for trafficking in heroin by transportation and possession, not trafficking and possession.” Id. at 11. The court pointed to State v. Perry, 316 N.C. 87 (1986), for the principle that a defendant could be convicted for trafficking in heroin by possession and by transporting “even when the contraband material in each separate offense is the same.” Id., quoting Perry at 103-04. Based on this precedent, the court rejected defendant’s arguments, and also rejected his “challenge” to create “a hypothetical where a defendant transports drugs without possessing drugs.” Id

In this Mecklenburg County case, the State appealed an order granting defendant’s motion to suppress evidence seized during a traffic stop. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order and remanded for additional proceedings. 

In May of 2021, defendant was pulled over by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer due to suspicion of a fictitious tag. When the officer approached the vehicle, he noticed defendant was fumbling with his paperwork and seemed very nervous, and the officer noted the smell of marijuana in the car. After the officer determined defendant was driving on a revoked license, he asked defendant about the marijuana smell, and defendant denied smoking in the car, but said he had just retrieved the car from his friend and speculated that was the source of the smell. The officer asked defendant to step out of the car and defendant did so, bringing cigarettes, a cellphone, and a crown royal bag with him. The officer put the belongings on the seat and patted defendant down for weapons. Finding no weapons, the officer then searched a crown royal bag and found a green leafy substance along with a digital scale, baggies of white powder, and baggies of colorful pills. Defendant was indicted for Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, Trafficking in Drugs, and Possession with Intent to Sell or Deliver a Controlled Substance, and he filed a motion to suppress the evidence from the bag, arguing the officer did not have probable cause for the search. The trial court orally granted defendant’s motion, referencing State v. Parker, 277 N.C. App. 531 (2021), and explaining “I just think in the totality here and given the new world that we live in, that odor plus is the standard and we didn’t get the plus here.” Slip Op. at 4. 

The Court of Appeals first reviewed its basis for appellate jurisdiction based on the State’s notice of appeal, explaining that the State’s appeal violated Rule of Appellate Procedure 4 by incorrectly identifying the motion to suppress as a “motion to dismiss,” failed to reference G.S. 15A-979(c) as support for its appeal of an interlocutory motion to suppress, and failed to include the statement of grounds for appellate review required by Rule of Appellate Procedure 28(b)(4). Id. at 6-7. Despite the defects with the State’s appeal, the majority determined that the appropriate outcome was to issue a writ of certiorari, but “given the substantial and gross violations of the Rules of Appellate Procedure, we tax the costs of this appeal to the State as a sanction.” Id. at 10. 

After establishing jurisdiction for the appeal, the court turned to the issue of probable cause for the warrantless search of the vehicle and ultimately the crown royal bag. The court declined to consider whether the odor of marijuana alone justified the search, as “[i]n this case, however, as in Parker, the Officer had several reasons in addition to the odor of marijuana to support probable cause to search the vehicle and, consequently, the Crown Royal bag.” Id. at 13. The court pointed to (1) the “acknowledgement, if not an admission” that marijuana was smoked in the car, and that defendant did not assert that it was hemp, (2) defendant was driving with a fictitious tag, and (3) defendant was driving with an invalid license. Id. at 14. Then the court established that the officer also had probable cause to search the Crown Royal bag, quoting State v. Mitchell, 224 N.C. App. 171 (2012), to support that probable cause authorizes a search of “every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.” Id. at 15. Although defendant tried to remove the bag as he left the vehicle, the court explained that was “immaterial because the bag was in the car at the time of the stop.” Id. Because the totality of the circumstances supported the officer’s probable cause in searching the vehicle, the trial court’s order granting the motion to suppress was error. 

Judge Murphy concurred in part and dissented in part by separate opinion, and would have found that the State did not adequately invoke the court’s jurisdiction. Id. at 17. 

In this Union County case, defendant appealed his conviction for trafficking by possession and transportation of heroin, arguing error in the denial of his motion to suppress the results of a warrantless search of his vehicle. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In January of 2020, the Union County Sheriff's Office was observing several individuals involved in drug trafficking based on information from two confidential informants. Based on the observations and information received, officers ended up detaining defendant and searching his vehicle, finding heroin after searching the vehicle. Although a canine unit was present, the dog did not alert on a search around the perimeter of the car. Despite the lack of alert, the officers believed they had probable cause based on “the tips provided by two unrelated confidential informants and officers’ observations that confirmed these specific tips.” Slip Op. at 4. Defendant subsequently pleaded guilty to charges of trafficking heroin but reserved his right to appeal the dismissal of his motion to suppress.

