State v. Lewis, 372 N.C. 576 (Aug. 16, 2019)

On discretionary review of a consolidated appeal from two decisions of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 816 S.E.2d 212 (2018), and ___ N.C. App. ___, 812 S.E.2d 730 (2018) (unpublished), the Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the decisions of the Court of Appeals. A sheriff’s deputy arrested Robert Lewis, who had been recognized as the possible perpetrator of a string of bank robberies committed over two months. After arresting the defendant, an officer observed in plain sight a BB&T money bag on the floor of a Kia Optima that matched the description of a vehicle reportedly used to flee the scene of one of the robberies.  The officer also spoke with the defendant’s stepfather, who confirmed that the defendant lived at the residence. A detective prepared a search warrant application seeking permission to search the residence where the defendant was arrested, the Kia, and another vehicle reportedly used to flee a different robbery. The affidavit accompanying the search warrant application failed to disclose several pieces of information, including that the defendant lived at the residence to be searched, that the first detective had seen the Kia parked in front of the residence, and that the Kia contained the incriminating money bag. A magistrate nonetheless issued the warrant, which led to the seizure of more evidence linking the defendant to the robberies. After the defendant was indicted on multiple counts of armed robbery, kidnapping, and common law robbery, he filed motions to suppress, arguing that there was an insufficient connection between the items sought and the property to be searched, and that the search of the Kia was not permissible under the plain view doctrine. The trial court denied the motion. The defendant pled guilty, preserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress, which he did. The Court of Appeals deemed the detective’s warrant application sufficient to establish probable cause to search the cars but insufficient to establish probable cause to search the dwelling because the supporting affidavit failed to state that the defendant resided there.

The Supreme Court granted the parties’ petitions for discretionary review. As for the warrant to search the residence, though much of the information in the affidavit linked the defendant to the robberies, it failed to set forth the circumstances of the defendant’s arrest at this particular address, including how the detective initially obtained the address from officers in Johnston County, and how the defendant’s stepfather had confirmed where the defendant resided. Absent information linking the defendant to the residence, the magistrate lacked probable cause to issue a warrant to search it, and so the court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ ruling that the defendant’s motion to suppress should have been allowed. Regarding the search of the Kia, the court concluded that the limited information actually set out in the affidavit failed to establish probable cause for the search. As a result, the court reversed the portion of the Court of Appeals’ decision concluding that there was probable cause and remanded the case for consideration of the trial judge’s alternative finding that the vehicle search was valid under the plain view doctrine.

Justice Morgan, joined by Justice Newby, dissented in part, writing that he would have found probable cause for the search of the car based on the totality of the information contained in the search warrant application.