State v. Johnson, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec. 17, 2019)

A police offer stopped at a gas station for a cup of coffee, and on his way inside he noticed the defendant standing outside the gas station, talking loudly and using abusive language on his cell phone. The clerk inside told the officer she thought the defendant was bothering other customers. The officer called for backup, approached the defendant, and asked him to end his conversation. The defendant complied “after some delay,” but then began shifting from foot to foot and looking from side to side. His nervous behavior made the officer concerned that he might have a weapon, so he asked the defendant if he could pat him down. The defendant hesitated, but then consented. While conducting the pat-down, the officer felt a soft, rubbery wad in the defendant’s pocket that the officer immediately believed to be narcotics packaged in plastic baggies. After completing the pat-down, the officer manipulated the rubbery wad again, ensuring it was what he believed it to be, and then reached into the defendant’s pocket and withdrew the object. The wad was made up of plastic baggie corners containing a white powdery substance that looked like cocaine and a tube of Orajel. The defendant stated that the substance was baking soda, which he mixed with Orajel to fool buyers into thinking it was cocaine. Field and lab testing confirmed the defendant’s statements. The defendant was charged with possession with intent to sell and deliver a counterfeit controlled substance. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the fruits of the search on the grounds that he was illegally detained, he did not consent to the search, and the search exceeded the scope of a permissible pat-down. The defendant pled guilty and appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling denying the motion. The defendant was not seized by the officers, who initially told him he should “finish his conversation elsewhere.” It was only when the defendant hesitated and began acting nervous that the officer became concerned that the defendant might be armed, and the defendant then consented to be searched for weapons. The counterfeit drugs discovered during that weapons search were admissible under the “plain feel” doctrine. Even before he manipulated the object a second time or removed it from the defendant’s pocket, the officer testified that based on his years of experience in narcotics investigations, it was “immediately apparent” to him that the object would be drugs in plastic packaging. After reviewing several cases on the plain feel doctrine, the court explained that the standard to be applied is analogous to the probable cause standard. In this case, the officer’s training and experience in narcotics investigations, the circumstances surrounding the defendant’s nervous behavior, and the readily apparent nature of the item in the defendant’s pocket established “that [the officer’s] subsequent manipulation of the objects and search of defendant’s pocket for confirmation was therefore supported by probable cause.”