State v. San, COA22-664, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jul. 18, 2023)

In this Randolph County case, defendant appealed judgment entered after his Alford plea to charges of trafficking in methamphetamine, selling or delivering a controlled substance, and possession of a firearm by a felon, arguing error in the denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained after a search of his vehicle. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of defendant’s motion and the judgment.

In May of 2018, officers from the Randolph County Sheriff's Department narcotics unit received a tip that defendant was in possession of a large amount of methamphetamine. They located defendant, who was a passenger in an SUV with a female driver. The officers observed the SUV cross the centerline of the road and called for a marked car to initiate a traffic stop. While one officer discussed the traffic violation and warning ticket with the driver outside the vehicle, a canine unit conducted an open-air sniff and the dog alerted, leading to the search of the vehicle. At trial, defendant challenged the search, arguing the officers had improperly prolonged the traffic stop to conduct the dog sniff. The trial court denied defendant’s motion, finding the open-air dog sniff started simultaneously with the officer’s discussion with the driver about her warning ticket. Defendant entered an Alford plea and appealed. 

Taking up defendant’s arguments, the Court of Appeals first noted that the challenged finding of fact related to the dog sniff beginning simultaneously with the discussion of the traffic violation was supported by competent evidence in the record. The court explained that defendant’s appeal focused solely on the report of one officer, but testimony from another officer supported the timeline of events in the finding of fact. The court then looked at defendant’s challenged conclusion of law, explaining the ultimate issue was whether the open-air dog sniff was conducted prior to the completion of the traffic stop’s mission. Here defendant relied on Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015), to argue the dog sniff was not related to the mission of the stop and was conducted after the mission of the stop had concluded. The court found that “the trial court’s Findings support a determination the dog-sniff which led to the search of the vehicle was validly conducted during the time reasonably required to complete the mission of the traffic stop.” Slip Op. at 19. As a result, the trial court properly denied defendant’s motion.