State v. Bailey, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (May. 1, 2020)

This Carteret County drug case involved a challenge to a search warrant for the defendant’s home. A detective observed what he believed to be a drug transaction occur in a parking lot between a Jeep and another car. He knew the occupants of the Jeep and their address. The detective also knew that they had previously been involved in illegal drug sales. Both cars were followed by police. The car was stopped for traffic violations, and the woman inside ultimately admitted to having purchased heroin in the parking lot from one of the people inside the Jeep. The Jeep was separately followed to the occupants’ residence. Officers obtained a warrant to search the house, and the defendant (who lived at the house, but was not one of the occupants of the Jeep) was charged with trafficking in cocaine. His motion to suppress was denied and he pled guilty, reserving his right to appeal the denial of the motion. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed (here) [Jeff Welty blogged about that decision, here]. Judge Zachary dissented and would have found that the warrant application failed to establish a nexus to the home, comparing the facts to those of State v. Campbell, 282 N.C .125 (1972) (conclusory allegations of drug dealing without underlying facts tying the home to criminal activity were insufficient to establish nexus to search residence). The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed.

The court agreed that a search warrant for a residence must demonstrate some nexus between the suspected criminal activity and the home. “Such connection need not be direct, but cannot be merely conclusory.” Slip op. at 6. Comparing cases, the court determined that the affidavit here established a sufficient connection to the home. The detective observed a probable drug transaction and was familiar with the subjects in the Jeep, including their drug histories and address. Coupled with the close-in-time admission from the buyer that she purchased heroin from one of the men and the fact that another officer followed the Jeep from the site of the suspected buy to the residence, the search warrant affidavit supported an inference that drugs or evidence of drug dealing would be found in the home. In the court’s words:

It is true that [the detective’s] affidavit did not contain any evidence that drugs were actually being sold at the apartment. But our case law makes clear that such evidence was not necessary for probable cause to exist. Rather, the affiant was simply required to demonstrate some nexus between the apartment . . . and criminal activity. Id. at 10 (emphasis in original).

The warrant was therefore supported by probable cause and comported with the Fourth Amendment. Concluding, the court observed: “In so holding, we break no new legal ground, and instead apply well-established principles of law to the facts presented.” Id. at 11.