State v. Fowler, 220 N.C. App. 263 (May. 1, 2012)

Roadside strip searches of the defendant were reasonable and did not violate the constitution. The court first rejected the State’s argument that the searches were not strip searches. During both searches the defendant’s private areas were observed by an officer and during one search the defendant’s pants were removed and an officer searched inside of the defendant’s underwear with his hand. Next, the court held that probable cause supported the searches. The officers stopped the defendant’s vehicle for speeding after receiving information from another officer and his informant that the defendant would be traveling on a specified road in a silver Kia, carrying 3 grams of crack cocaine. The strip search occurred after a consensual search of the defendant’s vehicle produced marijuana but no cocaine. The court found competent evidence to show that the informant, who was known to the officers and who had provided reliable information in the past, provided sufficient reliable information, corroborated by an officer, to establish probable cause to believe that the defendant would be carrying a small amount of cocaine in his vehicle. When the consensual search of defendant’s vehicle did not produce the cocaine, the officers had sufficient probable cause, under the totality of the circumstances, to believe that the defendant was hiding the drugs on his person. Third, the court found that exigent circumstances supported the search. Specifically, the officer knew that the defendant had prior experience with jail intake procedures and that he could reasonably expect that the defendant would attempt to get rid of evidence in order to prevent his going to jail. Finally, the court found the search reasonable. The trial court had determined that although the searches were intrusive, the most intrusive one occurred in a dark area away from the traveled roadway, with no one other than the defendant and the officers in the immediate vicinity. Additionally, the trial court found that the officer did not pull down the defendant’s underwear or otherwise expose his bare buttocks or genitals and no females were present or within view during the search. The court determined that these findings support the trial court’s conclusion that, although the searches were intrusive, they were conducted in a discreet manner away from the view of others and limited in scope to finding a small amount of cocaine based on the corroborated tip of a known, reliable informant.