State v. Johnson

Citation378 N.C. 236,861 S.E.2d 474
Decision Date13 August 2021
Docket NumberNo. 3A20,3A20
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina
Parties STATE of North Carolina v. Bryan Xavier JOHNSON

Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Kristin J. Uicker, Assistant Attorney General, for the State-appellee.

Kimberly P. Hoppin, for defendant-appellant.

MORGAN, Justice.

¶ 1 Defendant's appeal requires this Court to review the trial court's order denying defendant's motion to suppress evidence of a bag of narcotics seized from his vehicle during a traffic stop on 14 January 2017. The dispositive question on appeal is whether the law enforcement officers conducting a search for weapons on defendant's person and in the areas of defendant's vehicle under his immediate control possessed the requisite reasonable suspicion to initiate such a warrantless search pursuant to Terry v. Ohio , 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). Because we hold that the law enforcement officer who conducted the traffic stop presented articulable facts at the suppression hearing which gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that defendant was armed and dangerous, the trial court did not commit error in denying defendant's request to suppress the controlled substances which were discovered as a result of the search of the areas of defendant's vehicle which were under defendant's immediate control.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

¶ 2 As a seven-year veteran of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) and a member of the law enforcement agency's Crime Reduction Unit, Officer Whitley was conducting patrol operations in the early morning hours of 14 January 2017 in a location of the city that he described at the suppression hearing as a "very high crime area." Officer Whitley and his partner, Sergeant Visiano, were traveling along Central Avenue in the Hickory Grove section of Charlotte when they observed a black Dodge Charger. While Officer Whitley continued to operate their patrol vehicle, Sergeant Visiano ran the license plate displayed on the Dodge Charger through the agency's computer system and discovered that the license plate was actually registered to an Acura MDX. Having determined that the tag displayed on the Dodge Charger was "fictitious," Officer Whitley initiated a traffic stop, and the two vehicles pulled into a Burger King parking lot.

¶ 3 While approaching the driver's side of the Dodge Charger, Officer Whitley noticed that the car's occupant had raised his hands in the air. It was determined that the individual in the Dodge Charger was defendant. Officer Whitley subsequently testified at the suppression hearing that he had observed persons raising their hands in such a manner ten to twenty times previously and that, based upon his experience which included specialized training in recognizing armed individuals, this behavior can "sometimes ... mean that they have a gun." Officer Whitley conversed with defendant at the driver's window as defendant remained seated in the Dodge Charger, while Sergeant Visiano positioned himself at the passenger side window in order to see defendant's right side. Officer Whitley asked for defendant's driver's license and registration and inquired about the possible presence of any weapons in the vehicle; defendant denied the presence of such items. Officer Whitley explained that the mismatched license plate served as the reason for the traffic stop, prompting defendant to volunteer that defendant had just purchased the Dodge Charger in a private sale that day and that defendant knew that the displayed tag did not belong to the vehicle that he was driving. Defendant readily produced his driver's license but had to search for the car's registration and bill of sale in the center console of the vehicle. Officer Whitley testified at the suppression hearing that during this interaction, defendant "seemed very nervous ... like his heart is beating out of his chest a little bit. He was very nervous." Further, as defendant reached into the center console to find the requested documentation, Officer Whitley recalled during his testimony that defendant was "blading [his body] ... as if he is trying to conceal something that is to his right, as if he's using his body to distance what I can see from what he's doing." This appeared odd to Officer Whitley, who testified at the suppression hearing that while "typically people obviously reach and turn" to retrieve items from the center consoles of their vehicles, defendant did so "to the extent where his shoulders were completely off the seat."

