State v. Falls, 275 N.C. App. 239 (Dec. 15, 2020)

The trial court erred in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress because the officers did not lawfully have a right of access to the contraband seized. The Court of Appeals considered the following factors to distinguish a knock and talk from a search: “how law enforcement approach[ed] the home, the hour at which they did so, and whether there were any indications that the occupant of the home welcomed uninvited guests on his or her property.” Slip op. at 13. In short, the Court asks whether the behavior of law enforcement is in line with something a “reasonably respectful citizen” (or a Girl Scout) would do. Id. at 12, 16.

After receiving an anonymous drug complaint and obtaining information that the defendant was a felon in possession of a firearm, Gaston County law enforcement decided to conduct a knock and talk at the defendant’s residence to investigate. After considering the factors mentioned above, the Court held that the officers did not act like reasonable, respectful citizens. The officers here carried out the knock and talk at night, a time when members of society do not expect to be called upon at their homes unexpectedly and a practice not customary for the officers. Additionally, the officers parked their vehicles in an adjacent lot, approached the defendant’s home in the dark, dressed in dark clothing, and cut through trees, rather than parking in the driveway or street and proceeding towards the home along the paved path. The officers also passed directly by a “plainly visible no trespassing sign” which indicated the defendant’s yard was not open to public visitors. Id. at 20. Based on these factors, the Court of Appeals determined that the conduct of the officers implicated the Fourth Amendment because they “strayed beyond the bounds of a knock and talk; therefore, the seizure of evidence based on their trespassory invasion cannot be justified under the plain view doctrine.”  The motion to suppress therefore should have been granted.

Justice Berger dissented and would have affirmed the trial court’s ruling on the basis that the officers acted within the scope of their implied license to approach the defendant’s home.