A police officer was conducting surveillance on a suspected drug apartment. A guest walked out of the front door, and police tailed him down the road and pulled him over for a minor infraction. He had drugs on him. Does this give police the right to search the suspected drug apartment?
A trial judge said yes, and the N.C. Court of Appeals said no. Now, the state's Supreme Court will get the chance to weigh in after hearing oral arguments in State v. McKinny
in Raleigh today.
The defendant, Walter McKinny, lived in the Greensboro apartment suspected of containing drugs. After police obtained a search warrant, they found cocaine, pot and guns. After his arrest, McKinny moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the search warrant wasn’t supported by probable cause. The judge denied the motion. McKinny pleaded guilty to maintaining a dwelling for keeping and selling controlled substances, possession of both cocaine and marijuana with intent to sell and distribute, and possession of a firearm by a felon. He was sentenced to 11 to 23 months in prison.
But McKinny appealed the judge's denial of his motion to suppress, and last year the N.C. Court of Appeals agreed with him, moving the case to the Supreme Court.
In April of 2012, a Greensboro police officer received a complaint about heavy foot traffic in and out of McKinny's apartment. The tipster said that the apartment's occupant had been spotted on a prior occasion exchanging drugs in the complex’s parking lot.
The officer drove to the complex to conduct surveillance. A motorist pulled up, entered McKinny's apartment, and departed after six minutes. Shortly after, the police stopped the motorist for failing to wear a seatbelt, and failing to use headlights in the rain. They searched the car and found $4,258 in cash, along with a mostly empty plastic bag with seven grams of marijuana.
The motorist had a history of narcotics-related arrests, and the police decided to search his phone. A series of recent text messages with a man named “Chad” discussed a drug transaction. The totality of evidence prompted the police to apply for a search warrant for McKinny’s apartment.
The State bases its argument partly on a separate case where law enforcement officers organized two controlled drug buys between an informant and defendant in two different hotel rooms. By the time search warrants were obtained, however, the defendant had moved to another hotel room. An appeals court ruled that officers were justified in obtaining a search warrant for the third hotel room. (North Carolina case law supports the premise that firsthand information of contraband seen in one location will sustain a finding to search a second location.)
McKinny counters that his case isn’t about movement between locations, and that the mere discovery of drugs on one individual doesn’t provide carte blanche to search a location remotely connected to that person. Instead, he argues, the State must establish a reasonable nexus between the discovered drugs and the new location the police wish to search. And in this case, he points out, no one witnessed drugs coming out of his apartment, and there was nothing to suggest that the motorist caught with the cash and drugs had engaged in a transaction with him. Finally, he notes, his name is not Chad.