State v. Hagaman, COA22-434, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jan. 16, 2024)

In this Watauga County case, defendant appealed after pleading guilty to indecent liberties with a child, arguing error in denying his motion to suppress the evidence obtained from a search of his notebooks. The Court of Appeals found no error and affirmed the trial court. 

In May of 2018, officers from the Boone Police Department were investigating child pornography distribution when they discovered files uploaded to a sharing network from defendant’s IP address. The officers obtained a search warrant for defendant’s residence, and during a search of notebooks found at the home for passwords or passcodes related to the child pornography, the officers discovered a reference to a “hands-on sexual offense involving a minor.” Slip Op. at 4. Officers obtained additional search warrants and eventually defendant was indicted for additional counts of sexual exploitation of a minor and sexual offense. Defendant moved to suppress the evidence seized in excess of the scope of the initial search warrant, and to quash the subsequent search warrants. The trial court denied defendant’s motions and he pleaded guilty, reserving his right to appeal the order denying his motion to suppress and motion to quash. 

Examining defendant’s motion to suppress, the Court of Appeals noted that defendant’s challenge was divided into two issues, (1) that many of the findings of fact were not actual findings or were not supported by competent evidence, and (2) that searching defendant’s notebooks went beyond the scope of the initial search warrant. While the court rejected the majority of defendant’s challenges to the findings of fact in (1), the court did agree several were not appropriately categorized, but explained that it would review them “under the appropriate standard depending on their actual classification, not the label given by the trial court.” Id. at 14. 

After walking through defendant’s objections to the findings of fact, the court reached (2), whether the officers exceeded the scope of the search warrant by searching through defendant’s substance abuse recovery notebooks. Defendant argued “the agents were allowed to cursorily look in the notebook but immediately upon discovering it was a substance abuse journal, they should have looked no further, not even for passwords or passcodes.” Id. at 17. The court noted this would lead to the absurd result of requiring officers to trust the label or classification of a defendant’s records when performing a search, and rejected defendant’s argument.