State v. Julius, the Automobile Exception, and the Exclusionary Rule

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.

Not a search incident to arrest. The Court of Appeals held that the search of the car was justified as a search incident to arrest. The Supreme Court disagreed. Noting that law enforcement officers may (1) search the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control upon arrest and (2) may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest if (a) the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or (b) it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest, the Court determined that neither justification applied. The driver of the vehicle had fled the scene and was not arrested; thus, there could be no search incident to his arrest. And the Court found that the post-search arrest of Julius did not justify the vehicle search since without the unlawful search of the car, the officer would not have had probable cause to arrest Julius and search her bag.

The automobile exception. The Julius Court next considered whether the search of the car was justified by the automobile exception, which permits the warrantless search of a vehicle located in a public place based on probable cause. See Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970); Texas v. White, 423 U.S. 67 (1975); California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386 (1985); State v. Isleib, 319 N.C. 634 (1987). The automobile exception departs from “the general rule that officers may make a warrantless search with probable cause only when exigent circumstances exist,” see Robert L. Farb & Christopher Tyner, Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina 267 (6th ed. 2021), and is founded on two justifications:  the ready mobility of vehicles and the reduced expectation of privacy a person has in a vehicle versus a dwelling. Carney, 471 U.S.  at 392-93.

The mobility of vehicles, and the risk that they could be moved away before a search warrant was obtained, “served as the core justification for the automobile exception for many years.” Collins v. Virginia, 584 U.S. __, ___, 138 S.Ct. 1663, 1669 (2018). However, the Supreme Court has ruled that a warrantless vehicle search may be conducted even after a vehicle and its contents have been seized, secured, and stored by law enforcement officers. See United States v. Johns, 469 U.S. 478 (1985). Since there is no risk of such a vehicle being driven away, the reduced-expectation-of-privacy justification has necessarily emerged as the primary justification for the exception. See Farb & Tyner, supra, at 267 n. 293 (noting that mobility “hardly has much force when the Court permits a warrantless search even after a vehicle and its contents have been immobilized); see also Michigan v. Thomas, 458 U.S. 259, 261 (1982) (per curiam) (stating that “the justification to conduct . . .  a warrantless search does not vanish once the car has been immobilized; nor does it depend upon a reviewing court’s assessment of the likelihood in each particular case that the car would have been driven away, or that its contents would have been tampered with, during the period required for the police to obtain a warrant.”); United States v. Gastiaburo, 16 F.3d 582, 586 (4th Cir. 1994) (stating that “[u]nder the Supreme Court’s precedents, the fact that impoundment may have made it virtually impossible for anyone to drive the car away or to tamper with its contents is irrelevant to the constitutionality of a warrantless search . . . .”).

The mobility justification. Even after the the reduced-expectation-of-privacy justification took center stage, though, some courts have continued to assign significance to a vehicle’s mobility. Compare United States v. Mercado, 307 F.3d 1226, 1229 (10th Cir. 2002) (determining that the automobile exception applied to warrantless search of van that was temporarily inoperable due to mechanical problems) and People v. Carter, 655 N.W.2d 236, 239 (Mich. App. 2002) (holding that arson investigator’s warrantless search of burned vehicle was permissible as “application of the well-established automobile exception does not rise or fall depending on the peculiarities of the automobile to be searched”) with State v. LeJeune, 576 S.E.2d 888, 893 (Ga. 2003) (holding that the automobile exception did not apply when “the suspect’s car was legally parked in his residential parking space, the suspect and his only alleged cohort were not in the vehicle or near it and did not have access to it, and the police seized the automobile without a warrant, placed it on a wrecker and hauled it away to be searched at a later date”) and Mobley v. State, 834 S.E.2d 785, 793 (Ga. 2019) (stating that automobile exception did not apply to warrantless search of black box data retrieved from car that was inoperable and already in the custody and control of law enforcement officers).

And some state courts have held that a vehicle’s ready mobility is required to justify a warrantless vehicle search under their state constitutions. See State v. Harnisch, 954 P.2d 1180, 1183 (Nev. 1998) (holding that the Nevada Constitution requires probable cause and exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless search of a parked, immobile, unoccupied vehicle); State v. Kurokawa-Lasciak, 263 P.3d 336, 340 (Or. 2011) (noting that to qualify for the automobile exception under the Oregon Constitution, the vehicle must be mobile at the time that law enforcement officers encounter it in connection with a crime). (The defendant in Julius raised only federal constitutional claims, so any potential state constitutional issues were not before the court.)

In North Carolina, the significance of a vehicle’s mobility was discounted by the North Carolina Court of Appeals in State v. Corpening, 109 N.C. App. 586 (1993), which held that the automobile exception permitted the warrantless search of the defendant’s van, which had caught fire and was not drivable. Id. at 591 (“No exigent circumstances other than the motor vehicle itself are required in order to justify a warrantless search of a motor vehicle in a public place based on probable cause to believe that it contains the instrumentality of or pertains to a crime.”). Julius suggests that the mobility of a vehicle may be more significant than Corpening indicated. The Julius Court characterized mobility as a “fundamental prerequisite” to a warrantless search and reasoned that a vehicle must be in a condition in which ready use is possible for the automobile exception to apply. Id. at __; 892 S.E.2d at 861. The Julius Court concluded that because the searched vehicle, discovered in a ditch partially submerged in water, could not be driven, it was immobile, and the automobile exception did not apply.

