On December 21, 2016, the North Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Allman upheld a magistrate’s finding of probable cause to search a home for drugs, and it reversed a contrary ruling in this case by the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The Allman ruling is the subject of this post.
Allegations in search warrant affidavit. A Brunswick County deputy sheriff stopped a car driven by Black in which his half-brother, Whitehead, was a passenger. The deputy searched the car and found 8.1 ounces of marijuana and $1,600 in cash. During the stop, Whitehead said that he and Black lived at 30 Twin Oaks Drive in Castle Hayne, and they were going there before the deputy stopped them.
The affiant officer, a New Hanover County deputy sheriff, discovered that both men had prior drug arrests or convictions. The affiant officer went to 30 Twin Oaks Drive the same day as the stop and spoke to the two men’s mother who lived there. She told the officer that the two men lived at 4844 Acres Drive in Wilmington and had not lived at 30 Twin Oaks Drive for about three years. She described the Acres Drive residence along with two vehicles there, and another deputy went there. The property matched the mother’s description, and one of the two vehicles was registered to Black.
The search warrant affidavit recited the affiant’s extensive training in law enforcement and with drug investigations and trials. It also stated, based on the affiant’s training and experience, that drug dealers typically keep evidence of drug dealing at their homes, including but not limited to the drugs themselves, records of drug dealing activities, tools and materials used to weigh and package drugs, large amounts of cash, and expensive things purchased with drug money.
Lower court proceedings. The magistrate issued a search warrant for the Acres Drive residence, which led to the discovery of drugs and related items. The defendant (Allman), who had a room in the residence where drugs and a shotgun were found, was indicted for several drug offenses. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence discovered during the execution of the search warrant, and the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The court ruled that the affidavit did not support a finding of probable cause to believe that drugs and related items would be found at the Acres Drive residence. One judge dissented, and the State exercised its right to appeal the ruling to the supreme court, which reversed the court of appeals.
Supreme court’s opinion. The court summarized the constitutional and statutory law governing the review of a search warrant: the totality of circumstances determines whether probable cause exists, and a judicial official may draw reasonable inferences from available observations. A single piece of evidence may not necessarily be conclusive. A judicial official has probable cause to issue the warrant as long as the pieces fit together well and yield a fair probability that an officer executing a search warrant will find the evidence to be seized at the place to be searched.
The court stated that reviewing courts should not invalidate warrants by interpreting affidavits in a hypertechnical, rather than commonsense, manner. A grudging or negative attitude by reviewing courts toward search warrants is inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment’s strong preference for searches conducted with a warrant. A reviewing court should not subject the issuing official’s probable cause determination to de novo review. The official’s probable cause determination should be given great deference by ensuring that the official’s determination had a substantial basis for concluding probable cause existed.
Reviewing the evidence set out above, the court concluded that it was reasonable for the issuing official to infer that Whitehead and Black lived at the Acres Drive residence. Because of the detective’s insight based on his training and experience that evidence of drug dealing would be found there and the fact that Whitehead lied about where he and Black lived, it was reasonable for the issuing official to infer that there could be evidence of drug dealing at the residence. Even though the affidavit did not directly link the residence with drug dealing, the court noted several federal appellate cases have ruled that a suspected drug dealer’s lie about his address, in combination with other evidence of drug dealing, can support probable cause to search his home.
The court found unpersuasive the reliance of the court of appeals on State v. Campbell, 282 N.C. 125 (1972) (facts alleged in search warrant affidavit were too conclusory to support probable cause). Two factors distinguished Campbell from the case before the court. First, the Campbell affidavit did not mention any insights from the affiant’s training and experience or use them to link evidence of drug dealing with the home of suspected drug dealers. Second, the Campbell court did not indicate that any of the people who were the object of the search lied to the authorities concerning their home address.
The court ruled that the search warrant was supported by probable cause.
Comments. The Allman ruling is a reminder to appellate and trial courts that examine the validity of a search warrant that a reviewing court does not conduct de novo review. Instead, the question is whether the issuing official had a substantial basis for concluding probable cause existed.
Another lesson from Allman is that a direct link of evidence of drug dealing to the residence to be searched is not necessarily required. An inference can establish probable cause to search the residence, such as in this case when the officer’s affidavit offered his insight based on his training and experience and the suspect’s lie about where he and his half-brother lived. Of course, a direct link will usually be stronger evidence (e.g., admission by a drug suspect or a confidential informant’s observation in the residence).
Suggestion about having application reviewed before submission to judicial official. Whenever an officer prepares an application for a search warrant to submit to a judicial official, the officer often will benefit by the having the application reviewed by his or her agency’s legal advisor or an officer not involved in the investigation (assuming there is time for such a review). Errors or significant omissions might be found and corrected that would increase the likelihood that the issuing official will issue the search warrant and a court later would uphold the validity of the search warrant. Or a review may persuade the officer that probable cause does not exist to issue a search warrant and cause the officer to conduct additional investigation to either find evidence that supports probable cause or to forego seeking a search warrant.