State v. Jacobs, COA22-997, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Sept. 19, 2023)

In this New Hanover County case, defendant appealed the denial of his motion to suppress the results of a search of his vehicle, arguing error in finding reasonable suspicion for the traffic stop leading to the search. The Court of Appeals found no error.  

In March of 2019, a Wilmington police officer was following defendant on a city street when he smelled the strong odor of marijuana coming from defendant’s vehicle. The officer eventually pulled defendant over, based solely on the smell coming from the vehicle. During the stop, the officer continued to smell marijuana, and asked defendant to step out of the vehicle; when defendant stepped out, the officer saw white powder and an open alcohol container. A search of the vehicle found heroin, MDNA, cocaine, and marijuana. At trial for possession and trafficking charges, defendant moved to suppress the results of the search, arguing he was not smoking marijuana while driving, and all the windows of his vehicle were closed, suggesting the officer could not have smelled marijuana coming from his vehicle and had no reasonable suspicion to initiate a stop. The trial court denied the motion, defendant pleaded guilty and appealed. 

Taking up defendant’s arguments, the Court of Appeals first noted that normally the appeals court defers to the trial court’s determination of witness credibility when looking at testimony establishing reasonable suspicion. However, when the physical circumstances are “inherently incredible” the deference to a trial court’s determination will not apply. Slip Op. at 8, quoting State v. Miller, 270 N.C. 726, 731 (1967). Relevant to the current matter, applicable precedent held that “an officer’s smelling of unburned marijuana can provide probable cause to conduct a warrantless search and seizure, and that an officer’s smelling of such is not inherently incredible.” Id. Because the circumstances here were not “inherently incredible,” the court deferred to the trial court’s finding that the officer’s testimony was credible, which in turn supported the finding that the officer had reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop.