Appeal by defendant from judgment entered 15 June 2005 by
Judge Jay D. Hockenbury in Onslow County Superior Court. Heard in
the Court of Appeals 12 April 2006.
Attorney General Roy Cooper, by Assistant Attorney General
Karen Ousley Boyer, for the State.
Sofie W. Hosford for defendant-appellant.
Following his indictment for drug trafficking offenses,
defendant Rahmid Page-Bryant filed a motion to suppress evidence
seized during a search of his car, arguing that the police (1)
lacked reasonable suspicion to stop his car and (2) lacked probable
cause to search it. After the trial court denied that motion,
defendant pled guilty while reserving his right to appeal the
denial of his motion under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-979(b) (2005).
Based on the trial court's findings of fact, not assigned as error
on appeal, we hold that the trial court properly denied the motion
Our review of the denial of a motion to suppress by the trial
court is ordinarily "limited to determining whether the trialjudge's underlying findings of fact are supported by competent
evidence, in which event they are conclusively binding on appeal,
and whether those factual findings in turn support the judge's
ultimate conclusions of law." State v. Cooke, 306 N.C. 132, 134,
291 S.E.2d 618, 619 (1982). Because, in this case, defendant has
not specifically assigned error to the trial court's findings of
fact, those findings are binding on appeal, and the sole question
for this Court is whether the trial court's findings support its
conclusions of law. State v. Cheek, 351 N.C. 48, 63, 520 S.E.2d
545, 554 (1999), cert. denied, 530 U.S. 1245, 147 L. Ed. 2d 965,
120 S. Ct. 2694 (2000).
(See footnote 1)
The trial court made the following findings of fact. Prior to
4 November 2004, Agent Chad Nesbit of the Federal Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms arrested Oscar Mitchell, who then
agreed to cooperate with the authorities by becoming a cooperating
defendant-informant. Agent Nesbit used Mitchell on three occasions
prior to that involving defendant, and the information provided by
Mitchell each time was accurate and reliable.
At approximately 8:15 a.m. on 4 November 2004, Mitchell called
Agent Nesbit and said that he had been contacted by a person named
"Little Cuz," later determined to be defendant, who wanted to sell
Mitchell two kilograms of cocaine for the price of $22,500.00 akilogram. Mitchell informed the officers that he had previously
purchased similar amounts of drugs from another individual named
"Sweet" with "Little Cuz" present. Agent Nesbit contacted
Detective Michael Muni of the Jacksonville Police Department, and
they arranged for Mitchell to have defendant bring the cocaine from
Atlanta, Georgia to Jacksonville, North Carolina.
A phone tap was placed on Mitchell's cellular phone so that
the officers could monitor the telephone conversations between
Mitchell and defendant as defendant traveled to Jacksonville to
complete the drug transaction. In one conversation, Mitchell asked
defendant whether he was bringing crack or powder, and defendant
Because defendant had difficulty finding the route to
Jacksonville, there were numerous phone calls between defendant and
Mitchell during the trip. As requested by the officers, Mitchell
instructed defendant to stop at a particular gas station outside of
Kenansville, North Carolina. When defendant stopped at the gas
station, officers observed that defendant and his vehicle matched
the description Mitchell had provided for "Little Cuz." The
officers also noted that defendant was on a cellular phone at the
same time they knew Mitchell to be on his phone with "Little Cuz."
Defendant, his vehicle, and his passenger (later identified as
Marcus Webster) were thereafter put under surveillance.
Officers followed defendant's vehicle from the gas station to
Jacksonville, where defendant stopped at an Andy's Restaurant to
meet with Mitchell. Defendant and Mitchell left the restaurant andwalked back to defendant's car. The passenger, Webster, stayed
inside the restaurant. Defendant appeared nervous when he noticed
two white males sitting in an sport-utility vehicle, but told
Mitchell, "[D]on't worry, I have things in a safe spot." Defendant
got in the driver's side of the vehicle, while Mitchell entered the
passenger side. The car was immediately surrounded by police
officers and patrol cars, and defendant said to Mitchell, "[D]on't
worry, I have the thing stashed where 20 could be stashed."
Detective Ashley Brown removed defendant from the vehicle,
handcuffed him, and told him he was being detained as a suspect in
an ongoing narcotics investigation. Defendant claimed that he had
gotten lost while going to Fayetteville to see a sick uncle and
that he was also there to visit friends on a mini-vacation.
Webster was likewise handcuffed and detained.
Mitchell was taken inside a patrol car, where he told officers
that defendant was in fact the man Mitchell knew as "Little Cuz"
and that the cocaine was in a hidden compartment in defendant's
vehicle that could hold up to 20 packages of cocaine. Detective
Muni instructed the officers to begin an immediate search of
defendant's vehicle. Officer Jason Holland soon discovered several
indications that a hidden compartment was behind the rear seat of
the car, including: the rear seat would not fold down, there was a
false wall between the trunk and the rear seat, an additional latch
was on the rear seat, the carpet in the trunk was glued down near
the rear seat but loose everywhere else, there were shavingsindicative of drilling, and there were several air fresheners
commonly used to disguise the odor of controlled substances.
Detective Muni ordered the vehicle moved to the Jacksonville
Police Department where the search could be performed under better
lighting. Shortly thereafter, officers discovered two green
cellophane bags in a hidden compartment behind the rear seat. An
initial test of the contents indicated that the packages contained
a very pure form of cocaine. Subsequent testing at the SBI lab
established that the first package contained 987.2 grams of
cocaine, while the second package contained 997.1 grams of cocaine.
Defendant was indicted for possession with intent to sell and
deliver cocaine, maintaining a place or vehicle for the sale of
controlled substances, trafficking in cocaine by possession of 400
grams or more, trafficking in cocaine by transportation of 400
grams or more, conspiracy to traffic in cocaine, attempt to sell
cocaine, attempted delivery of cocaine, and misdemeanor possession
of drug paraphernalia. After the denial of his motion to suppress,
defendant pled guilty to trafficking in cocaine by possession of
400 grams or more of cocaine, but reserved his right to appeal the
denial of his suppression motion. The trial court sentenced
defendant to 175 to 219 months imprisonment. Defendant timely
appealed to this Court.
Defendant first argues that the police did not have reasonable
suspicion to stop his car at the Andy's Restaurant. Under the
Fourth Amendment, before a police officer may conduct aninvestigatory stop of a vehicle without a warrant, the officer must
have a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity may be
occurring. State v. McArn
, 159 N.C. App. 209, 212, 582 S.E.2d 371,
374 (2003) (citing Terry v. Ohio
, 392 U.S. 1, 30, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889,
911, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 1884 (1968)). "A court must consider 'the
totality of the circumstances _ the whole picture' in determining
whether a reasonable suspicion to make an investigatory stop
exists." State v. Watkins
, 337 N.C. 437, 441, 446 S.E.2d 67, 70
(1994) (quoting United States v. Cortez
, 449 U.S. 411, 417, 66 L.
Ed. 2d 621, 629, 101 S. Ct. 690, 695 (1981))
Reasonable suspicion requires that the stop "be based on
specific and articulable facts, as well as the rational inferences
from those facts, as viewed through the eyes of a reasonable,
cautious officer, guided by his experience and training." Id.
There must be a "minimal level of objective justification,
something more than an 'unparticularized suspicion or hunch.'" Id.
at 442, 446 S.E.2d at 70 (quoting United States v. Sokolow
U.S. 1, 7, 104 L. Ed. 2d 1, 10, 109 S. Ct. 1581, 1585 (1989)).
Here, the trial court found that the officers overheard
defendant tell Mitchell that he was bringing from Atlanta "soft-
powder" cocaine. In addition, Mitchell told Agent Nesbit that
defendant, whom he knew from previous drug transactions at which
defendant was present, wanted to sell him two kilograms of cocaine.
We note that "[a]lthough reasonable suspicion is less stringent
than probable cause, it nevertheless requires that statements from
tipsters carry some 'indicia of reliability.'" State v. Watkins
,120 N.C. App. 804, 809, 463 S.E.2d 802, 805 (1995) (quoting Alabama
, 496 U.S. 325, 332, 110 L. Ed. 2d 301, 310, 110 S. Ct.
2412, 2417 (1990)). "[I]ndependent police corroboration of the
facts given by the informant are important in evaluating the
reliability of the informant's tip." State v. Earhart
, 134 N.C.
App. 130, 134, 516 S.E.2d 883, 886, appeal dismissed
, 351 N.C. 112,
540 S.E.2d 372 (1999).
The trial court specifically found that Agent Nesbit had used
Mitchell as an informant on three previous occasions and Mitchell's
information had proven accurate and reliable. Additionally,
defendant was traveling the route Mitchell and defendant had
arranged for transportation of the cocaine; defendant stopped at
the gas station that the officers had requested Mitchell suggest to
defendant; officers at the gas station observed that both defendant
and his vehicle matched Mitchell's descriptions; and defendant was
on his cellular phone at the "very moment" officers knew Mitchell
to be on the phone with him. Moreover, defendant ultimately met
with Mitchell in Jacksonville at the exact location and approximate
time Mitchell had arranged to meet defendant for their drug
These findings of fact are more than sufficient to support the
trial court's conclusion that, based on the totality of the
circumstances, the officers had a reasonable suspicion that
defendant was transporting cocaine when he arrived at the Andy's
Restaurant. See State v. Downing
, 169 N.C. App. 790, 794-95, 613
S.E.2d 35, 38 (2005) (reasonable suspicion to stop defendant'svehicle existed when previously-proven confidential informant told
police defendant would be transporting cocaine that day, defendant
was driving a vehicle that matched description given by informant,
tag numbers on the vehicle were registered to defendant, defendant
was driving on the suspected route, and defendant crossed into
county at approximate time informant had indicated); State v.
