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., 02/01/2023
E.g., 02/01/2023

In this Macon County case, defendant appealed after entering a guilty plea to trafficking in opiates/heroin and marijuana, arguing the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress the evidence obtained during a warrantless search of his residence. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of defendant’s motion. 

Beginning in September of 2017, defendant’s live-in girlfriend was on supervised probation, which included conditions that she submit to warrantless searches of her home and that she not use, possess or control any illegal drug or controlled substance. During her probation, probation officers repeatedly found defendant’s girlfriend with pills and evidence of drug use. In August of 2018, the girlfriend screened positive for cocaine, THC, and opiates. After the positive screening, probation officers decided to search her vehicle, finding additional pills, and subsequently decided to search her residence, which was defendant’s home. Officers smelled marijuana in the residence; after establishing the existence of marijuana in the home, the officers obtained a search warrant for the entire premises, finding drug paraphernalia, opiates, sealed bags of marijuana, and $42,594 in cash. After the trial court denied defendant’s motion to suppress, defendant pleaded guilty to the charges, reserving his right to appeal.

On appeal, the court considered three questions: (1) whether the probation officers properly concluded that defendant’s home was his girlfriend’s residence; (2) did probable cause exist to support the issuance of a search warrant when details from the girlfriend were included without proper evaluation of her reliability as a witness; and (3) was the warrantless search of defendant’s home directly related to the purposes of defendant’s girlfriend’s supervised probation, as required by G.S. § 15A-1343(b)(13)? Rejecting defendant’s argument in (1), the court explained that, although the record suggested that defendant’s girlfriend had moved out on July 24, 2018, an officer observed her back in defendant’s yard on July 29, 2018, and the girlfriend confirmed her address as defendant’s residence on August 8, 2018. Additionally, defendant did not object that his girlfriend had moved out when probation officers arrived to perform a warrantless search on August 15, 2018, something a reasonable person would have done if defendant’s home was not her residence. Slip Op. at 17. 

Reviewing (2), the court explained that the detective who prepared the affidavit for the search warrant included his own observations and experience in law enforcement related to narcotics investigations. The court also pointed out that the trial court “identified [defendant’s girlfriend’s] statements as hearsay” and found her credibility “highly questionable” for purposes of the affidavit. Id. at 24. Despite this, the testimony of the officers involved supported the issuance of the search warrant, and the trial court did not give undue weight to defendant’s girlfriend’s statements.

Turning finally to (3), the court examined State v. Powell, 253 N.C. App. 590 (2017), and recent changes to G.S. § 15A-1343(b)(13) requiring a search of a residence by a probation officer to be “directly related to the probation supervision.” Slip Op. at 25-26. The court drew a contrast between Powell, explaining that in the current matter, defendant’s girlfriend failed a drug test screening and was found in possession of narcotics on her person and in her vehicle, activity that was directly related to violations of her probation, and it was these actions that led to the screening. Id. at 28. Despite the presence of other law enforcement at the scene, the court found that “[a]lthough the search may have served two purposes, (1) to further the supervisory goals of probation, and (2) to investigate other potential criminal behavior . . . the dual purpose of the search did not make the search unlawful under [G.S. § 15A-]1343(b)(13).” Id. at 29.

The defendant was on probation for a conviction of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and he was classified by his probation officer as “extreme high risk” for supervision purposes. Officers from several law enforcement agencies, working in conjunction with probation officers, conducted warrantless searches of the residences of high risk probationers in the county, including the defendant. Officers found drugs and paraphernalia during the search of defendant’s residence, and he was charged with several drug-related felonies. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence from the warrantless search, arguing that it was illegal because it was not “directly related” to his probation supervision, as required by G.S. 15A-1343(b)(13). The appellate court disagreed and affirmed the denial of the defendant’s suppression motion. The facts of this case were distinguishable from State v. Powell, __ N.C. App. __, 800 S.E.2d 745 (2017). In Powell, a U.S. Marshals task force conducted warrantless searches of random probationer’s homes as part of an ongoing operation for its own purposes and did not even notify the probation office. The Powell court held that those warrantless searches were not “directly related” to probation supervision. By contrast, the defendant in this case was selected for the enforcement action by his probation officer based on “his risk assessment, suspected gang affiliation, and positive drug screen,” and the “purpose of the search was to give the added scrutiny and closer supervision required of ‘high risk’ probationers such as the Defendant.” The search was therefore directly related to his supervision.

Because the State failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that a warrantless search was authorized by G.S. 15A-1343(b)(13), the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. The defendant was subjected to the regular condition of probation under G.S. 15A-1343(b)(13). This provision requires that the probationer “Submit at reasonable times to warrantless searches by a probation officer of the probationer's person and of the probationer's vehicle and premises while the probationer is present, for purposes directly related to the probation supervision . . . .” Here, the search of the defendant’s home occurred as part of an ongoing operation of a US Marshal’s Service task force. The court noted that while prior case law makes clear that the presence or participation of law enforcement officers does not, by itself, render a warrantless search under the statute unlawful, the State must meet its burden of satisfying the “purpose” element of the statute. The State failed to meet its burden here. To conclude otherwise would require the court to read the phrase “for purposes directly related to the probation supervision” out of the statute. The court emphasized however that its opinion should not be read as diminishing the authority of probation officers to conduct warrantless searches of probationers’ homes or to utilize the assistance of law enforcement officers in conducting such searches. Rather, it held that on the specific facts of this case the State failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that the search was authorized under the statute.

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