Once upon a time, search warrants were simple. An officer would obtain a warrant to search a suspect’s home or some other physical location connected to a crime. The officer would go to the location, announce his or her presence, and conduct the search. But these days, officers frequently want to obtain records and other evidence from businesses not suspected of any wrongdoing. For example, they want bank records that can be used to trace the suspect’s ill-gotten gains. They want cell site location information that can be used to tie the suspect to the crime scene. And they want email records that show communication between the suspect and his or her coconspirators. Officers do not typically kick down these businesses’ doors and start rummaging around, partly because that would be needlessly disruptive and partly because officers might have a hard time locating evidence stored in the cloud or on a server located who-knows-where. Instead, officers obtain a search warrant, then send a copy of the warrant to the company in question and ask the company to search its own records and provide responsive materials. Is that OK?
Joanna Julius was riding as a passenger in her parents’ car in McDowell County when the person driving the car crashed it into a ditch filled with water. The driver fled the scene. Law enforcement officers responded and searched the car for evidence of the driver’s identity. When they found drugs inside, they arrested Julius and searched her backpack. There, they found more drugs, a pistol, and cash.
Julius was indicted for drug trafficking and related offenses. She moved to suppress the evidence gathered at the scene on the basis that the car was unlawfully searched. The trial court disagreed, and Julius was convicted. She appealed. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed. Last month, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed, holding that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. See State v. Julius, ___ N.C. ___, 892 S.E.2d 854 (2023). This post will discuss the court’s analysis of whether the search was lawful and its remanding of the case for consideration of whether the exclusionary rule barred admission of the resulting evidence.
Inquisitive police officers regularly ask suspects questions like “Can I take a look at your phone?” or “Can I see your phone?” These on-the-street requests may give rise to legal questions in court. For example, if the suspect hands over the phone in response, does that provide consent for the officer to search the phone? And if so, what is the scope of the search that the officer may conduct? This post explores those issues.
Normally, the Fourth Amendment requires that police obtain a search warrant before officers may search a person’s phone or computer. But the person can waive his or her Fourth Amendment rights by consenting to a search without a warrant. The scope of a person’s consent is determined by what a “typical reasonable person [would] have understood by the exchange between the officer and the suspect.” Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248 (1991). Applying that test, if an officer asks a suspect for consent to search the suspect’s home, and the suspect agrees, does that allow the officer to search any digital devices located inside the residence?
Last month, the Court of Appeals ruled that police coerced a suspect into agreeing to let them search his backpack. Many of the traditional hallmarks of coercion, such as threatening language or the brandishing of weapons, were absent in this case, making it noteworthy for officers, prosecutors, and defense attorneys alike. The case is State v. Wright, __ N.C. App. __, 2023 WL 5925671 (N.C. Ct. App. Sept. 12, 2023), and this post discusses it in greater detail than the summary previously posted on the blog.
Presented with an appalling set of facts, the North Carolina Supreme Court unanimously upheld the defendant’s convictions for murder, kidnapping, sex offense, and felony child abuse. The majority affirmed a sentence of death. Justice Berger’s concurring opinion, addressing only a Miranda issue, was joined by four other justices, making it “the supplemental opinion of the Court.” Justice Earls dissented with regard to capital punishment, concluding the defendant was entitled to a new sentencing hearing. This post summarizes the 225-page opinion in Richardson.
Four years after a plurality of the United States Supreme Court in Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 588 U.S. ___, 139 S. Ct. 2525 (2019), announced a State-favorable exigency rule for withdrawing blood from a suspected impaired driver who is unconscious, the North Carolina Court of Appeals in State v. Burris, COA22-408, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 5, 2023), has applied the rule for the first time. This post will review the holding in Mitchell and the Court of Appeals’ analysis in Burris and will conclude with a summary of the Fourth Amendment limitations on implied consent testing.
Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome M. Jeanette Pitts to the blog as an author. Jeanette is a Legal Research Specialist at the Criminal Justice Innovation Lab.
According to a report by the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles, there were over 250,000 traffic crashes in 2021 (276,026, to be exact). Even when crashes involving fatalities and injuries are removed from that figure, the number of crashes involving only property damage still hovers at 200,000. A glance at past year figures and the five-year average reveals that the number of crashes involving only property damage has been over 175,000 for several years.
A decade ago, I wrote a post about the circumstances under which police may stop a person who is carrying a gun openly. A lot has changed since then. The Supreme Court has strengthened the Second Amendment in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, 597 U.S. __ (2022). The General Assembly has eliminated the requirement that North Carolina residents obtain a permit before buying a handgun. See S.L. 2023-8. And empirical scholarship suggests that many more Americans are carrying guns on a daily basis. See Ali Awhani-Robar et al., Trend in Loaded Handgun Carrying Among Adult Handgun Owners in the United States, 2015-2019, Am. J. Pub. Health (2022) (finding that in 2019, “approximately 6 million [gun owners carried] daily,” which was “twice the 3 million who did so in 2015”). So it is a good time to revisit the question.
Last week, in Part I of this series, I discussed whether having a drug dog sniff a vehicle is a search if the drug dog might alert upon smelling hemp, a substance that is legal to possess. Today’s post focuses on what may be an even more significant question: if a dog alerts, does the alert provide probable cause to search?