State v. Huddy, ___ N.C. App. ___, 799 S.E.2d 650 (Apr. 18, 2017)

Because an officer violated the defendant’s fourth amendment rights by searching the curtilage of his home without a warrant, the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. The officer saw a vehicle with its doors open at the back of a 150-yard driveway leading to the defendant’s home. Concerned that the vehicle might be part of a break-in or home invasion, the officer drove down the driveway, ran the vehicle’s tags, checked—but did not knock—on the front door, checked the windows and doors of the home for signs of forced entry, “cleared” the sides of the house, and then went through a closed gate in a chain-link fence enclosing the home’s backyard and approached the storm door at the back of the house. As the officer approached the door, which was not visible from the street, he smelled marijuana, which led to the defendant’s arrest for drug charges. At the suppression hearing, the State relied on two exceptions to the warrant requirement to justify the officer’s search of the curtilage: the knock and talk doctrine and the community caretaker doctrine. The court found however that neither exception applies. First, the officer did more than nearly knock and talk. Specifically, he ran a license plate not visible from the street, walked around the house examining windows and searching for signs of a break-in, and went first to the front door without knocking and then to a rear door not visible from the street and located behind a closed gate. “These actions went beyond what the U.S. Supreme Court has held are the permissible actions during a knock and talk.” Likewise, the community caretaker doctrine does not support the officer’s action. “The presence of a vehicle in one’s driveway with its doors open is not the sort of emergency that justifies the community caretaker exception.” The court also noted that because the fourth amendment’s protections “are at their very strongest within one’s home,” the public need justifying the community caretaker exception “must be particularly strong to justify a warrantless search of a home.”