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North Carolina Supreme Court: Outstanding Warrant for Driver Who Fled Accident Scene Does Not Authorize Inventory Search of Disabled Vehicle

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Supreme Court of North ­Carolina held that the warrantless search of a disabled vehicle was not reasonable when officers had the authority to arrest the driver but failed to do so because he fled the scene.

McDowell County Deputy Jesse Hicks and State Highway Patrol Trooper Justin Sanders responded to a report of a vehicle accident. When they arrived on the scene, they observed a vehicle in a ditch, partially submerged in water, and clearly and in no condition to be driven from the scene. Witnesses identified Joanna Kaye Julius as a passenger of the vehicle, and an interview with Julius revealed that “Kyle,” the driver of the vehicle, fled the scene because he had an active warrant.

Officers proceeded to search the vehicle hoping to obtain the driver’s identification because they “needed a last name” to “prepare a wreck report.” On the floorboard of the front passenger side, Trooper Sanders found a bag containing two scales, two cell phones, and two clear bags containing more than 40 grams of methamphetamine.

Based on this discovery, the officers arrested Julius and, upon searching her pink backpack, “located several plastic bags containing a clear crystalline substance, a pistol, a glass pipe, and $1,785 in cash.”

Julius was charged with possession of paraphernalia, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and trafficking meth by transportation. She filed a pretrial suppression motion, arguing the search of the vehicle—which resulted in her arrest—was unreasonable.

After a May 2018 suppression hearing, the trial court denied the motion, finding it reasonable that officers searched the vehicle to locate evidence regarding the hit and run as well as to identify the driver.

Julius took a plea deal that allowed her to have the paraphernalia charge dismissed and to appeal the suppression issue. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial, finding that the driver, eventually identified as William Kyle Lytle, had outstanding warrants. This justified an inventory search incident to arrest (of Kyle), and it could also be justified to ensure officer safety because of the lower expectation of privacy for vehicles, according to the Court of Appeals. Julius timely appealed.  

The state Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeals’ reasoning on review. It noted that, foremost, “[s]earches conducted by government officials in the absence of a judicial warrant are presumptively unreasonable.” State v. Terrell, 372 N.C. 657 (2019). Consequently, when “seeking to admit evidence discovered by way of a warrantless search in a criminal prosecution, the State bears the burden of establishing that the search falls under an exception to the warrant requirement.” Id.

Officers may search a vehicle belonging to a person, but “only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.” Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009).

However, the Court stated that not only was Kyle not within arm’s reach of the vehicle and could not destroy evidence of any crime nor endanger the officers, but he was also not even arrested. See State v. Fisher, 141 N.C. App. 448 (2000) (“Because defendant was never arrested, the search of his vehicle was not justified as a search incident to a lawful arrest.”).

The Court wrote that the “fact that an arrest could have been made at a later time is not enough; to justify this exception an arrest must occur.” See Rawlings v. Kentucky, 448 U.S. 98 (1980) (a search may be performed prior to an actual arrest and still qualify as a search incident to arrest if the arrest is made contemporaneously with the search). Thus, the Court ruled that the search incident to lawful arrest exception did not apply.

It also determined that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement did not apply because the vehicle was immobilized. This exception is in part justified by “the inherent mobility of motor vehicles.” State v. Isleib, 319 N.C. 634 (1987); see also United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798. Regarding the Kyle’s disabled vehicle, the Court wrote that it “follows then that a valid application of the automobile exception requires that the vehicle must be in a condition in which ready use is possible.” Thus, the Court ruled that the automobile exception did not apply.

Finding that no exception to the warrant requirement applied, the Court turned to the question of whether the evidence must be suppressed. It noted that suppression is not automatic, but rather turns on a “cost-benefit analysis … [focused on] the flagrancy of police misconduct.” Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229 (2011). On this issue, the trial court made no findings in the first instance.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded to the trial court to determine whether the evidence should be suppressed under the exclusionary rule. See: State v. Julius, 385 N.C. 331 (2023).  

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Related legal case

State v. Julius

 

 

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