Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Computer Search, the "Outstanding Warrant" and the 4th Amendment

This post deals with an opinion recently issued by the Court of Appeals of North CarolinaState v. Leak, 773 S.E.2d 340 (2015).  The court begins its opinion by explaining how the case arose:
At 11:30 p.m. on 30 April 2012, Lilesville Police Chief Bobby Gallimore was on patrol. He noticed a parked car in a gravel area near Highway 74, and stopped to see if the driver needed assistance. Before approaching the car, Chief Gallimore ran the vehicle's license plate through his computer and was advised that the car was owned by Keith Leak. . . . Chief Gallimore spoke with [Leak], who told him that he did not need assistance, and had pulled off the road to return a text message. 
Chief Gallimore then asked to see [Leak’s] driver's license, and determined that the name on the license—Keith Leak—matched the information he had obtained concerning the car's license plate. After examining [Leak’s] driver's license, Chief Gallimore took it to his patrol vehicle to investigate the status of [Leak’s] driver's license. It was undisputed that Chief Gallimore had no suspicion that [Leak] was involved in criminal activity. [Leak] remained in his car while Chief Gallimore ran a check on his license and confirmed that his license was valid. 
However, the computer search revealed that there was an outstanding 2007 warrant for [Leak’s] arrest. Chief Gallimore asked [him] to step out of his car, at which point, [Leak] informed Chief Gallimore that he `had a .22 pistol in his pocket.’ [Leak] was arrested for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon; the record does not indicate whether [he] was ever prosecuted for the offense alleged in the 2007 arrest warrant.
State v. Leak, supra.
The court goes on to explain that, on June 4, 2012, Leak
was indicted for possession of a firearm by a felon and for the related misdemeanor of carrying a concealed weapon. On 5 August 2013 [he] filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained at the time of his arrest, on the grounds that the evidence had been `seized in or as a result of’ a seizure in `violation of his rights under the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and similar provisions in the North Carolina Constitution[.]’
 The motion to suppress was heard by Judge Tanya Wallace on 5 August 2013. Chief Gallimore testified for the State at the suppression hearing. [Leak] did not present evidence. On 7 August 2013 Judge Wallace entered an order denying [Leak’s] motion. 
 On 14 November 2013 [he] entered a plea of guilty to possession of a firearm by a felon pursuant to a plea agreement, reserving his right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. The trial court determined [Leak’s] prior record level to be II, imposed a suspended sentence of nine to twenty months imprisonment, and placed [Leak] on supervised probation for twelve months.
State v. Leak, supra.
Leak appealed and, as the Court of Appeals noted, the
sole issue raised on appeal is whether Judge Wallace erred by denying [Leak’s] motion to suppress evidence. [Leak] argues that he was effectively seized when Chief Gallimore took his driver's license to the patrol vehicle in order to conduct a computer search and that, because Chief Gallimore had no suspicion that [he] was engaged in criminal activity, the seizure violated his rights under the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution. We are compelled to agree.
State v. Leak, supra.  This Wikipedia entry explains precisely what constitutes a “seizure” of a person within the provisions of the 4th Amendment.
As courts usually do, the Court of Appeals began its analysis of Leak’s appeal by explaining the standard it used in evaluating the facts in the case and Leak’s arguments:
`The standard of review in evaluating the denial of a motion to suppress is whether competent evidence supports the trial court's findings of fact and whether the findings of fact support the conclusions of law. However, when, as here, the trial court's findings of fact are not challenged on appeal, they are deemed to be supported by competent evidence and are binding on appeal. Conclusions of law are reviewed de novo and are subject to full review.’ State v. Biber, 365 N.C. 162, 712 S.E.2d 874 (North Carolina Supreme Court 2011). . . . 
`”Under a de novo review, the court considers the matter anew and freely substitutes its own judgment” for that of the lower tribunal.’ State v. Williams, 362 N.C. 628, 669 S.E.2d 290 (North Carolina Supreme Court 2008) (quoting In re Greens of Pine Glen, Ltd. Partnership, 356 N.C. 642, 576 S.E.2d 316 (North Carolina Supreme Court 2003)).
State v. Leak, supra.
It then explained that
[t]he issue in this case is whether there was a violation of defendant's rights under the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. `In analyzing federal constitutional questions, we look to decisions of the United States Supreme Court. We also look for guidance to the decisions of the North Carolina Supreme Court construing federal constitutional and State constitutional provisions, and we are bound by those interpretations. We are also bound by prior decisions of this Court construing those provisions, which are not inconsistent with the holdings of the United States Supreme Court and the North Carolina Supreme Court. Johnston v. State, 224 N.C.App. 282, ––––, 735 S.E.2d 859 (North Carolina Court of Appeals 2012). . . .
State v. Leak, supra.
