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State v. Winchester

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

July 17, 2018

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
MICHAEL SHANE WINCHESTER

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 11 April 2018.

          Appeal by defendant from judgments entered 3 August 2017 by Judge R. Stuart Albright in Guilford County Nos. 16 CRS 83453-54, 17 CRS 24408 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Marie H. Evitt and Special Deputy Attorney General Derrick C. Mertz, for the State.

          Law Office of Barry C. Snyder, by Barry C. Snyder and Gabriel Snyder, for defendant.

          ELMORE, Judge.

         Defendant Michael Shane Winchester appeals from judgments entered after he pled guilty to two counts of attempted heroin trafficking, one count of possession with intent to sell and deliver heroin, and one count of keeping or maintaining a dwelling to keep and sell heroin. He argues the trial court erred by denying his motions to suppress evidence obtained pursuant to the executions of a warrant to search his person, vehicle, and residence for drug dealing evidence, and by denying his motion to suppress certain statements he made in response to police questioning while he was in custody and before he was read his Miranda rights. Because probable cause supported the warrant, the searches and seizure were constitutionally reasonable and, even if defendant's responses should have been suppressed, any error in the trial court's ruling was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court's order.

         I. Background

         The trial court's unchallenged findings reveal the following facts. On 23 August 2016, after a three-months long police investigation prompted by a tip from a confidential informant that defendant was dealing heroin, Detective Ryan C. Cole of the Guilford County Sheriff's Office obtained a warrant to search defendant's residence at 4103 Falconridge Road in Greensboro for drug dealing evidence. The search warrant also identified a 2013 white-over-red Range Rover bearing the North Carolina registration number DFD-7872 as one of three vehicles to be searched, and authorized searches of defendant and Chasity Desiree Jeffries.

         During the early morning that next day, Detective Cole held a tactical briefing with a police taskforce organized to assist in executing the warrant. Detective Cole discussed prior charges issued against defendant for possessing firearms, convictions obtained against defendant related to drug activity, and defendant's history of keeping large dogs. The officers also discussed the possibility that others, including Jeffries and possibly children, might be at the Falconridge residence. Due to these safety concerns, the officers decided to wait to execute the warrant to search the Falconridge residence until after defendant left the premises.

         Around 9:45 a.m., about two hours after surveilling officers had been stationed outside the Falconridge residence, they observed defendant leave the residence, enter the identified Range Rover, and drive away. Detective Cole instructed assisting officers to stop the vehicle to execute the warrant to search defendant and the Range Rover. The officers tailed Range Rover in their patrol cars for about two miles until it pulled into an Advance Auto Parts parking lot and parked. The officers pulled into the parking lot, informed defendant he was under investigation, and detained him in handcuffs.

         After Detective Cole arrived at the Advance Auto parking lot, he read defendant the search warrant, and the officers executed the warrant by searching defendant and the Range Rover. The search of defendant's person yielded no incriminating drug evidence. Although a police canine positively alerted for narcotics at the Range Rover's driver's side door, the police search upon executing the warrant ultimately yielded no drug evidence.

         While defendant was still being held in investigative detention at Advance Auto and before he was read his Miranda rights, Detective Cole informed defendant about the warrant to search the Falconridge residence and asked him whether there were any other people including children or aggressive dogs at the residence, or whether there were any weapons being stored there. In response to Detective Cole's questioning, defendant replied that he had never been to the Falconridge residence and denied having any knowledge of or involvement with that residence.

         Detective Cole then radioed authorization to the officers staking out the Falconridge address to execute the search warrant on the residence. Those officers announced "Sheriff's Office, Search Warrant" three times and, after hearing no response, broke down the front door using a ramming device. The entering officers discovered Jeffries inside and detained her incident to the search. Soon after the officers entered the premises, defendant was returned to the Falconridge residence while the officers completed their search. That search revealed a large quantity of heroin stored in the kitchen, as well as several items related to packaging and distributing illegal drugs.

         On 7 November 2016, a grand jury indicted defendant for maintaining a dwelling to keep and sell heroin, trafficking heroin by possessing twenty-eight grams or more of heroin, and possession with intent to sell or deliver heroin. On 10 March 2017, defendant moved to suppress all evidence seized from the searches of his person and the Range Rover at Advance Auto, and from the search of the Falconridge residence, as well as all statements he made in response to police questioning before he was read his Miranda rights.

          After a 9 May 2017 suppression hearing, the trial court entered an order that in relevant part denied defendant's motion to suppress the evidence seized pursuant to the execution of the warrant, as well as his responses to Detective Cole's questioning about the Falconridge residence while he was in custody at Advance Auto.[1] The trial court concluded in relevant part the search warrant was supported by probable cause; defendant's seizure was reasonable; the execution of the warrant on the Falconridge residence neither violated our General Statutes nor defendant's constitutional rights; and defendant's responses to Detective Cole's questioning at Advance Auto were admissible, despite not having been advised of his Miranda rights, because the questioning fell under the "public safety" exception to the Miranda requirement. See New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649, 104 S.Ct. 2626 (1984).

         On 3 August 2017, defendant entered a plea agreement in which he pled guilty to two counts of attempted heroin trafficking by manufacturing twenty-eight grams or more of heroin and by possessing twenty-eight grams or more of heroin, possession with intent to sell and deliver heroin, and maintaining a dwelling to keep and sell heroin, while reserving his right to appeal the trial court's suppression rulings. The trial court sentenced defendant to two consecutive terms of sixty to eight-four months in prison. Defendant appeals.

         III. Analysis

          On appeal, defendant contends the trial court erred by denying his suppression motions on the following grounds: (1) the searches of his person and vehicle were constitutionally unreasonable because the warrant lacked probable cause; (2) the seizure of his person was constitutionally unreasonable because he was detained too far away from the residence to constitute a lawful detention incident to the execution of a search warrant on the premises, see Bailey v. United States, 568 U.S. 186, 133 S.Ct. 1031 (2013); (3) the search of the residence was unreasonable because the officers violated N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-251's knock-and-announce requirement; and (4) his responses to Detective Cole's questioning at Advance Auto about the Falconridge address were obtained in violation of his Miranda rights.

         A. Review Standard

         Our review of a trial court's denial of a motion to suppress is "strictly limited to determining whether the trial judge's underlying findings of fact are supported by competent evidence, in which event they are conclusively binding on appeal, and whether those factual findings in turn support the judge's ultimate conclusions of law." State v. Cooke, 306 N.C. 132, 134, 291 S.E.2d 618, 619 (1982). But where, as here, a defendant fails to challenge the evidentiary support of any finding, our review is further "limited to whether the trial court's findings of fact support its conclusions of law." State v. Cheek, 351 N.C. 48, 63, 520 S.E.2d 545, 554 (1999) (citing State v. Watkins, 337 N.C. 437, 438, 446 S.E.2d 67, 68 (1994)). "The trial court's conclusions of law . . . are fully reviewable on appeal." State v. Hughes, 353 N.C. 200, 208, 539 S.E.2d 625, 631 (2000).

         B. Searches of ...


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