State v. Alexander, 233 N.C. App. 50 (Mar. 18, 2014)

The court remanded for findings of fact as to the third element of the plain view analysis. Investigating the defendant’s involvement in the theft of copper coils, an officer walked onto the defendant’s mobile home porch and knocked on the door. From the porch, the officer saw the coils in an open trailer parked at the home. The officer then seized the coils. The court noted that under the plain view doctrine, a warrantless seizure is lawful if the officer views the evidence from a place where he or she has legal right to be; it is immediately apparent that the items observed constitute evidence of a crime, are contraband, or are subject to seizure based upon probable cause; and the officer has a lawful right of access to the evidence itself. The court found that the officer viewed the coils from the porch, a location where he had a legal right to be. In the course of its ruling, the court clarified that inadvertence is not a necessary condition of a lawful search pursuant to the plain view doctrine. Next, noting in part that the coils matched the description of goods the officer knew to be stolen, the court concluded that the trial court’s factual findings supported its conclusion that it was immediately apparent to the officer that the coils were evidence of a crime. On the third element of the test however—whether the officer had a lawful right of access to the evidence—the trial court did not make the necessary findings. Specifically, the court noted:

Here, the trial court failed to make any findings regarding whether the officer[] had legal right of access to the coils in the trailer. The trial court did not address whether the trailer was located on private property leased by defendant, private property owned by the mobile home park, or public property. It also did not make any findings regarding whether, assuming that the trailer was located on private property, the officer[] had legal right of access either by consent or due to exigent circumstances.