The Court of Appeals then began its analysis of that issue, explaining that the
4th Amendment provides that `the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated[.]’ U.S. Const. amendment IV. The 4th Amendment protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures. Not every police encounter, however, warrants 4th Amendment scrutiny. 
Under Terry v. Ohio and its progeny, a three-tiered standard has developed by which to measure the need to investigate possible criminal activity against the intrusion on individual freedom which the investigation may entail: (1) Communication between police and citizens involving no coercion or detention are outside the scope of the 4th Amendment. 
(2) Seizures must be based on reasonable suspicion. 
(3) Arrests must be based on probable cause. 
State v. Harrell, 67 N.C.App. 57, 312 S.E.2d 230 (North Carolina Court of Appeals 1984) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, (1968) (other citation omitted)).The Court of Appeals then explained that 
Chief Gallimore's initial contact with defendant was consensual, as indicated in several of the trial court's findings of fact: . . 
(4) Initially Chief Gallimore was concerned about the safety of the vehicle's occupant or occupants, whether the vehicle had broken down or whether the occupants needed other assistance. (5) The only occupant of the vehicle was the Defendant Keith Leak. Mr. Leak assured the officer he did not need assistance, but told Chief Gallimore that he pulled over to text, since he knew he could not text while driving. (6) When approaching the vehicle, the officer had run the tag on the vehicle, discovering the vehicle to be registered to Keith Leak. . . . 
 (7) The Chief approached, in uniform, and does not recall whether or not his blue lights were on. He had a service revolver, but it was not displayed. The officer requested the driver's license and registration from Mr. Leak, which were produced. The officer confirmed that Keith Leak was the name on the driver's license.
State v. Leak, supra.
It went on to note that  
`”Our cases make it clear that a seizure does not occur simply because a police officer approaches an individual and asks a few questions. So long as a reasonable person would feel free to disregard the police and go about his business, the encounter is consensual and no reasonable suspicion is required. The encounter will not trigger 4th Amendment scrutiny unless it loses its consensual nature.”’ State v. Campbell, 359 N.C. 644, 617 S.E.2d 1 (North Carolina Supreme Court 2005) (quoting Floridav. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429 (1991) (internal quotation omitted)).
 Chief Gallimore required no particular justification to approach defendant and ask whether he required assistance, or to ask defendant to voluntarily consent to allowing Chief Gallimore to examine his driver's license and registration.
State v. Leak, supra.
The Court of Appeals then explained that in
its order denying [Leak’s] suppression motion, the court stated two alternative conclusions of law `[t]hat any seizure that occurred was de minimus. . . . But the court finds that there was no seizure in this instance, based on the facts and circumstances surrounding this encounter.’ [Leak] argues that Chief Gallimore's conduct in taking [his] driver's license back to his patrol car in order to investigate the status of [Leak’s] license constituted a seizure that was not justified in the absence of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  
We agree and hold that, under binding precedent of this Court, [Leak] was seized when Chief Gallimore took his license and registration back to the patrol car for investigation. `An individual is seized by a police officer and is thus within the protection of the 4th Amendment when the officer's conduct “would have communicated to a reasonable person that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business.” . . . 
Moreover, “an initially consensual encounter between a police officer and a citizen can be transformed into a seizure or detention within the meaning of the 4th Amendment, if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave” or otherwise terminate the encounter.’ State v. Icard, 363 N.C. 303, 677 S.E.2d 822 (North Carolina Supreme Court (2009) (quoting Bostick, supra. . . and INS v. Delgado, 466 U.S. 210 (1984)). . .   
State v. Leak, supra.
The Court of Appeals went on to explain that Chief Gallimore testified that
he did not consider [Leak] to be free to leave when he took his driver's license back to his patrol car:
`PROSECUTOR: And when you asked him for his driver's license and registration, why did you do that?’ `CHIEF GALLIMORE: I asked for his driver's license to—I asked him if he had a valid license, and he said he did. And I said, “Well, may I see your license?” And he handed me his license. And then that's when I ran them to make sure that they were valid. . . . 
 `Q And why is that?’ `A Because we seem to have a lot of people that drive while license revoked. And I felt obligated—If I would have released—you know, if I told him he's free to leave from there and he's okay to drive from there, and he got in a wreck, then I'd be liable for it because he didn't have a license. (emphasis added).’
State v. Leak, supra.
The Court of Appeals then returned to the legal issue in the case, explaining that in
State v. Jackson, 199 N.C.App. 236, 681 S.E.2d 492 (North Carolina Court of Appeals 2009), a prior panel of this Court held that a reasonable person would not feel free to drive away while a law enforcement officer retains possession of his driver's license.
