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

While parked on the side of the road, a trooper saw a truck pass by and believed that the passenger was not wearing a seat belt. After the trooper stopped the truck and approached the passenger side, he realized that passenger was wearing his seat belt, but the gray belt had not been visible against the passenger’s gray shirt. The passenger stated that he was wearing his seat belt the whole time, and the trooper did not cite him for a seat belt infraction.

However, upon approaching the window, the trooper had also immediately noticed an odor of alcohol coming from the vehicle. The trooper asked the passenger and the driver (the defendant) if they had been drinking, and both men said yes. The trooper asked the men to step out of the truck, and saw that the defendant’s eyes were red, glassy, and bloodshot. After further investigation, the trooper determined the defendant was impaired and charged him with DWI. The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing there was no reasonable suspicion to support the initial or extended vehicle stop. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the trooper had a mistaken but lawful basis for the initial stop, and he developed reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity that warranted an extension of the stop. The defendant proceeded to trial, was convicted of DWI, and appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the findings and rulings denying the suppression motion. First, the trial court’s findings of fact were adequately supported by the trooper’s testimony. Second, even though the trooper’s initial belief that the passenger was not wearing a seat belt turned out to be mistaken, it was nevertheless objectively reasonable (“failing to see a gray seat belt atop a gray shirt is one a reasonable officer could make”) and the extension of the stop was permissible based on the trooper “instantaneously” smelling an odor of alcohol coming from the vehicle, raising a reasonable suspicion of DWI. Defendant’s related constitutional arguments concerning the extension of the stop and probable cause to arrest were not properly raised at the trial level, so they were dismissed on appeal. As to defendant’s remaining arguments regarding his trial (denial of motion to dismiss at close of evidence, allowing a “positive” PBT reading into evidence, and qualifying the trooper as an expert in HGN), the appellate court likewise found no error.

In a case in which the court determined that the defendant received ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, it considered whether the officers’ mistake of fact regarding a basis for a traffic stop was reasonable and concluded that it was not. Having found that appellate counsel’s performance was deficient, the court moved on to the prejudice prong of the ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The analysis required it to evaluate how it would have ruled on direct appeal with respect to the defendant’s claim that the officers’ mistake of fact regarding his vehicle registration invalidated the traffic stop. Here, the officers argued that the stop was justified because the vehicle had an expired registration. Although the vehicle’s registration was in fact valid at the time, the trial court had found that the officers’ mistake was reasonable and did not invalidate the stop. The DMV record indicated that the registration was valid and the officers stopped the vehicle “for a registration violation despite having intentionally neglected to read the very sentence in which the relevant expiration date appeared.” Under the circumstances the court found that there is a reasonable probability that it would have determined that the facts do not constitute the sort of objectively reasonable mistake of fact tolerable under the fourth amendment.

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