The court walked through each challenged finding of fact and conclusion of law, determining that none of the issues highlighted by defendant represented error. In particular, the court explained that the lack of an alert from the canine unit did not prevent the officers from having probable cause, and noted “[d]efendant has cited no case, either before the trial court or on appeal, holding that officers cannot have probable cause to search a vehicle if a canine search is conducted and the canine fails to alert . . . [n]or did we find such a case.” Id. at 29. Because the totality of the circumstances supported probable cause, the court found no error in the trial court’s conclusion.

In this Gaston County case, defendant appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress after entering a no contest plea to possession of a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia, and failure to stop at a stop sign. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

 

In October of 2020, police officers observed a car roll through a stop sign and pulled over the vehicle. When officers approached, defendant was behind the wheel; one officer took defendant’s license and information to perform a warrant check, while the other officer stayed with defendant and shined a flashlight through the windows to observe the vehicle. After shining the light around the vehicle, the officer noticed a plastic baggie next to the driver’s door, and defendant was detained while the officers retrieved and tested the baggie. The baggie tested positive for crack-cocaine.

 

On appeal, defendant argued that the stop was inappropriately pretextual, and that the officer shining a flashlight lacked probable cause to search his vehicle. The Court of Appeals disagreed, explaining that “[o]fficers who lawfully approach a car and look inside with a flashlight do not conduct a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.” Slip Op. at 4-5, quoting State v. Brooks, 337 N.C. 132, 144 (1994). The court then turned to the stop, explaining that “both the United States Supreme Court and our North Carolina Supreme Court have ruled that an officer’s subjective motive for a stop has no bearing on the Fourth Amendment analysis.” Slip Op. at 9, citing Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 813 (1996); and State v. McClendon, 350 N.C. 630, 635-36 (1999). Having established for Fourth Amendment analysis that the subjective motive for the stop was irrelevant and that a flashlight through defendant’s window was not a search, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny the motion.

Officers responded to a single-car accident in May 2018. At the time of the crash, the defendant was the passenger, and her acquaintance, Kyle, was driving the vehicle with the defendant’s permission. Witnesses at the site told the officers the driver fled the scene and walked into nearby woods because he had outstanding warrants. The defendant told the officers that she knew the driver as “Kyle” but that she did not know his full or last name. One officer searched the SUV to look for Kyle’s driver’s license or ID. The officer found a bag in which he discovered a black box that contained two cell phones, a scale, and two large bags of a clear crystal-like substance, which was later determined to be of methamphetamine.

The officers arrested the defendant then searched the bag she had with her outside of the car. Inside of the defendant’s bag, the officers found a glass smoking pipe, five cell phones, a handgun, a notebook, $1,785 in cash, and a clear container holding several bags of a white crystal-like substance, one of which contained one tenth of an ounce of methamphetamine.

Defense counsel filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence found in both bags, alleging the search of the vehicle violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. During a hearing, the officer testified that he had searched the vehicle to locate the driver’s identification in order to investigate the motor vehicle collision and a potential hit-and-run. The trial court concluded the warrantless search was constitutional because the officer had probable cause to search the SUV and denied the defendant’s motion. The defendant pled guilty of possession of methamphetamine and was convicted of trafficking in methamphetamine by possession by a jury’s verdict. The defendant appealed.

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress evidence found in a warrantless search of her parents’ vehicle without sufficient probable cause. The Court of Appeals concluded that the officers had reasonable suspicion to search the vehicle to verify the claims of another occupant and custodian of the vehicle to determine that alleged driver’s identity. The Court reasoned that Kyle’s identification may not have been inside the vehicle, but there was no other way for the officers to try to find information to identify the driver if the passenger and other witnesses did not know or would not provide his full name, and the identification of the purported driver may have reasonably been determined from looking inside the wrecked vehicle. The Court thus held that the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress.

(2) The defendant also argued that the trial court plainly erred by failing to provide an additional instruction about her actual knowledge of the drugs found inside the vehicle. The Court determined that the trial court adequately advised the jury of the knowledge requirement by stating, “a person possesses methamphetamine if the person is aware of its presence . . . and intent to control the disposition or use of that substance.” Slip op. at ¶ 23. The Court thus concluded the jury was sufficiently instructed that the State had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly possessed methamphetamine, and the defendant could not be convicted if she lacked knowledge of the methamphetamine found inside of her parent’s vehicle.

