Heard in the Court of Appeals November 6, 2014.
This Decision is not final until expiration of the twenty-one day rehearing period. [North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure 32(b)]
Appeal by Defendant from judgment entered 6 December 2013 by Judge R. Allen Baddour
in Wake County Superior Court.
Wake County. No. 13 CRS 203743.
Attorney General Roy Cooper, by Special Deputy Attorney General R. Marcus Lodge, for the State.
Appellate Defender Staples Hughes, by Assistant Appellate Defender Jason Christopher Yoder, for Defendant.
STEPHENS, Judge. Judges STEELMAN and GEER concur.
Defendant Van Lamar McKnight was convicted in Wake County Superior Court of one count of trafficking in marijuana by possession and one count of trafficking in marijuana by transportation. Defendant now appeals from the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence that he alleges was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Defendant also contends that the trial court committed plain error by denying his motion in limine to exclude evidence that was both irrelevant and prejudicial. After careful review, we hold the trial court did not err in denying Defendant's motion to suppress, nor did it commit plain error by admitting the evidence Defendant challenges.
I. Facts and procedural history
On 5 August 2013, Defendant was indicted by a Wake County grand jury on one count of trafficking in marijuana by possession and one count of trafficking in marijuana by transportation. Those charges arose from Defendant's arrest on 14 February 2013 after officers from the Raleigh Police Department (" RPD" ) stopped and searched his vehicle and discovered more than ten pounds of marijuana concealed in two packages during their ongoing investigation of Defendant's friend, Travion Stokes.
The evidence introduced at Defendant's trial tended to show that in November 2012, the RPD learned from a confidential informant that Stokes, who at the time was on probation for a federal cocaine trafficking conviction, was trafficking in large amounts of marijuana. On 12 February 2013, after conducting several weeks of undercover surveillance and a controlled buy using the confidential informant, RPD Detective James Battle searched a trash can left by the curb at Stokes' residence at 601 Sawmill Road in Raleigh and found a plastic baggie containing less than one-tenth of a gram of marijuana residue. Based on this information, Detective Battle obtained a search warrant for Stokes and his residence.
On the morning of 14 February 2013, Detective Battle and RPD Detective Sarah Goree stationed themselves in unmarked police vehicles near Stokes' residence to conduct pre-raid surveillance prior to executing the search warrant, while RPD Officer Keith Pickens parked his marked patrol car farther away at a nearby intersection as back-up. The officers did not have access to a S.W.A.T. team that day, so their plan was to stop Stokes in his automobile after he left his home and then execute the search warrant for his residence. Around 8:30 a.m., Stokes drove a pickup truck into his driveway, parked at the rear of the house, and went inside. Around 8:45 a.m., Defendant--whom RPD officers had not previously seen during the course of their investigation--arrived at Stokes' home driving a GMC Acadia sport utility vehicle, which he parked in the front. Stokes then came out of the house and the two men removed two large white boxes from Stokes' pickup truck, carried them around to the front of the house, and placed them in the back of Defendant's vehicle. The boxes were sealed shut and did not appear very heavy.
When Defendant got back in his Acadia and drove away, Detective Goree and Sergeant Charles Lynch, another officer in an unmarked vehicle, followed him, as did Officer Pickens at a distance to avoid being seen in his patrol car. The officers followed Defendant for roughly ten to fifteen minutes, during which they did not observe any traffic violations, until Defendant unexpectedly backed his Acadia into a residential driveway at 7202 Shellburne Drive. Detective Goree continued past the driveway and lost visual contact with Defendant. Sergeant Lynch continued past the driveway as well and saw Defendant pull back out into the road without getting out of his car. Officer Pickens, who had not yet reached the driveway, heard over the radio that his colleagues were unable to continue following Defendant, and thereupon activated his patrol car's lights and pulled Defendant over.
Officer Pickens, who later testified that he noticed Defendant seemed slightly nervous but was otherwise acting normally, ordered Defendant out of the Acadia and had him sit on the curb until RPD Detective Kenneth Barber joined them a few minutes later. Detective Barber later testified that upon his arrival, he smelled burnt marijuana through the Acadia's open window and decided to conduct a search. No burnt marijuana was found during the search of Defendant's vehicle, but when the officers inspected the two boxes Defendant had taken from Stokes' house, they discovered that inside each box was another, smaller box containing a shrink-wrapped orange plastic bucket. These buckets, in turn, contained 5.8 and 4.9 pounds of marijuana in sealed plastic bags.
Defendant was arrested and taken to a police station for interrogation, during which Detective Battle found a key among the contents of Defendant's pockets. Detective Battle subsequently discovered the key fit the lock on the front door of the residence at 7202 Shellburne Drive, where he smelled marijuana through the doorframe. After obtaining a search warrant, RPD officers returned to that residence and found 91 grams of marijuana hidden above a kitchen cabinet. They also found paraphernalia including two digital scales, Ziploc bags, and a vacuum food saver machine in the kitchen. In the attic of the home, the officers found a freezer-sealed bag of marijuana, a black trash bag with sealed marijuana inside, and a small orange-red bucket. The officers also searched for documents to show who owned the house and found bank records in the name of Revaune Moe, who had two prior drug arrests, as well as a ...