State v. Mullinax, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2022-NCCOA-165 (Mar. 15, 2022)

In a drug possession case, some of the trial court’s findings in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress were not supported by competent evidence.  A uniformed deputy approached the defendant while she sat in her car in a parking lot based on the deputy’s mistaken belief that the defendant was a different person, a Ms. McConnell, who was the subject of outstanding arrest warrants.  Five minutes after obtaining the defendant’s driver’s license and a total of eight minutes into the encounter, the deputy returned to the defendant’s car having determined that she was not Ms. McConnell and was not subject to any outstanding warrants.  At that time, the deputy did not return the defendant’s license and asked for consent to search the car.  Fifty seconds later a backup deputy arrived and noticed what he suspected were drugs in the defendant’s pocket.  The backup deputy asked to search the defendant’s pockets, retrieved a bag of methamphetamine, and placed her under arrest.  Ruling on the defendant’s motion to suppress, the trial court found that the defendant was not seized at the time the first deputy returned to her car while still in possession of her license and “essentially found” that no gap in time occurred between the return to the car and the discovery of drugs in the defendant’s pocket.  Contrary to the trial court, the Court of Appeals determined based on its review of bodycam footage of the incident that the defendant was seized at some point prior to the deputy’s return to the defendant’s car, though it did not resolve the legality of the seizure.  Saying that the case was similar to State v. Parker, 256 N.C. App. 319 (2017), where it held that a stop was illegally extended without reasonable articulable suspicion, the Court of Appeals remanded the case for additional findings as to whether any such suspicion justified the defendant’s continued seizure during the delay between the deputy’s return to the defendant’s vehicle and the detection of the drugs in her pocket by the backup deputy 50 seconds later.