State v. Bartlett, 368 N.C. 309 (Sept. 25, 2015)

The court reversed the decision below, State v. Bartlett, 231 N.C. App. 417 (Dec. 17, 2013), holding that a new suppression hearing was required. At the close of the suppression hearing, the superior court judge orally granted the defendant’s motion and asked counsel to prepare a written order. However, that judge did not sign the proposed order before his term ended. The defendant presented the proposed order to a second superior court judge, who signed it, over the State’s objection, and without conducting a hearing. The order specifically found that the defendant’s expert was credible, gave weight to the expert’s testimony, and used the expert’s testimony to conclude that no probable cause existed to support defendant’s arrest. The State appealed, contending that the second judge was without authority to sign the order. The court of appeals found it unnecessary to reach the State’s contention because that court considered the first judge’s oral ruling to be sufficient. Reviewing the law, the Supreme Court clarified, “our cases require findings of fact only when there is a material conflict in the evidence and allow the trial court to make these findings either orally or in writing.” It added that to the extent that cases such as State v. Williams, 195 N.C. App. 554 (2009), “suggest otherwise, they are disavowed.” Turning to the case at hand, the court concluded that at the suppression hearing in this case, disagreement between the parties’ expert witnesses created a material conflict in the evidence. Thus, a finding of fact, whether written or oral, was required. Here, however, the first judge made no such finding. The court noted that while he did attempt to explain his rationale for granting the motion, “we cannot construe any of his statements as a definitive finding of fact that resolved the material conflict in the evidence.” Having found the oral ruling was inadequate, the Court considered whether the second judge had authority to resolve the evidentiary conflict in his written order even though he did not conduct the suppression hearing. It held that he did not, reasoning that G.S. 15A-977 contemplates that the same trial judge who hears the evidence must also find the facts. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that G.S. 15A-1224(b) authorized the second judge to sign the order, concluding that provision applies only to criminal trials, not suppression hearings.