State v. Grice, 367 N.C. 753 (Jan. 23, 2015)

(1) Reversing the court of appeals, the court held that officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment by seizing marijuana plants seen in plain view. After receiving a tip that the defendant was growing marijuana at a specified residence, officers went to the residence to conduct a knock and talk. Finding the front door inaccessible, covered with plastic, and obscured by furniture, the officers noticed that the driveway led to a side door, which appeared to be the main entrance. One of the officers knocked on the side door. No one answered. From the door, the officer noticed plants growing in several buckets about 15 yards away. Both officers recognized the plants as marijuana. The officers seized the plants, returned to the sheriff’s office and got a search warrant to search the home. The defendant was charged with manufacturing a controlled substance and moved to suppress evidence of the marijuana plants. The trial court denied the motion and the court of appeals reversed. The supreme court began by finding that the officers observed the plants in plain view. It went on to explain that a warrantless seizure may be justified as reasonable under the plain view doctrine if the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place from where the evidence could be plainly viewed; the evidence’s incriminating character was immediately apparent; and the officer had a lawful right of access to the object itself. Additionally, it noted, “[t]he North Carolina General Assembly has . . . required that the discovery of evidence in plain view be inadvertent.” The court noted that the sole point of contention in this case was whether the officers had a lawful right of access from the driveway 15 yards across the defendant’s property to the plants’ location. Finding against the defendant on this issue, the court stated: “Here, the knock and talk investigation constituted the initial entry onto defendant’s property which brought the officers within plain view of the marijuana plants. The presence of the clearly identifiable contraband justified walking further into the curtilage.” The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the seizure was improper because the plants were on the curtilage of his property, stating:

[W]e conclude that the unfenced portion of the property fifteen yards from the home and bordering a wood line is closer in kind to an open field than it is to the paradigmatic curtilage which protects “the privacies of life” inside the home. However, even if the property at issue can be considered the curtilage of the home for Fourth Amendment purposes, we disagree with defendant’s claim that a justified presence in one portion of the curtilage (the driveway and front porch) does not extend to justify recovery of contraband in plain view located in another portion of the curtilage (the side yard). By analogy, it is difficult to imagine what formulation of the Fourth Amendment would prohibit the officers from seizing the contraband if the plants had been growing on the porch—the paradigmatic curtilage—rather than at a distance, particularly when the officers’ initial presence on the curtilage was justified. The plants in question were situated on the periphery of the curtilage, and the protections cannot be greater than if the plants were growing on the porch itself. The officers in this case were, by the custom and tradition of our society, implicitly invited into the curtilage to approach the home. Traveling within the curtilage to seize contraband in plain view within the curtilage did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

(citation omitted). (2) The court went on to hold that the seizure also was justified by exigent circumstances, concluding: “Reviewing the record, it is objectively reasonable to conclude that someone may have been home, that the individual would have been aware of the officers’ presence, and that the individual could easily have moved or destroyed the plants if they were left on the property.”