State v. Newborn, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-426 (Aug. 17, 2021)

In this case involving possession of a firearm by a felon and carrying a concealed weapon, (1) binding caselaw required that the defendant’s conviction for felon in possession be vacated because the indictment was fatally defective; and (2) the trial court’s ruling on the defendant’s motion to suppress was based on improper findings of fact.

(1) G.S. 14-415.1(c) dictates that an indictment charging a defendant with possession of a firearm by a felon must be separate from any indictment charging other offenses related to or giving rise to the felon in possession charge.  Here, a single indictment charged the defendant with felon in possession, possession of a firearm with an altered/removed serial number, and carrying a concealed weapon.  Finding itself bound by State v. Wilkins, 225 N.C. App. 492 (2013), the court determined that the State’s failure to obtain a separate indictment for the felon in possession offense rendered the indictment fatally defective and invalid as to that offense.

(2) The court determined that the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s Fourth Amendment motion to suppress a firearm seized from the center console of his vehicle did not contain adequate findings of fact pertaining to a material conflict in the evidence of the accessibility of the firearm and consequently the trial court plainly erred in denying the motion. 

An officer initiated a valid traffic stop of the defendant and searched the vehicle for marijuana based on an emanating odor.  During the search, the officer felt and saw the handgrip of a pistol around the center console, arrested the defendant for carrying a concealed weapon, and then removed a plastic panel from the console to retrieve the pistol.  The defendant challenged the trial court’s finding of fact that “no tools were needed” to remove the panel, a finding bearing upon the accessibility of the pistol for purposes of determining whether the officer had probable cause for the independent search of the console premised on the offense of carrying a concealed weapon.  Reviewing the testimony, the court of appeals found that the finding that “no tools were needed” was not supported by the testimony at the suppression hearing and that the trial court otherwise failed to make necessary findings as to the accessibility of the pistol.  Because the accessibility issue was not resolved by adequate findings, the trial court’s conclusion of law regarding probable cause was not supported and it could not properly rule on the defendant’s motion to suppress.  The court remanded the case for the trial court to make further findings on the issue.