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State v. Miller

Supreme Court of North Carolina

June 8, 2018

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
JUAN ANTONIA MILLER

          Heard in the Supreme Court on 7 February 2018.

          On discretionary review pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 795 S.E.2d 374 (2016), ordering that defendant receive a new trial after appeal from a judgment entered on 4 December 2015 by Judge Eric C. Morgan in Superior Court, Guilford County.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Derrick C. Mertz and John G. Batherson, Special Deputy Attorneys General, for the State-appellant.

          Jason Christopher Yoder for defendant-appellee.

          Southern Coalition for Social Justice, by Ian A. Mance and Ivy A. Johnson, for The Beloved Community Center of Greensboro, amicus curiae.

          MARTIN, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         During a traffic stop, Officer H.B. Harris of the Greensboro Police Department found cocaine in defendant's coat pocket. Defendant did not move to suppress evidence of the cocaine before or at trial, but instead argued for the first time on appeal that the seizure of the cocaine resulted from various Fourth Amendment violations. We hold that defendant's Fourth Amendment claims are not reviewable on direct appeal, even for plain error, because he completely waived them by not moving to suppress evidence of the cocaine before or at trial. We therefore reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and remand this case to the Court of Appeals for additional proceedings.

         Officer Harris pulled defendant over after a DMV records check indicated that the license plate number for the car that he was driving had been revoked due to unpaid insurance premiums. At the time of the traffic stop, Derick Sutton, the car's owner, was in the passenger's seat. After a brief conversation, Officer Harris asked Sutton and then defendant to step out of the car. Both men complied.

         The parties dispute exactly what happened next, including whether defendant consented to be searched. But they do not dispute that Officer Harris ultimately searched defendant. When Officer Harris checked defendant's coat pocket, he found a bag of white powder that was later confirmed to be cocaine and presented as Exhibit 1 at trial. Officer Harris was wearing a body camera that was recording video footage during this traffic stop.

         Defendant did not move in limine to suppress evidence of the cocaine, even when the trial court specifically asked if there were pretrial matters to address. Nor did defendant object to the State's use of the cocaine evidence at any point during his trial, either when Officer Harris testified about finding cocaine in his pocket or when the cocaine itself was introduced as evidence. Defendant argued to the Court of Appeals that the trial court "plainly erred" by "admitting the cocaine and testimony about the cocaine, " and that the seizure of the cocaine resulted from various Fourth Amendment violations. Defendant also argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for not moving to suppress evidence of the cocaine.

         Although the Court of Appeals acknowledged that "footage from an officer's body camera may not reveal the totality of the circumstances, " State v. Miller, __ N.C.App. __, __n.1, 795 S.E.2d 374, 376 n.1 (2016), it nonetheless considered the evidence that was presented at trial, including Officer Harris' body camera footage, and conducted plain error review, see id. at__, 795 S.E.2d at 376-79. The Court of Appeals determined that Officer Harris unconstitutionally extended the traffic stop and that, even if Officer Harris had not unlawfully extended the stop, defendant's consent to the search of his person was not valid. Id. at__, 795 S.E.2d at 378-79. In the course of its analysis, the Court of Appeals made determinations about the credibility of Officer Harris' testimony. See id.

         The Court of Appeals ultimately concluded that the trial court committed plain error by admitting evidence of the cocaine. Id. at__, 795 S.E.2d at 376-79. Because the Court of Appeals ordered a new trial based on defendant's Fourth Amendment claims, it did not reach defendant's ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Id. at__, 795 S.E.2d at 379. The State petitioned this Court for discretionary review of two issues: whether defendant's Fourth Amendment claims were susceptible to plain error review and, if so, whether the Court of Appeals correctly found plain error. We allowed review of both issues.

         This Court adopted plain error review in State v. Odom, 307 N.C. 655, 300 S.E.2d 375 (1983). As a general rule, "plain error review is available in criminal appeals for challenges to jury instructions and evidentiary issues." Dogwood Dev. & Mgmt. Co. v. White Oak Transp. Co., 362 N.C. 191, 196, 657 S.E.2d 361, 364 (2008) (citations omitted) (first citing Odom, 307 N.C. at 660, 300 S.E.2d at 378; and then citing State v. Cummings, 352 N.C. 600, 613, 536 S.E.2d 36, 47 (2000), cert. denied, 532 U.S. 997, 121 S.Ct. 1660 (2001)). Even after adopting plain error review, however, we have continued to indicate that the failure to move to suppress evidence when required by statute constitutes a waiver of those claims on appeal. See, e.g., State v. Hucks, 332 N.C. 650, 652-53, 422 S.E.2d 711, 713 (1992); State v. Maccia, 311 N.C. 222, 227-28, 316 S.E.2d 241, 244 (1984). But we have not squarely addressed whether plain error review is available when a defendant has not moved to suppress. See, e.g., State v. Walters, 357 N.C. 68, 85, 588 S.E.2d 344, 354, cert. denied, 540 U.S. 971, 124 S.Ct. 442 (2003). This issue is therefore one of first impression for this Court.

         For guidance, we first turn to the statutory framework that governs the suppression of unlawfully obtained evidence in our trial courts. N.C. G.S. § 15A-974(a)(1) states that, "[u]pon timely motion, evidence must be suppressed if . . . [i]ts exclusion is required by the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State of North Carolina." And N.C. G.S. § 15A-979(d) specifies that "[a] motion to suppress evidence made pursuant to this Article is the exclusive method of challenging the admissibility of evidence" on constitutional grounds. (Emphasis added.) A defendant generally "may move to suppress evidence only prior to trial, " N.C. ...


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