State v. Tripp, 2022-NCSC-78, ___ N.C. ___ (Jun. 17, 2022)

In this Craven County case, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded a Court of Appeals majority opinion overturning the denial of defendant’s motion to suppress and vacating defendant’s convictions. The Supreme Court determined that defendant was lawfully detained and searched during the execution of a search warrant even though he was not located on the premises identified by the warrant.

Defendant was the subject of a narcotics investigation and sold heroin to a confidential informant during a controlled buy arranged by the Craven County Sheriff’s Office. Officers obtained a search warrant for the premises used by the defendant during the controlled buy of narcotics, but not for a search of defendant’s person. When executing the search warrant, an officer observed defendant at a neighboring property owned by defendant’s grandfather. The officer detained the defendant, saw what appeared to be a baggie visible in the pocket of defendant’s pants, and patted down the defendant, ultimately finding a baggie containing narcotics. Defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained through that search.

The Supreme Court found that all findings of fact challenged by defendant were supported by competent evidence in the record. The Court then examined whether the search of defendant and warrantless seizure of the narcotics were lawful. Based upon State v. Wilson, 371 N.C. 920 (2018), the Court held that a search warrant carries with it the authority for law enforcement to detain occupants on or in the vicinity of the premises being searched, and defendant was just 60 yards from the premises and close enough to pose a safety threat. The frisk of defendant was justified by the risk that he would be carrying a firearm, given the connection between guns and drug activity. After determining the law enforcement officer had authority to detain and frisk defendant, the Court held that the “plain view” and “plain feel” doctrines supported the warrantless seizure of the baggie found in defendant’s pocket, which was later determined to be a heroin/fentanyl mixture. This analysis determined that the search of defendant was constitutional and the seizure of the baggie of narcotics was permitted, supporting the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress.

Justice Barringer concurred in part and concurred in the result, but felt that the reasonable suspicion standard under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), would have supported the search and seizure, not necessitating the full analysis the majority utilized.

Justice Earls, joined by Justices Hudson and Morgan, dissented and took issue with the majority’s characterization of defendant as an “occupant” while not located on the premises, ultimately disagreeing with the majority’s interpretation of the Wilson analysis as well as the concurrence’s Terry justification.