State v. Moua, COA22-839, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jul. 18, 2023)

In this Mecklenburg County case, defendant appealed his judgment for trafficking methamphetamine and maintaining a vehicle for keeping or selling methamphetamine, arguing that his motion to suppress the evidence obtained from a search of his vehicle was improperly denied. The Court of Appeals agreed, reversing the denial of his motion and vacating the judgment. 

In December of 2019, defendant was pulled over by officers of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Police Department for speeding. During the stop, one officer determined defendant was on active probation while checking his license. The officer asked defendant to step out of the car and speak with him, and during their discussion, the officer asked for defendant’s consent to search the vehicle. Defendant told the officer he could go ahead and search the vehicle, resulting in the discovery of a bag of methamphetamine under the driver’s seat. At trial, defendant moved to suppress the results of the search, and the trial court denied the motion after conducting a hearing. Defendant subsequently pleaded guilty to the charges without negotiating a plea agreement. Defendant did not give notice of his intent to appeal prior to entering a plea but made oral notice of appeal during the sentencing hearing. 

The Court of Appeals first discussed whether defendant had a right of appeal after pleading guilty without giving notice of his intent, explaining that the recent precedent in State v. Jonas, 280 N.C. App. 511 (2021), held that notice of intent to appeal is not required when a defendant did not negotiate a plea agreement. However, the court also noted that Jonas was stayed by the North Carolina Supreme Court. As a result, the court granted defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari to consider his arguments on appeal. Judge Murphy dissented from the grant of certiorari and would have found jurisdiction under Jonas. Slip Op. at 11, n.1.  

On appeal, defendant argued that when he consented to the search of his vehicle, he was unlawfully seized. The Court of Appeals agreed, explaining “[b]ased upon the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would not have felt free to terminate this encounter and a search of the car was not within the scope of the original stop.” Id. at 11. Here, after the officer returned defendant’s license and registration documents, the purpose for the traffic stop had ended. When the officer reached inside defendant’s vehicle to unlock the door, instructed him to “come out and talk to me real quick” behind the vehicle, and began asking questions about defendant’s probation status, the officer improperly extended the stop and engaged in a show of authority. Id. at 19. At trial, the officer testified that he used the technique of separating operators from their vehicles “because people are more likely to consent to a search when they are separated from their vehicle.” Id. After reviewing the totality of the circumstances, the court concluded “the seizure was not rendered consensual by the return of the documents, the request to search was during an unlawful extension of the traffic stop, and [defendant]’s consent to search was invalid.” Id. at 20.