Other potential exceptions. After concluding that the automobile exception did not apply, the Julius Court then explained that although the circumstances “align[] with several recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement,” the State failed to meet its burden to establish them. Id. at ___; 892 S.E.2d at 862. Thus, the court held that the vehicle search violated the Fourth Amendment.

The remedy. The Court did not, however, go on to apply the exclusionary rule and exclude the evidence as appellate courts have sometimes done after finding a Fourth Amendment violation. Compare State v. Eagle, 286 N.C. App. 80 (2022) (concluding, after finding Fourth Amendment violation, that trial court erred in denying motion to suppress) and State v. Reed, 257 N.C. App. 524 (2018) (same) with State v. McKinney, 361 N.C. 53 (2006) (remanding case to trial court for determination of whether warrant was valid notwithstanding warrant application’s inclusion of information gained in unlawful search) and State v. Mullinax, 282 N.C. App. 341 (2022) (remanding case to trial court for additional findings about justification for extended seizure or whether an exception to the exclusionary applies). Instead, it remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether exclusion of the evidence is appropriate and whether any exceptions to the exclusionary rule are applicable. In doing so, it noted the United States Supreme Court’s rejection of indiscriminate application of the exclusionary rule on the basis that suppression of evidence should be a “last resort” rather than a “first impulse.” Id. at ___; 892 S.E.2d at 863 (citing Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586, 591 (2006)).

The partial dissent. Chief Justice Newby concurred in part and dissented in part. As to the search of the car, he would have held that it was supported by exigent circumstances, which consisted of the need to identify the driver who had committed hit-and-run and fled the scene, telling bystanders he was fleeing because he had outstanding warrants. The officers had probable cause to believe that the driver’s identification remained in the car, Chief Justice Newby reasoned, and it was reasonable to believe that information could be removed or destroyed if officers left the car at the scene. Chief Justice Newby stated that were he to find a constitutional violation, he would agree with the majority’s decision to remand the case to determine whether exclusion was appropriate. He concluded his opinion by stating: “Notably, since 1986, we have recognized the good faith exception is applicable to violations of the Fourth Amendment.” Id. at ___; 892 S.E.2d at 868 (Newby, C.J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (citing State v. Welch, 316 N.C. 578, 587-89 (1986)).

Questions about the good faith exception. As already noted, the majority’s remanding of the case to the trial court for a determination of whether the exclusionary rule applies is not novel; courts have previously remanded cases for that kind of determination. The majority’s extended discussion of the purposes for the exclusionary rule combined with the partial dissent’s reference to the good faith exception, do, however, highlight an issue related to the application of the exclusionary rule in North Carolina that has surfaced both in the legislature and the appellate courts of late: Is there a good faith exception?

The governing framework. The federal exclusionary rule as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court bars the introduction of evidence obtained as result of a violation of the Fourth Amendment. See Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914); Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963). That rule applies to the states by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment. Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961). As mentioned earlier, it has several exceptions.

States may afford a defendant more (but not less) constitutional protection than the federal constitution. Thus, states may adopt rules or enforce constitutional provisions that exclude more evidence than federal law requires upon finding a constitutional violation. North Carolina has historically gone that route, holding in State v. Carter, 322 N.C. 709 (1988), that the state constitution did not recognize the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule adopted by the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984). Because Carter cited a state statute in support of its holding and stated that, if the rule were to be changed, it would be up to policymakers to do so, some have recently questioned whether its holding is founded on constitutional or statutory grounds. See State v. Gore, 272 N.C. App. 98, 112–13 (2020) (Dillon, J. concurring in part) (opining that “a closer reading of Carter reveals that our Supreme Court did not hold that the absence of a good faith exception under state law at that time (in 1988) was a constitutional matter which could only be changed by constitutional amendment.”); State v. Foster, 2019 WL 661571, **4 n.2, 264 N.C. App. 135 (2019) (unpublished) (stating that the language in Carter detailing the good faith exception has been superseded by statute); see also Jonathan Holbrook, Resurrecting the Good Faith Exception in North Carolina?, North Carolina Criminal Law Blog, (July 14, 2020) (examining these arguments).

The 2011 legislation. In 2011, the General Assembly enacted a statutory good faith exception, amending G.S. 15A-974 to provide that evidence is not subject to exclusion for a substantial violation of the state’s Criminal Procedure Act if the person acted in an objectively reasonable, good faith belief that the actions were lawful. S.L. 2011-6. In that legislation, the General Assembly asked the North Carolina Supreme Court to “reconsider, and overrule, its holding in State v. Carter that the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule which exists under federal law does not apply under North Carolina State law.“ Id. at § 2. Some argue this change was precisely what Carter said was required to create a good faith exception. See Carter, 322 N.C. at 724 (“[I]f a good faith exception is to be applied to this public policy, let it be done by the legislature, the body politic responsible for the formation and expression of matters of public policy.”)

While dicta in Julius may point to a desire to readdress application of the exclusionary rule’s principles, Julius strikes me as an unlikely vehicle for teeing up reconsideration of the good faith exception – at least in its currently recognized form. That exception has barred the exclusionary rule’s application when officers have relied in good faith on a warrant later determined to be deficient (United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984)), subsequently invalidated statutes (Illinois v. Krull, 480 U.S. 340 (1987)), erroneous arrest warrant information (Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135 (2009); Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1 (1995)), and binding appellate precedent, Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229 (2011)). None of those types of exceptions appear to have obvious application on Julius’s facts.