Judge Inman dissented in part to say that while there may have been probable cause to justify the issuance of a warrant by a magistrate, no exception to the warrant requirement authorized the warrantless search of the vehicle on the scene of the single-car accident in this case. Judge Inman concurred in part to say she would hold that the trial court erred in failing to further instruct the jury about the defendant’s knowledge as prescribed by our pattern jury instructions but did not conclude that the error had a probable impact on the jury’s verdict.

In this Cabarrus County case, the defendant was convicted of two counts of felony possession of Schedule I controlled substance and having attained habitual felon status. The charges arose from substances recovered from the vehicle defendant was driving when he was stopped for failing to wear his seatbelt. The officer who approached the car smelled the odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the car. The officer told the defendant and his passenger that if they handed over everything they had, he would simply cite them for possession of marijuana. The passenger in the car then admitted that he had smoked a marijuana joint earlier and retrieved a partially smoked marijuana cigarette from his sock. The officer then searched the car and discovered gray rock-like substances that when tested proved to be Cyclopropylfentanyl (a fentanyl derivative compound) and a pill that was N-ethylpentylone (a chemical compound similar to bath salts). 

(1) At trial, the defendant moved to suppress evidence of the drugs recovered from his car. The trial court denied the motion. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by failing to issue a written order and in finding that the search was supported by probable cause. The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not err by failing to enter a written order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress as there was no material conflict in the evidence and the trial court’s oral ruling explained its rationale. The Court further held that regardless of whether the scent of marijuana emanating from a vehicle continues to be sufficient to establish probable cause (now that hemp is legal and the smell of the two is indistinguishable), the officer in this case had probable cause based on additional factors, which included the passenger’s admission that he had just smoked marijuana and the partially smoked marijuana cigarette he produced from his sock. The Court also considered the officer’s subjective belief that the substance he smelled was marijuana to be additional evidence supporting probable cause, even if the officer’s belief might have been mistaken. The Court rejected the defendant’s contention that the probable cause had to be particularized to him, citing precedent establishing that if probable cause justifies the search of a vehicle, an officer may search every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search. 

(2) The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred by instructing the jury that Cyclopropylfentanyl and N-ethylpentylone were controlled substances since those substances are not specifically listed as named controlled substances under Schedule I in G.S. 90-89.  The Court rejected the defendant’s argument on the basis that the classification of these substances was a legal issue within the province of the trial court.  Furthermore, the Court determined that even if the classification was a factual issue, the defendant was not prejudiced because the undisputed evidence demonstrated that the substances were controlled substances fitting within the catch-all provision of Schedule I. 

(3) The defendant argued on appeal that because he denied knowing the identity of the substances found in his vehicle the trial court erred in denying his request to instruct the jury that he must have known that what he possessed was a controlled substance. The Court of Appeals found no error. The Court characterized the defendant’s statements to the arresting officer as “amount[ing] to a denial of any knowledge whatsoever that the vehicle he was driving contained drugs” and noted that the defendant never specifically denied knowledge of the contents of the cloth in which the Cyclopropylfentanyl was wrapped, nor did he admit that the substances belonged to him while claiming not to know what they were. The Court concluded that these facts failed to establish the prerequisite circumstance for giving the instruction requested, namely that the defendant did not know the true identity of what he possessed. The Court further noted that defense counsel was allowed to explain to the jury during closing argument that knowing possession was a required element of the offense and the jury instructions required the State to prove that the defendant knowingly possessed the controlled substance and was aware of its presence.

A search of a tire found in the undercarriage of the defendant’s vehicle was proper. An officer stopped the defendant for following too closely. The officer asked for and received consent to search the vehicle. During the consent search, the officer performed a “ping test” on a tire found inside the vehicle. When the ping test revealed a strong odor of marijuana, the officer arrested the defendant and searched the rest of the vehicle. At that point, the officer found a second tire located in the vehicle’s undercarriage, which also contained marijuana. The search was justified because the discovery of marijuana in the first tire gave the officer probable cause to believe that the vehicle was being used to transport marijuana and therefore the officer had probable cause to search any part of the vehicle that may have contained marijuana.

Standing alone, the defendant’s statement that a plastic bag in his car contained “cigar guts” did not establish probable cause to search the defendant’s vehicle. Although the officer testified that gutted cigars had become a popular means of consuming controlled substances, that evidence established a link between hollowed out cigars and marijuana, not between loose tobacco and marijuana. There was no evidence that the defendant was stopped in a drug-ridden area, at an unusual time of day, or that the officer had any basis, apart from the defendant’s statements, for believing that the defendant possessed marijuana.

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