 In Jackson a car was stopped based upon the officer's belief that the driver did not have a valid driver's license. After dispelling this suspicion, the officer continued to question the driver and his passenger (the defendant) about whether there were drugs or weapons in the car. We held that this `interrogation was indeed an extension of the detention beyond the scope of the original traffic stop as the interrogation was not necessary to confirm or dispel [the officer's] suspicion that [the driver] was operating [a motor vehicle] without a valid driver's license[.] . . . Accordingly, for this extended detention to have been constitutional, [the officer] must have had grounds which provided a reasonable and articulable suspicion or the encounter must have become consensual.’ State v. Jackson, supra. . . .
 After holding that the detention was not justified by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, we held that it constituted an unconstitutional seizure: Furthermore, there is no evidence that the encounter became consensual after [the officer's] suspicion that [the driver] was operating without a license was dispelled. Generally, an initial traffic stop concludes and the encounter becomes consensual only after an officer returns the detainee's driver's license and registration. . . . [The officer] took [the driver's] driver's license to her patrol car and . . . [another officer] brought the vehicle registration card to the patrol car. However, there is no evidence in the record that [the driver's] documentation was ever returned.
 As a reasonable person under the circumstances would certainly not believe he was free to leave without his driver's license and registration, [the officer's] continued detention and questioning of [the driver] after determining that [he] had a valid driver's license was not a consensual encounter. Accordingly, the extended detention of Defendant was unconstitutional[.] 
State v. Jackson, supra. . . . (emphasis added). On the basis of Chief Gallimore's testimony, the holding of Jackson, and our analysis of the totality of the circumstances, we hold that a seizure occurred when Chief Gallimore took [Leak’s] license back to his patrol car. The trial court erred in ruling that [he] was not seized.
State v. Leak, supra (emphasis in the original).
The Court of Appeals then addressed the residual issue in the case, noting that the
trial court's alternative conclusion of law that `any seizure that occurred was [de minimus ] was also contrary to law and was error.] In the recent United States Supreme Court case, Rodriguez v. U.S., 135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015), the United States Supreme Court held that continued detention of a motorist beyond the scope of the initial reason for the stop was unconstitutional unless justified by reasonable suspicion.
 In Rodriguez, a law enforcement officer stopped a motorist to issue a citation for swerving off the highway. After issuing the driver a warning ticket, the officer detained the driver until the arrival of a drug-sniffing dog. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the `resulting seven- or eight-minute delay . . . constituted a de minimus intrusion on Rodriguez's personal liberty[.]’ U.S. v. Rodriguez, 741 F.3d 905 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit 2014).
 The Supreme Court `granted certiorari to resolve a division among lower courts on the question whether police routinely may extend an otherwise-completed traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion, in order to conduct a dog sniff’ and held that `[a]uthority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed.’ U.S. v. Rodriguez, supra. . . . The Court vacated the judgment of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded for determination of `whether reasonable suspicion of criminal activity justified detaining Rodriguez beyond completion of the traffic infraction investigation[.]’  U.S. v. Rodriguez, supra. . . . , rejecting the de minimus analysis of the 8th Circuit.
State v. Leak, supra.
It also explained that
there is no factual dispute that Chief Gallimore did not have a reasonable suspicion that [Leak] was engaged in criminal activity. `An officer has reasonable suspicion if a “reasonable, cautious officer, guided by his experience and training,” would believe that criminal activity is afoot “based on specific and articulable facts, as well as the rational inferences from those facts.”’ State v. Williams, 366 N.C. 110, 726 S.E.2d 161 (North Carolina Supreme Court 2012) (quoting State v. Watkins, 337 N.C. 437, 446 S.E.2d 67, 70 (North Carolina Supreme Court 1994). . . .
 Chief Gallimore described his interaction with [Leak] as `a routine conversation’ and testified that his reason for approaching [Leak] was to ascertain if he needed assistance with a disabled vehicle. [Leak] was not parked illegally, and Chief Gallimore did not smell alcohol or discern any other indicia of criminal activity.
 The trial court found as a fact that `[b]etween the time of the initial speaking with [Leak] and the time that the first hit on [Leak’s] name alerted [Chief Gallimore to the outstanding arrest warrant] there was no actual suspicion of criminal activity.’ We hold that [Leak] was seized in violation of his rights under the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
State v. Leak, supra.
And finally, the Court pointed out that
`[e]vidence that is discovered as a direct result of an illegal search or seizure is generally excluded at trial as fruit of the poisonous tree unless it would have been discovered regardless of the unconstitutional search.’  State v. Jackson, supra (citing Wong Sun v. U.S., 371 U.S. 471 (1963)). In this case, Chief Gallimore's seizure of [Leak] for purposes of conducting an investigation into his driver's license led to his arrest and the discovery of the firearm in his possession. There was no evidence that [Leak’s] pistol was or could have been discovered `by means sufficiently distinguishable to be purged of the primary taint’ of the unlawful seizure. Wong Sun v. U.S. supra. . . . We reverse and remand to the trial court for entry of an order vacating [Leak’s] guilty plea.
State v. Leak, supra.

No comments: