State v. Williams, COA22-914, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Dec. 5, 2023)

In this Johnston County case, defendant appealed his convictions for possessing methamphetamine, possessing drug paraphernalia, resisting a public officer, and carrying a concealed weapon, arguing error in denying his motion to suppress because the order contained erroneous findings of fact and conclusions of law. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding no plain error. 

In August of 2018, sheriff’s deputies responded to a mobile home park after a service call about drug activity. When they arrived, they observed defendant sitting in the passenger seat of a silver car that was parked next to a black car. After an exchange where one passenger of the vehicle informed a deputy that he was “making a blunt,” and they observed marijuana, the deputies began questioning others in the vehicle. Slip Op. at 3. When defendant refused to take his hands out from under his legs or show his hands, a deputy assisted him out of the vehicle. Although at one point defendant fled the scene, he was eventually detained and placed in a deputy’s vehicle. After securing defendant, the deputies searched the area and the silver car, finding methamphetamine, marijuana, and drug paraphernalia. In February 2020, defendant’s motion to suppress was denied, and he was subsequently convicted in March of 2021. In May of 2022, defendant’s first petition for writ of certiorari was granted and the Court of Appeals found that the trial court’s order lacked sufficient conclusions of law. On remand, the trial court issued an amended order with additional conclusions of law in August 2022, again denying defendant’s motion to suppress. This amended order gave rise to the current opinion. 

Taking up the order, the Court of Appeals first pointed out that the standard of review was plain error, as “Defendant filed a motion to suppress the challenged evidence, but at trial, Defendant failed to object to the admission of the evidence.” Id. at 7. The first remand by the court “did not negate the fact that Defendant failed to preserve the issues raised in his motion to suppress at trial.” Id. at 8. The court then analyzed the challenged findings of fact and conclusions of law to determine if they represented a violation of defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. The court determined that finding of fact 7 was erroneous, as it referenced a black car being involved in the initial tip but testimony only mentioned a silver car. However, this error did not rise to a Fourth Amendment violation because “the evidence found in the silver vehicle was properly admitted.” Id. at 11.  

Moving to the challenged conclusions of law, numbers 10 and 11, the court noted that these involved the lack of a seizure during the encounter and that the encounter did not trigger Fourth Amendment scrutiny. The court walked through the constitutional analysis applicable to the encounter between the deputies and defendant, concluding that conclusion of law 10 was not error as the encounter between the deputies and defendant was initially consensual, and defendant and the other occupants of the car were not seized. However, the court noted that conclusion of law 11 was erroneous, as “[c]ontrary to the trial court’s conclusion, ‘Fourth Amendment scrutiny’ was ‘triggered’ when [a deputy] assisted Defendant out of the vehicle because no reasonable person would have felt free to leave at that point.” Id. at 14. However, although the conclusion of law was erroneous, “it was not plain error because the deputies did not violate Defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.” Id. at 14-15. Because the evidence was “properly admitted,” it did not “seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings,” and the trial court appropriately denied the motion. Id. at 15.