State v. Walters, 2022-NCCOA-796, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Dec. 6, 2022)

In this Watauga County case, defendant appealed his conviction for possession of methamphetamine, arguing error in the denial of his motion to suppress the results of a search of his vehicle. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial.

In October of 2020, a Watauga County Sheriff’s Deputy saw defendant driving a black truck through an intersection in Boone. The deputy was familiar with defendant and knew defendant had outstanding warrants for possession of methamphetamine, so he initiated a traffic stop. A canine unit was called to the scene and conducted a walk-around of the vehicle; after the dog alerted, the deputies searched the vehicle and found a bag with methamphetamine and a substance that appeared to be marijuana. However, after defendant was arrested and indicted for possession of these substances, it was determined that the marijuana was actually hemp, and charges for possession of marijuana were dismissed.

The court summarized defendant’s issue on appeal as whether officers “need probable cause to use a drug-detection dog to sniff a vehicle for narcotics when the dog is unable to distinguish between contraband and noncontraband.” Slip Op. at 10. Defendant argued Fourth Amendment precedent holding the use of a drug-sniffing dog does not constitute a search must be reexamined now that a dog might alert to hemp, as the person may have a legitimate privacy interest in noncontraband. The court found that the privacy interest did not apply as the “drug-sniffing dog was trained and certified to alert on methamphetamine, and [d]efendant did not create a ‘legitimate privacy interest’ as to the methamphetamine simply by storing it in the same bag with the hemp,” and concluded “the Fourth Amendment does not protect against the discovery of contraband, detectable by the drug-sniffing dog, because [d]efendant decided to package noncontraband beside it.” Id. at 18. Applying the motor vehicle exception, the court found probable cause to search the vehicle based on the positive alert by the dog, and the deputies’ knowledge of defendant’s outstanding warrants and previous seizures from defendant of methamphetamine.