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State v. Williams

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

September 17, 2019


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 24 April 2019.

          Appeal by defendant from judgments entered 27 April 2018 by Judge James F Ammons Jr. in Superior Court, Brunswick County. No. 17 CRS051856-57

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Terence D. Friedman, for the State.

          Richard Croutharmel, for defendant-appellant.

          STROUD, JUDGE.

         Defendant appeals the denial of her motion to suppress and judgments for her drug-related convictions. We reverse the denial of defendant's motion to suppress and judgment and remand for a new trial.

         I. Procedural Background

         We briefly summarize the procedural background. On 20 April 2017, based upon a warrant application and affidavit by Agent Charles Melvin, the magistrate issued a search warrant for defendant's home, vehicles, and person. Based upon the warrant, law enforcement searched defendant's home and found heroin. Defendant was then indicted for several drug-related offenses.

         In March of 2018, defendant made a motion "to suppress all evidence collected pursuant to the search warrant[.]" Defendant raised arguments regarding the reliability of the informants, the lack of specificity of the property searched and seized, and a lack of probable cause; she also requested a Franks hearing[1] because she believed the affiant "made material misrepresentations to the judicial officer reviewing the search warrant application."

         In her "Motion to Suppress and Request for Franks Hearing[, ]" (original in all caps), defendant contended that Agent Melvin had "intentionally exaggerated" the past cooperation and reliability of the confidential informant, Ms. Smith. Defendant alleged Ms. Smith had done only one controlled drug buy for the Brunswick County Vice Narcotics Unit ("BCVN") prior to offering to buy heroin from a man known as Vaughn who would buy it from defendant because defendant would only sell to Vaughn.[2] Ms. Smith then participated in a controlled buy on 20 April 2017 equipped with a recording device, which showed that she picked up "an unknown black male, alleged to be Vaughn, and travel[ed] to an unknown destination" where Vaughn left the vehicle and returned "when the deal was complete." But the video did not show defendant or defendant's home, and Vaughn did not tell Ms. Smith he had gotten the heroin from defendant. Thus, defendant alleged the video does not corroborate Ms. Smith's allegations that she went to defendant's home or that Vaughn received heroin from defendant. The motion included as exhibits the warrant affidavit, Ms. Smith's informant contract signed in January of 2017, and the search warrant.

         At the beginning of the trial, the trial court heard the motion to suppress. The State noted that defendant had requested a Franks hearing, so "it's his burden to produce substantial evidence of a violation, at which point the State would need to respond." Defendant then called Agent Charles Melvin of the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office to testify in support of her motion to suppress. The warrant affidavit stated, "In the past year CS1 has worked with Agents and has provided correct and accurate information leading to the arrests of narcotics dealers." (Emphasis added). As to the "[i]n the past year" language, during his testimony, Agent Melvin acknowledged that he had "first dealt" with Ms. Smith in January of 2017, only a few months prior to the search of defendant, and she had done one controlled buy prior to the one from which defendant's arrest arose. As to the plural "arrests of narcotics dealers" language, Agent Melvin also admitted he knew the seller from the first controlled buy was "charged" but he did not know when that occurred or if she had been "arrested before April 20th[.]" (Emphasis added.)

         After Agent Melvin's testimony, defendant's counsel and the State made arguments regarding the Franks issue, and the trial court denied the motion:

All right. This matter coming on to be heard on defendant's motion to suppress a search warrant, a request for a Franks hearing, the Court has pretty much given a hearing on this. But after reviewing the motion to suppress, after reviewing the search warrant and the affidavit, after reviewing applicable case law, the statute law, and hearing testimony from the witness and hearing arguments of counsel, the Court denies the motion to suppress.

         Defendant's counsel then requested "to be heard on the other issue, which is the reliability of the unknown informant." The trial court stated, "The information is not unknown; right? The informant is [Ms. Smith]." Defense counsel then noted the information about defendant

came from 'Vaughn' through [Ms. Smith], that's a separate issue. On that issue - that's where the law is very clear, that they have to prove reliability of the middleman. The middleman was unknown and known after all this and arrested eight months later. But at the time the warrant was issued, they took information - they say it's from [Ms. Smith]. It's not from [Ms. Smith]. [Ms. Smith] didn't see anything. [Ms. Smith] didn't know anything. [Ms. Smith] never dealt with anybody . . . .

         The trial court then denied defendant's motion to suppress again, stating:

All right. That's my ruling. Motion to suppress is denied.
Court reserves the right to make further findings of fact and conclusions of law with regard to this ruling at a later time, should it become necessary.

         The trial court made no later findings of fact or conclusions of law and did not enter a written order regarding the motion to suppress. Defendant's trial then began and she was found guilty of all six charges against her and sentenced accordingly. Defendant appeals.

         II. Motion to Suppress

         The motion to suppress raised four arguments for suppression; we will note the first two as relevant to the issues on appeal. First, defendant argued the information in the search warrant application "was derived from an unknown informant [Vaughn] and was insufficient to support a search warrant." Although Ms. Smith was known to Agent Melvin, nearly all of the material information came from the unknown man identified as Vaughn, and there was no indication of Vaughn's reliability. Second, defendant argued that "Agent Melvin's exaggeration of [Ms. Smith's] past cooperation, as set forth in the affidavit of probable cause" was a material misrepresentation." The alleged misrepresentations were the time period of prior assistance and the number of prior arrests and prosecutions based upon Ms. Smith's cooperation.

A reviewing court is responsible for ensuring that the issuing magistrate had a substantial basis for concluding that probable cause existed. Our Supreme Court has stated, the applicable test is whether, given all the circumstances set forth in the affidavit before the magistrate, there is a fair probability that contraband will be found in a particular place.

State v. Frederick, __ N.C.App. __, __, 814 S.E.2d 855, 858, aff'd per curiam, __ N.C. __, __, 819 S.E.2d 346 (2018) (citations, quotation marks, and brackets omitted).

         A. Failure to Make Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law

         Defendant contends the trial court violated North Carolina General Statute § 15A-977(f) when it failed to make written findings of fact and conclusions of law in ruling on her motion to suppress, particularly as to the Franks issue. North Carolina General Statute § 15A-977(f) requires the trial court to "set forth in the record his findings of fact and conclusions of law" in ruling on a motion to suppress; N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-977(f) (2017), although where there is no material conflict in the evidence and the trial court's legal conclusion is clear from the record, we may be able to review the denial of a motion to suppress on appeal without written findings of fact and conclusions of law:

After a motion to suppress evidence is presented at the trial court, the judge must set forth in the record his findings of fact and conclusions of law. Our Supreme Court has held, the absence of factual findings alone is not error because only a material conflict in the evidence-one that potentially affects the outcome of the suppression motion-must be resolved by explicit factual findings that show the basis for the trial court's ruling. Even so, it is still the trial court's responsibility to make the conclusions of law.
The State argues no material conflicts in the evidence exist, and the trial court's conclusion was clear from its ruling. The record of the suppression hearing reveals no material conflicts existed. . . .
While no material conflicts exist in the evidence presented at the suppression hearing, the judge failed to provide any rationale from the bench to explain or support his denial of Defendant's motion. The only statement from the trial court concerning Defendant's motion was, "I'm going to allow the case to go forward with some reluctance, but-I'm going to deny the Motion to ...

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