State v. Williford:  Gumshoes, Trash, Parking Lots and DNA

Kathy Taft was bludgeoned and raped on March 5, 2010, as she lay in the bedroom of a friends’ home in Raleigh recovering from surgery.  She died four days later.  Raleigh police tracked down her killer, Jason Williford, through what then-police chief Harry Dolan called “gumshoe detective work”:  They collected and tested trash discarded by neighborhood men who refused to provide samples of their DNA.

Jason Williford lived in a four-unit apartment building less than two-tenths of a mile from the home where Taft was murdered. Police became suspicious when, unlike many other males in the neighborhood, Williford refused to provide a sample of his DNA for analysis.

This is where the parking lot comes in. Determined to get a sample anyway, police set up surveillance of the area. They watched as Williford returned from grocery shopping and drove into the parking lot for the apartments, which was situated directly in front of the four-unit building.  The lot was shielded from the road, but was not gated.

Williford, who was smoking a cigarette, parked in one of the lot’s seven unmarked spaces and got out of his car. He finished smoking the cigarette and dropped the butt on the parking lot.  One officer approached Williford to distract him, while the other retrieved the cigarette butt.

DNA testing revealed that Williford’s DNA was a match for the DNA collected from the crime scene and from a rape kit of Taft. Williford was arrested and subsequently indicted for first degree murder, first degree rape and first degree burglary.

Was the parking lot curtilage? Williford moved before trial to suppress the DNA evidence collected from the cigarette butt. He argued that he discarded the cigarette within the curtilage of his apartment—a place where he had a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Thus, he contended, the officer’s warrantless retrieval and analysis of the cigarette butt violated the Fourth Amendment.

Had Williford discarded the cigarette butt in the driveway of a single family home where he lived, he would likely have prevailed on the motion, as the driveway of a home generally is considered to lie within its curtilage.  See, e.g., State v. Grice, __ N.C. ___ (Jan. 23, 2015) (characterizing the “driveway and front porch” of defendant’s home as curtilage); see also State v. Reed, 182 N.C. App. 109, 110-14 (2007) (holding that trial court erred in admitting DNA evidence obtained from cigarette butt that defendant flicked onto his patio as defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy on his patio).  But, at the time of Williford’s trial, no North Carolina court had ruled on the scope of curtilage for a multi-unit dwelling.

The trial court denied Williford’s motion, concluding that the parking lot was outside the curtilage of the apartment and that Williford had voluntarily discarded the cigarette butt.  After a three-week trial, Williford was convicted of first degree murder, first degree rape and misdemeanor breaking and entering.  He was sentenced to life without parole, and he appealed his convictions.

No expectation of privacy. The court of appeals affirmed. State v. Williford, ___ N.C. App. ___ (January 6, 2015). Employing the four-factor curtilage test from United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294 (1987)—(1) proximity to the home; (2) whether the area is enclosed; (3) nature of uses for the area; and (4) steps taken to protect the area from observation—the court determined that the parking lot was not located within the curtilage of Williford’s building.

Though the parking lot was close to the building, the court noted that it was not enclosed, was used for parking by the general public as well as the buildings’ residents, and “was only protected in a limited way.” Thus, the parking lot was not a location where the defendant possessed a reasonable and legitimate expectation of privacy. Accordingly, the court held that Williford’s constitutional rights were not violated when the officer seized the discarded cigarette butt without a warrant.

The court further rejected Williford’s argument that even if the cigarette butt was lawfully seized, law enforcement officers were required to obtain a warrant before testing it for his DNA. Following courts in other jurisdictions, the court held the extraction of DNA from an abandoned item does not implicate the Fourth Amendment.

State v. Williford is the second case in fewer than six months decided by North Carolina’s appellate courts in which DNA from a discarded cigarette butt provided the major break in a murder and rape investigation.  Investigators doubtless will continue to rely upon and perfect the partnership between gumshoe detection and scientific analysis.

5 thoughts on “State v. Williford:  Gumshoes, Trash, Parking Lots and DNA”

  1. The investigators did some good work. I believe the Court made the right decision. Any good lawyer should know this, and should be charged a fee for wasting the Court’s time with bogus claims like this. Maybe it would cut down on the cases like this in the future. Its all common sense.

    • A “fee” for raising a legitimate issue on appeal while zealously representing your client? Wow, is the State going to be charged for “”wasting” courts time when they lose an appeal on common sense issues? Glad you’re not representing me on a LWOP case.


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