State v. Johnson, 197AP20-2, ___ N.C. ___ (Sept. 1, 2023)

In this Wake County case, the Supreme Court affirmed per curiam the unpublished Court of Appeals opinion State v. Johnson, COA19-529-2, 275 N.C. App. 980 (table), 2020 WL 7974001 (Dec. 31, 2020). Previously, the Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion on April 21, 2020, which the Supreme Court remanded for consideration of defendant’s equal protection claims. The current opinion affirms the Court of Appeals’ decision after remand that found no error in the denial of defendant’s motion to suppress. 

The matter arose from an arrest in November of 2017. A police officer noticed defendant, a black man, parked at an apartment complex and approached his vehicle. As the officer approached, defendant left his vehicle, and the officer smelled marijuana. Defendant attempted to flee, and the officer detained him, eventually finding cocaine and marijuana on his person. At trial, defendant moved to suppress the results of the search, arguing the discriminatory intent and violation of his equal protection rights. During the hearing on the motion to suppress for equal protection violations, defendant introduced statistical evidence of the arresting officer’s law enforcement actions to show that the arrest was discriminatory and represented selective enforcement of the law. Defense counsel told the trial court that the burden of proof for the motion to suppress was on the defense, and the trial court agreed, assigning the initial burden to defendant. After the hearing, the trial court denied defendant’s motion.

Taking up the case after the Supreme Court’s remand, the Court of Appeals established that the initial burden was properly placed on defendant after looking to applicable equal protection caselaw under the U.S. and N.C. Constitutions. The Court of Appeals then dispensed with defendant’s statistical analysis evidence as it lacked adequate benchmarks for the data, explaining that “without reliable data indicating the population and demographics in southeast Raleigh and further details on [the officer’s] patrol history, these statistics do not establish a prima facie case that [the officer’s] actions had a discriminatory effect or evinced a discriminatory purpose.” State v. Johnson, COA19-529-2 at 21, 2020 WL 7974001 at *8. 

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Morgan, dissented by separate opinion, and would have held that the data collected under G.S. 143B-903, referenced by defendant’s witnesses when discussing the history of the arresting officer’s actions, could support a claim of discriminatory intent without additional benchmarking statistics. The dissent also would have held that defendant’s evidence represented a prima facie showing of discrimination. 

Justices Berger and Dietz did not participate in consideration or decision of the case.