State v. Hall, ___ N.C. App. ___, 836 S.E.2d 670 (Nov. 19, 2019)

An officer patrolling the parking area of a park just before closing discovered the defendant asleep in her car. Based on the defendant’s positioning, he was concerned there might be a medical emergency, so he knocked on the window of her car. After he knocked several times, the defendant sat up, looked at him, and opened the driver’s side door. She said she was camping in the park with her son and decided to take a nap in her car. Her speech was slurred, her eyes were bloodshot, and she was unsteady on her feet when she got out of her car. The officer also saw track marks on her arms that were consistent with heroin use. The officer asked for the defendant’s license, and, while holding it, asked for consent to search the defendant’s car and her purse, which was sitting in the front seat of the car. 

The State and defendant presented conflicting evidence about what happened next. The officer said that defendant responded, “Sure.” The defendant said the officer asked three times for permission to search her car and each time she said, “I would really rather you not.” She said she only consented to the search after the officer threatened to arrest her.

The officer searched the defendant’s purse and found several syringes in its top section. He then asked the defendant whether she was carrying anything illegal. The defendant asked whether she was going to jail. The officer told her that he would not take her to jail if she cooperated. The defendant told him she had a syringe containing heroin in the side compartment of her purse. The officer found the syringe there, along with a burnt spoon and two grams of heroin.

The defendant was not arrested that evening, but subsequently was indicted for possession of heroin and possession of drug paraphernalia. She filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the search, which the trial court denied. She pled guilty, preserving her right to appeal. On appeal, she argued that she did not voluntarily consent to the search of her purse, and that the trial court’s findings on that issue were insufficient. The court of appeals disagreed. Rejecting the defendant’s argument to the contrary, the court explained that the question of whether consent to search was voluntary is one of fact, not law.

The trial court determined that the defendant freely gave consent to the officer to search her vehicle and her purse. This finding was supported by the officer’s testimony at the suppression hearing that he asked defendant for consent to search her car and purse, and she said, “Sure.” The court of appeals concluded, therefore, that the trial court’s finding that the defendant’s consent was “freely given” was supported by competent evidence and was binding on appeal. Though the trial court failed to make a specific finding that the search did not violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, the appellate court reached that conclusion based on the finding of fact that the defendant voluntarily consented to the search. Thus, the court of appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress.