State v. Lucas, 2022-NCCOA-714, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Nov. 1, 2022)

In this Macon County case, defendant appealed after entering a guilty plea to trafficking in opiates/heroin and marijuana, arguing the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress the evidence obtained during a warrantless search of his residence. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of defendant’s motion. 

Beginning in September of 2017, defendant’s live-in girlfriend was on supervised probation, which included conditions that she submit to warrantless searches of her home and that she not use, possess or control any illegal drug or controlled substance. During her probation, probation officers repeatedly found defendant’s girlfriend with pills and evidence of drug use. In August of 2018, the girlfriend screened positive for cocaine, THC, and opiates. After the positive screening, probation officers decided to search her vehicle, finding additional pills, and subsequently decided to search her residence, which was defendant’s home. Officers smelled marijuana in the residence; after establishing the existence of marijuana in the home, the officers obtained a search warrant for the entire premises, finding drug paraphernalia, opiates, sealed bags of marijuana, and $42,594 in cash. After the trial court denied defendant’s motion to suppress, defendant pleaded guilty to the charges, reserving his right to appeal.

On appeal, the court considered three questions: (1) whether the probation officers properly concluded that defendant’s home was his girlfriend’s residence; (2) did probable cause exist to support the issuance of a search warrant when details from the girlfriend were included without proper evaluation of her reliability as a witness; and (3) was the warrantless search of defendant’s home directly related to the purposes of defendant’s girlfriend’s supervised probation, as required by G.S. § 15A-1343(b)(13)? Rejecting defendant’s argument in (1), the court explained that, although the record suggested that defendant’s girlfriend had moved out on July 24, 2018, an officer observed her back in defendant’s yard on July 29, 2018, and the girlfriend confirmed her address as defendant’s residence on August 8, 2018. Additionally, defendant did not object that his girlfriend had moved out when probation officers arrived to perform a warrantless search on August 15, 2018, something a reasonable person would have done if defendant’s home was not her residence. Slip Op. at 17. 

Reviewing (2), the court explained that the detective who prepared the affidavit for the search warrant included his own observations and experience in law enforcement related to narcotics investigations. The court also pointed out that the trial court “identified [defendant’s girlfriend’s] statements as hearsay” and found her credibility “highly questionable” for purposes of the affidavit. Id. at 24. Despite this, the testimony of the officers involved supported the issuance of the search warrant, and the trial court did not give undue weight to defendant’s girlfriend’s statements.

Turning finally to (3), the court examined State v. Powell, 253 N.C. App. 590 (2017), and recent changes to G.S. § 15A-1343(b)(13) requiring a search of a residence by a probation officer to be “directly related to the probation supervision.” Slip Op. at 25-26. The court drew a contrast between Powell, explaining that in the current matter, defendant’s girlfriend failed a drug test screening and was found in possession of narcotics on her person and in her vehicle, activity that was directly related to violations of her probation, and it was these actions that led to the screening. Id. at 28. Despite the presence of other law enforcement at the scene, the court found that “[a]lthough the search may have served two purposes, (1) to further the supervisory goals of probation, and (2) to investigate other potential criminal behavior . . . the dual purpose of the search did not make the search unlawful under [G.S. § 15A-]1343(b)(13).” Id. at 29.