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Middleman’s word not enough to secure search warrant

A divided North Carolina Court of Appeals panel has reversed the conviction of a Brunswick County woman because the police officer who applied for a search warrant to raid the woman’s home had relied on the accounts of middleman that the officer had never met, and had made no effort to assess the middleman’s reliability before applying for the warrant.

In April 2017, agents secured a search warrant and raided the home of Ashleigh Williams and found heroin. She was later convicted of his six related drug charges and sentenced to a minimum of 90 months in prison.

Williams appealed the trial court’s denial of her motion to suppress evidence collected during the search. In a Sept. 17 decision authored by Judge Donna Stroud, the Court of Appeals remanded the case back for retrial.

The search warrant was based on information provided to a magistrate by a narcotics agent. The agent said that an informant, “Ms.Smith,” “in the past year” had provided “correct and accurate information leading to the arrests of narcotics dealers.”

On the day the warrant was issued, Smith, equipped with a recording device, picked up the go-between, known only by a nickname, “Vaughn,” and drove to an “unknown destination.” Vaughan left the car and returned with heroin, which the narcotics officer claimed came from Williams’ home.

However, the Court of Appeals noted that the video taken did not show Williams or her home, and Vaughn did not say on the video, at least, that he had bought the heroin from Williams.

Williams contended that Smith had done only one controlled drug buy for the Brunswick County Vice Narcotics Unit in the previous few months before she offered to buy heroin from “Vaughn,” who would ostensibly buy it from Williams, and that although Smith was known to the agent, nearly all of the material information used to secure the warrant came from  “Vaughn.”

“Even if we assume the trial court did find that the (agent’s) statements regarding the length of time Ms. Smith had worked as an informant, and the number of arrests made with her assistance were not intentional misrepresentations, and were made in good faith, most of the substantive allegations of the affidavit are based upon Vaughn’s interactions with Williams, so his reliability as an informant was also essential,” Stroud wrote.
“The only information in the affidavit regarding where Vaughn purchased the drugs is based upon what Vaughn told Ms. Smith and not upon her observations, as she did not witness the purchase of the drugs or even Vaughn entering defendant’s home. “

The ruling notes that Vaughn was not searched prior to going with Smith, so there was no way of knowing if he already had the drugs beforehand.

“Since the affidavit does not address Vaughn’s reliability at all, and the allegations based upon Ms. Smith’s knowledge is not sufficient to establish probable cause, the motion to suppress should have been allowed,” Stroud wrote.

Judge Wanda Bryant dissented.

“I do not believe defendant’s challenge to the affidavit, which sets forth probable cause for the search warrant, is sufficient to overcome the presumption of validity accorded a search warrant granted by a neutral and detached magistrate,” Bryant wrote.

Richard Croutharmel in Raleigh represented Williams.

“The majority ruled correctly and I think it is likely the state will appeal it to the Supreme Court because it was a 2-1 split,” he said.
He called that “unfortunate,” because Williams will remain incarcerated while the case is resolved.

The 27-page opinion is State v. Williams (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-252-19.) The full text of the opinion can be found at nclawyersweekly.com

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw


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