Appellate court: Woman wrongfully seized before drug arrest – Shelby Star
The N.C. Court of Appeals could overturn the conviction of a Cleveland County woman who pleaded guilty in 2019 to having methamphetamine in her pocket.
According to a 13-page decision released this month, law enforcement that originally stopped the now 50-year-old woman erred by detaining her.
According to court documents, the woman was sitting in a car in the parking lot of a retail business in Cleveland County when she was approached by a deputy.
The deputy recognized the car and thought the inhabitant was a woman who had outstanding warrants. When asked about her identity, the woman handed her driver’s license to the deputy who then went to his car to verify it.
When he returned, with the confirmation that the woman was who she said she was and did not have any outstanding warrants, the deputy did not return her license. Rather, he held it for more than five minutes and asked permission to search her car while she stood outside of it.
When a backup deputy arrived, he thought he saw drugs in her pocket and asked permission to search her, thus uncovering the methamphetamine.
She was charged with possession of methamphetamine.
When she had her day in court, the woman’s attorney contended that she was illegally seized prior to the discovery of drugs.
“Defendant was clearly in violation of the law by possessing illegal drugs. Defendant, however, argues that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress the drugs, contending that she was illegally seized at the point of the encounter when the Backup Deputy saw the drugs in her pocket,” reads a paragraph of the Court of Appeals decision.
In layman’s terms, if the woman felt she was free to leave when the deputy returned having verified her identity, she would not have been perceived as being seized. But, because she was not given her license back, she would not reasonably have thought she was able to go, the court ruled.
“Our cases make it clear that a seizure does not occur simply because a police officer approaches an individual and asks a few questions. So long as a reasonable person would feel free to disregard the police and go about his business, the encounter is consensual, and no reasonable suspicion is required. The encounter will not trigger Fourth Amendment scrutiny unless it loses its consensual nature,” says the decision. “Case law suggests that a reasonable person who is away from their home in her car would generally not feel free to drive away and go about her business without her license and would, therefore, be seized.”
In the decision, the Court of Appeals said prosecutors will need to present additional evidence to justify the time the deputy held the woman’s license.
“If not, the trial court will allow Defendant’s motion to suppress and strike Defendant’s conditional guilty plea,” the decision concludes.
Diane Turbyfill can be reached at 704-669-3334 and email@example.com.