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State v. Huddy

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

April 18, 2017

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
MICHAEL VERNON HUDDY

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 22 February 2017.

         Appeal by defendant from judgment entered 8 June 2016 by Judge L. Todd Burke in Guilford County, No. 15CRS080457 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Martin T. McCracken, for the State.

          Appellate Defender Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate Defender Aaron Thomas Johnson, for defendant.

          DIETZ, Judge.

         Defendant Michael Vernon Huddy appeals the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained after a law enforcement officer searched the curtilage of Huddy's home without a warrant. The officer saw a vehicle with its doors open at the back of a 150-yard driveway leading to Huddy's home. Concerned that the vehicle may be part of a break-in or home invasion, the officer drove down Huddy's 150-yard driveway, ran the tags on the vehicle, checked the front door (but did not knock), checked the home's windows, "cleared" the sides of the house, and then went through a gate in a chain-link fence enclosing the home's backyard and approached the storm door at the back of the house, not visible from the street-all without a warrant or probable cause and accompanying exigent circumstances. As the officer approached the back door, he smelled marijuana, which ultimately led to Huddy's arrest and conviction for possession of marijuana.

         We hold that the officer's conduct violated the Fourth Amendment and thus Huddy's motion to suppress should have been granted. At the suppression hearing, the State relied on two exceptions to the warrant requirement to justify the officer's search of the curtilage of Huddy's home: the "knock and talk" doctrine and the "community caretaker" doctrine. As explained below, neither exception applies here. First, the State cannot rely on the knock and talk doctrine because the officer did more than merely knock and talk. The officer ran a license plate not visible from the street, walked around the house examining windows and searching for signs of a break-in, and went first to the front door (without knocking) and then to a rear door not visible from the street and located behind a closed gate. These actions went beyond what the U.S. Supreme Court has held are the permissible actions during a knock and talk. Florida v. Jardines, 133 S.Ct. 1409, 1414 (2013).

         Likewise, the State cannot rely on the community caretaker doctrine. The presence of a vehicle in one's driveway with its doors open is not the sort of emergency that justifies the community caretaker exception. State v. Smathers, 232 N.C.App. 120, 126, 753 S.E.2d 380, 384 (2014). Accordingly, the trial court erred by denying Huddy's motion to suppress. We reverse the trial court's order and remand for further proceedings.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On 16 July 2016, around 11:00 a.m., Deputy Tracy Smith of the Guilford County Sherriff's Department was patrolling an area that law enforcement believed was at risk of home invasions or break-ins. Deputy Smith approached Huddy's home and saw a parked vehicle with open doors at the end of a 150-yard driveway leading to the rear of the home. Deputy Smith thought it was unusual for a vehicle to be parked in a driveway with the doors open at that time of day. Deputy Smith also observed that the house was surrounded by trees, which Deputy Smith believed made it susceptible to break-ins.

         Deputy Smith drove to the back of the driveway, parked behind the vehicle, and ran the vehicle's license plate. The address on record for the vehicle did not match the address for Huddy's home. Deputy Smith continued to investigate by walking to the front of the house and checking windows and doors for signs of forced entry. Deputy Smith saw that the front door was "covered in cobwebs" and did not appear to be used as the main entrance to the house. Deputy Smith did not knock on the front door. Observing no signs of forced entry, Deputy Smith then "cleared" the sides of the home before walking to the back of the house.

          The back yard of Huddy's home was enclosed by a chain-link fence. Deputy Smith opened the gate in that chain-link fence and entered the enclosed back yard. Deputy Smith then approached a storm door on the rear porch, which was not visible from the street. Deputy Smith smelled marijuana in the area around the storm door.

         Deputy Smith knocked on the door and Huddy answered. Deputy Smith asked Huddy to verify that he was lawfully present in the house. Huddy first offered his driver's license, which matched the address for the vehicle in the driveway, but not the house. Deputy Smith requested additional verification, and Huddy eventually produced a rental agreement for the house.

         Based on the odor of marijuana, Deputy Smith secured a warrant to search the house. Law enforcement later seized a large quantity of marijuana. The State indicted Huddy on 14 September 2015 for possession of marijuana with intent to sell or deliver, possession of marijuana, and possession of marijuana paraphernalia. On 16 February 2016, Huddy moved to suppress the evidence of marijuana seized from the residence. On 4 April 2016, the trial court entered a written order denying the motion.

         On 16 May 2016, Huddy entered an Alford plea to one count of possession of marijuana with intent to sell or deliver while reserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. The court sentenced Huddy to a 4 to 14 month active sentence, suspended the sentence, and ordered 12 months of supervised probation. Huddy timely appealed.

         Analysis

         Huddy challenges the denial of his motion to suppress. He contends that the investigating officer violated the Fourth Amendment when he searched throughout the curtilage of Huddy's home to "check the windows, check the doors" for signs of a possible break-in. As explained below, we agree that neither the knock and talk doctrine nor the community caretaker doctrine permitted the officer to conduct this type of warrantless search of the home's curtilage. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's order and remand for further proceedings.

         "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." State v. Biber, 365 N.C. 162, 167- 68, 712 S.E.2d 874, 878 (2011). Unchallenged findings of fact "are deemed to be supported by competent evidence and are binding on appeal." Id. at 168, 712 S.E.2d ...


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