¶ 4 "[A]t this point," Officer Whitley testified, defendant's positioning of his hands above his head as the officers approached his vehicle, his nervousness, and the "blading" of his body as he reached into the center console were "adding up as ... characteristics of an armed subject." After defendant produced a bill of sale for the Dodge Charger from the center console, Officer Whitley left defendant in the driver's seat of the vehicle while defendant spoke with Sergeant Visiano. Meanwhile, Officer Whitley returned to his patrol car in order to process the information and paperwork provided by defendant through multiple law enforcement intelligence databases, which is "a standard practice for every traffic stop that" the officer conducts. Information gathered from Officer Whitley's search of North Carolina's CJLEADS system—a database which details a person's history of contacts with law enforcement in the form of a list of criminal charges filed against the individual—indicated that defendant had been charged with multiple violent crimes and offenses related to weapons from the years 2003 through 2009. While he could not offer testimony as to which charges against defendant had resulted in convictions, Officer Whitley testified that the "trend in violent crime" revealed by the CJLEADS search, combined with the "holding up of the hands, as well as the blading of the body," and the fact that defendant appeared very nervous, "led [the officer] to believe that he was armed and dangerous at that point."

¶ 5 Officer Whitley exited his patrol car, returned to defendant's vehicle, and asked defendant to step out of the Dodge Charger, with the intent of conducting a frisk of defendant's person and a search of the vehicle. Defendant got out of his car and went to the rear door on the driver's side of the vehicle at Officer Whitley's request before defendant consented to be frisked by the law enforcement officer for weapons. A pat down of defendant's clothing revealed no weapons or other indicia of contraband. At this point, Officer Whitley walked to the rear of defendant's Dodge Charger and asked for defendant's consent to search the vehicle. Defendant refused to grant such consent. Officer Whitley then explained that the officers were going to conduct a limited search of defendant's vehicle nonetheless based on defendant's "criminal history ... and some other things." While defendant continued to protest the search of the Dodge Charger, Officer Whitley left him with Sergeant Visiano and began a search of the front driver's side of defendant's vehicle. Immediately upon opening the unlocked center console, Officer Whitley discovered a baggie of "[w]hat appeared to be powder cocaine" and removed the suspected contraband from the vehicle. After completing his search of the area of the vehicle immediately behind the driver's seat, Officer Whitley placed defendant under arrest.

¶ 6 On 14 January 2017, defendant was charged with the felonious offense of possession with intent to sell or deliver cocaine and the misdemeanor offense of possession of drug paraphernalia, and was formally indicted by a Mecklenburg County grand jury for possession of cocaine on 25 September 2017.

¶ 7 Defendant filed a motion to suppress on 16 May 2018, which came on for hearing before the Honorable Forrest D. Bridges in Superior Court, Mecklenburg County, on 26 June 2018. Officer Whitley testified about the course of events which resulted in defendant's arrest. Additionally, the trial court viewed Officer Whitley's body camera recording of the incident after defendant's counsel stipulated to the video's admissibility. After hearing arguments from counsel for the State and defendant, the trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress. While defendant initially indicated a desire to proceed to trial, he agreed to plead guilty to felony possession of cocaine and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia after a short recess before the jury was selected. The trial court accepted defendant's guilty plea and noted for the record that defendant had preserved his right to appeal the trial court's earlier ruling on defendant's motion to suppress.

¶ 8 The trial court then asked the State's attorney to prepare an order reflecting the details of the hearing on defendant's motion to suppress.

In providing direction regarding the desired contents of the order, the trial court recounted the factual basis upon which it had concluded that Officer Whitley had established the reasonable suspicion necessary to conduct a Terry search1 of defendant's vehicle. In open court, the trial court recalled the manner in which Officer Whitley had conducted the traffic stop in the location which the officer had described as a high-crime area and the officer's discovery of defendant's prior charges, upon researching the state's criminal record databases, for robbery with a dangerous weapon, assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to kill, and discharging a weapon into occupied property. The trial court noted that defendant raised his hands out of the window of the Dodge Charger as Officer Whitley approached, which had put the officer "on alert for the possible presence of a gun within the vehicle." In addition, the trial court explained that, while Officer Whitley reasonably believed that defendant's maneuver to raise his hands out of the car's window could indicate the presence of a gun, defendant had acted appropriately...

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