State v. Hilton

Decision Date24 September 2021
Docket NumberNo. 292A20,292A20
Citation862 S.E.2d 806,378 N.C. 692
Parties STATE of North Carolina v. Donald Eugene HILTON
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court

Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Joseph Finarelli, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State-appellee.

Glenn Gerding, Appellate Defender, by Nicholas C. Woomer-Deters, Assistant App Defender, and James R. Grant, Assistant Appellate Defender, for defendant-appellant.

NEWBY, Chief Justice.

¶ 1 The Supreme Court of the United States held that North Carolina's satellite-based monitoring (SBM) program effects a Fourth Amendment search. As such, the imposition of SBM on a limited category of sex offenders is constitutional so long as it is reasonable. "The reasonableness of a search depends on the totality of the circumstances, including the nature and purpose of the search and the extent to which the search intrudes upon reasonable privacy expectations." Grady v. North Carolina (Grady I ), 575 U.S. 306, 310, 135 S. Ct. 1368, 1371, 191 L.Ed.2d 459 (2015) (per curiam). The Fourth Amendment reasonableness test requires balancing significant competing interests: the State's interest in protecting children and others from sexual abuse and a convicted sex offender's right to privacy from government monitoring.

¶ 2 Upon remand from the Supreme Court's Grady I order, this Court held the SBM program to be unconstitutional as applied to the narrow category of individuals "who are subject to mandatory lifetime SBM based solely on their status as a statutorily defined ‘recidivist’ who have completed their prison sentences and are no longer supervised by the State through probation, parole, or post-release supervision." State v. Grady (Grady III ), 372 N.C. 509, 522, 831 S.E.2d 542, 553 (2019) (footnote omitted). Our Grady III decision, however, left unanswered the question of whether the SBM program is constitutional as applied to sex offenders who are in categories other than that of recidivists who are no longer under State supervision.

¶ 3 Defendant here is not a member of the category contemplated in Grady III . Rather, he falls into the aggravated offender category, which consists of defendants who are subject to SBM due to their conviction of at least one statutorily defined "aggravated offense." A limited number of very serious sexual offenses such as rape are categorized as aggravated. Defendant's crime being one of the most serious sex offenses impacts our weighing of the reasonableness factors, including society's interest in protecting its most vulnerable members and the expectation of privacy that society recognizes as legitimate. As such, the task here is to determine whether the SBM program1 is constitutional as applied to aggravated offenders.

¶ 4 For guidance, the Supreme Court has provided two examples for conducting the Fourth Amendment reasonableness test in the context of categorical searches. Grady I , 575 U.S. at 310, 135 S. Ct. at 1371 (citing Samson v. California , 547 U.S. 843, 857, 126 S. Ct. 2193, 2202, 165 L.Ed.2d 250 (2006) (suspicionless search of parolee was reasonable); Vernonia Sch. Dist. 47J v. Acton , 515 U.S. 646, 664–65, 115 S. Ct. 2386, 2396, 132 L.Ed.2d 564 (1995) (random drug testing of student athletes was reasonable)). Having conducted the reasonableness analysis in light of Samson , Vernonia , and our prior decision in Grady III , we conclude that searches effected by the imposition of lifetime SBM upon aggravated offenders are reasonable. We also conclude that the SBM program does not violate Article I, Section 20 of the North Carolina Constitution. The trial court's order imposing lifetime SBM based upon defendant's status as an aggravated offender thus complies with the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Section 20. Accordingly, we (1) modify and affirm the portion of the decision of the Court of Appeals which upheld the imposition of SBM during post-release supervision and (2) reverse the portion of the decision which held the imposition of post-supervision SBM to be an unreasonable search. Therefore, the trial court's SBM order is reinstated.

