State v. Hunter, COA22-126

Docket NºCOA22-126
Citation2022 NCCOA 683
Case DateOctober 18, 2022
CourtCourt of Appeal of North Carolina (US)

2022-NCCOA-683

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.

BRANDON KEITH HUNTER

No. COA22-126

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

October 18, 2022


Heard in the Court of Appeals 7 September 2022.

Appeal by Defendant from order entered 12 August 2021 by Judge F. Donald Bridges in Gaston County, Nos. 20CRS60100, -60101 Superior Court.

Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Caden William Hayes, for the State-Appellee.

Appellate Defender Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate Defender Daniel Shatz, for Defendant-Appellant.

COLLINS, JUDGE

¶ 1 Defendant Brandon Keith Hunter appeals from the trial court's order denying Defendant's motion to suppress and judgment entered upon Defendant's plea of no contest to possession of a schedule II controlled substance, possession of non-marijuana drug paraphernalia, and failure to stop at a stop sign. Defendant contends that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress because there was no probable cause to search and seize items from Defendant's car. Because

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Officer Stanley did not conduct a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when he shined a flashlight into Defendant's vehicle and because it was immediately apparent that the plastic baggie in plain view was contraband, we affirm the trial court's order and judgment.

I. Procedural History and Factual Background

¶ 2 On the evening of 19 October 2020, Officers Steven Hoyle and Heath Stanley were patrolling near Glenn Street in Gaston County when they observed a car, driven by Defendant, roll through a stop sign. The officers activated their emergency lights and sirens, and the car continued to roll for approximately 200 feet before coming to a stop. Stanley approached the passenger side of the car, initiated conversation with Defendant, and shined his flashlight around "[Defendant]'s area, the center console area, passenger area and behind [Defendant]'s seat" to look for weapons or contraband. While Stanley was doing so, Hoyle returned to the police car "to do a warrant check of the vehicle and do a warrant check of the vehicle and Mr. Hunter's license."

¶ 3 Stanley continued speaking with Defendant and shining the flashlight through the car windows for a "couple of minutes" before seeing a plastic baggie between Defendant's seat and the door. Officer Stanley suspected the plastic baggie contained "illegal narcotics and crack-cocaine" because it had a "white rock substance inside" and had the "tie ripped off." Defendant was detained, and the plastic baggie

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retrieved. The officers suspected the contents of the baggie was crack-cocaine, and the contents "later field tested positive."

¶ 4 Defendant was indicted for possession of a schedule II controlled substance, possession of non-marijuana drug paraphernalia, and failure to stop at a stop sign. Defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing that Defendant had done nothing other than run a stop sign; that Officer Stanley deliberately extended contact with Defendant to continue a warrantless search of Defendant's car; and that even if Officer Stanley observed the plastic baggie in plain view, it did not give rise to probable cause to search the vehicle. The trial court denied the motion.

¶ 5 Defendant entered a plea of no contest to possession of a schedule II controlled substance, possession of non-marijuana drug paraphernalia, and failure to stop at a stop sign, reserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. The trial court sentenced Defendant to 6 to 17 months' imprisonment, suspended for 24 months of supervised probation. Defendant timely appealed.

II. Discussion

¶ 6 Defendant contends that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress because Stanley lacked probable cause to search the car, and the stop was inappropriately pretextual.

¶ 7 "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

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the findings of fact support the conclusions of law." State v. Jackson, 368 N.C. 75, 78, 772 S.E.2d 847, 849 (2015) (citations omitted). "The trial court's findings of fact regarding a motion to suppress are conclusive and binding on appeal if supported by competent evidence." State v. Edwards, 185 N.C.App. 701, 702, 649 S.E.2d 646, 648 (2007) (citations omitted). "Unchallenged findings of fact are binding on appeal." State v. Fizovic, 240 N.C.App. 448, 451, 770 S.E.2d 717, 720 (2015) (citation omitted). "Conclusions of law are reviewed de novo and are subject to full review." State v. Sutton, 259 N.C.App. 891, 893, 817 S.E.2d 211, 213 (2018) (citation omitted).

A. Probable Cause

¶ 8 Defendant first contends that Stanley lacked probable cause to search the vehicle and seize the plastic baggie of contraband.

¶ 9 The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 20 of the North Carolina Constitution prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures. State v. Pasour, 223 N.C.App. 175, 176, 741 S.E.2d 323, 324 (2012) (citation omitted); State v. Arrington, 311 N.C. 633, 643, 319 S.E.2d 254, 260 (1984) (citation omitted). "[W]hat the Constitution forbids is not all searches and seizures, but unreasonable searches and seizures . . . . A search occurs when the government invades reasonable expectations of privacy to obtain information." State v. Ladd, 246 N.C.App. 295, 301, 782 S.E.2d 397, 401 (2016) (citations omitted). "Officers who lawfully approach a car and look inside with a flashlight do not conduct a...

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