I. Facts and Procedural History

¶ 5 During an interview with a criminal investigator on 8 June 2005, defendant admitted to having sexual intercourse with one minor child and sexual contact with another while a third minor child watched. On 5 July 2005, defendant was charged with first-degree statutory rape and first-degree statutory sexual offense. On 26 April 2007, he pled guilty to the charges and received a sentence of 144 to 182 months. Defendant was released from prison on 9 July 2017 and placed on post-release supervision for a period of five years. Defendant's post-release supervision terms prohibited him from leaving Catawba County without first obtaining approval from his probation officer. Defendant, however, traveled to Caldwell County on several occasions without his probation officer's consent. While in Caldwell County, defendant sexually assaulted his minor niece. As a result, defendant was charged in Caldwell County with taking indecent liberties with a child.2

¶ 6 The trial court in Catawba County conducted a hearing on 19 April 2018 and 10 May 2018 to determine whether defendant should be enrolled in SBM based upon his 2007 convictions. Finding that defendant "[fell] into at least one of the categories requiring [SBM] under [N.C.]G.S. [§] 14-208.40, in that ... the offense of which ... defendant was convicted was an aggravated offense," the trial court ordered defendant to enroll in lifetime SBM. In support of its order, the trial court made the following additional findings:

1. That the defendant admitted to sexually assaulting more than one minor child prior to being convicted of first degree rape and first degree sexual offense.
2. That the defendant [completed his prison sentence] for the crimes of first degree rape and first degree sexual offense[.]
3. That probable cause has been found to currently charge the defendant with the crime of taking indecent liberties with a minor.
4. That the defendant was charged with this crime just a couple months after being released from custody from serving his sentence for the crimes of first degree rape and first degree sexual offense.
5. That the alleged victim in the pending charge is related to one of the victim's [sic] associated with the defendant's previous convictions of first degree rape and first degree sexual assault.
6. That the defendant has been monitored by probation and parole since his release from prison on July 9, 2017.
7. That one of the conditions of defendant's post release supervision is not to leave Catawba County without the permission of his probation/parole officer.
8. That the defendant has violated this condition of post release supervision and has traveled to Caldwell County without the knowledge of probation and parole.
9. That defendant's current charge of taking indecent liberties with a minor is out of Caldwell County were [sic] the alleged victim lives.
10. That the [SBM] program in Catawba County utilizes an ankle monitoring device to detect the location of one subject to [SBM] through Global Positioning System.
11. That the ankle monitoring device is light weight, small in size, can be adjusted for comfort and is of little intrusion to the person wearing the device.
12. That the monitoring of this device is done by authorized personnel from probation and parole that are assigned to monitor a particular person subject to [SBM].
13. That there are safe guards [sic] in place to protect a person subject to [SBM] in the case of an emergency or malfunction of the equipment.
14. That there are no known circumstances regarding this defendant that would cause a unique concern about his ability to wear the ankle monitoring device whether it be physical health, mental health, the defendant's occupation, the defendant's leisure or otherwise.
15. That there does not currently exist any other way for probation and parole to utilize [SBM] other than the current practice of using an ankle bracelet.
16. That there does not exist currently any other form of monitoring available to probation and[ ]parole other than physical monitoring similar to what is understood as supervised probation and [SBM] as described above.

Based upon these findings, the trial court concluded that, under the totality of the circumstances, the SBM program is constitutionally reasonable as applied to defendant. Defendant appealed.

¶ 7 Before the Court of Appeals, defendant argued: (1) the trial court exceeded its constitutional authority because the SBM order effected an unreasonable search; (2) the SBM statute is facially unconstitutional due to the State's failure to demonstrate that the program serves a legitimate government interest; and (3) orders authorizing SBM pursuant to the program constitute "general warrants" in violation of Article I, Section 20 of the North Carolina Constitution. That court issued a divided decision where it affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded to the trial court. State v. Hilton , 271 N.C. App. 505, 514, 845 S.E.2d 81, 88 (2020). The Court of Appeals noted that under Grady I the constitutionality of an SBM order depends on whether it is reasonable "based on the ‘totality of the circumstances.’ " Id. at 509, 845 S.E.2d at 85 (quoting Grady I , 575 U.S. at 310, 135 S. Ct. at 1371 ). It also recognized that a reviewing court should "consider, among other things, ‘the nature and purpose of the search’ and ‘the extent to which the search intrudes upon reasonable expectations of privacy.’ " Id. (quoting Grady I , 575 U.S. at 310, 135 S. Ct. at 1371 ).

¶ 8 The Court of Appeals then considered this Court's holding in Grady III and opined:

Though the holding was limited to a subset of unsupervised, convicted sex offenders, the Grady [III ] holding appears to impose a high standard on the State to meet in order to show reasonableness when imposing SBM on any convicted sex offender who is not under any form of State supervision,
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