, 166 N.C. App. 711, 716, 603 S.E.2d 831, 835 (2004)
(reasonable suspicion to stop defendant's vehicle existed when
officers received tip from previously-proven informant that he was
going to buy drugs from defendant, informant accurately described
when and where defendant would arrive, and informant
contemporaneously identified defendant in parking lot), appeal
, 359 N.C. 640, 614 S.E.2d 538 (2005). Consequently, the
trial court properly determined that the stop of defendant's
vehicle did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Defendant next argues that, even if the stop of his vehicle
was constitutional, the officers lacked sufficient probable cause
and exigent circumstances to conduct a warrantless search of the
vehicle. It is well established that "[a] warrant is not required
to perform a lawful search of a vehicle on a public road when there
is probable cause for the search." State v. Baublitz
, 172 N.C.
App. 801, 808, 616 S.E.2d 615, 620 (2005). Contrary to defendant's
contention, "no exigent circumstances other than the motor vehicle
itself are required in order to justify a warrantless search of a
motor vehicle if there is probable cause to believe that itcontains the instrumentality of a crime or evidence pertaining to
a crime and the vehicle is in a public place." State v. Isleib
319 N.C. 634, 638, 356 S.E.2d 573, 576-77 (1987). Probable cause
exists when the facts and circumstances within the officers'
knowledge, and of which the officers had reasonable trustworthy
information, are sufficient to warrant a reasonable belief that an
offense has been or is being committed. Baublitz
, 172 N.C. App. at
808-09, 616 S.E.2d at 620-21.
Here, at the time officers surrounded defendant's vehicle, it
was in a public place, and, consequently, no additional exigent
circumstances were required. Further, the trial court found that
(1) Mitchell identified defendant as the man he knew as "Little
Cuz" before the officers conducted the search, and (2) Mitchell
reported that defendant had told him that the cocaine was in a
hidden compartment in his car. These findings, in addition to the
findings discussed above with respect to the stop of defendant's
car, are sufficient to support the trial court's conclusion that
the officers had probable cause to believe that defendant's vehicle
contained cocaine. See State v. Collins
, 160 N.C. App. 310, 316,
585 S.E.2d 481, 486 (2003) (sufficient probable cause for
warrantless search of defendant's car existed when previously-
unproven informant accurately described vehicle, defendant, time,
and location of upcoming drug transaction), aff'd per curiam
N.C. 135, 591 S.E.2d 518 (2004); State v. Martinez
, 150 N.C. App.
364, 369, 562 S.E.2d 914, 917 (sufficient probable cause for
warrantless search of defendant's car existed when officersverified previously-unproven informant's description of the
transporting automobile and its occupants, and informant accurately
predicted the vehicle's arrival time and location), appeal
dismissed and disc. review denied
, 356 N.C. 172, 568 S.E.2d 859
(2002); State v. Chadwick
, 149 N.C. App. 200, 203-04, 560 S.E.2d
207, 210 (sufficient probable cause for warrantless search of
defendant's car existed when reliable informant accurately
described the vehicle, driver, location, direction, and defendant's
behavior during the alleged drug transaction), disc. review denied
355 N.C. 752, 565 S.E.2d 672 (2002).
Defendant further argues, however, that even if a search in
the restaurant parking lot was permissible, the officers violated
his Fourth Amendment rights when they moved the vehicle to the
police station for a more intensive search. Our appellate courts
have held otherwise. In State v. Mitchell
, 300 N.C. 305, 312, 266
S.E.2d 605, 610 (1980), cert. denied
, 449 U.S. 1085, 66 L. Ed. 2d
810, 101 S. Ct. 873 (1981), our Supreme Court held that "[o]nce the
right to make a warrantless search obtained, the officers could
search the [car] immediately or could seize it and search it at the
station house." This Court has explained in greater detail that
when a warrantless search of a vehicle is justified, it may be
removed to another location if circumstances warrant that removal
and the warrantless search is conducted within a reasonable time.
State v. White
, 82 N.C. App. 358, 363, 346 S.E.2d 243, 247 (1986)
("The right to make a warrantless search and seizure having
accrued, it is of no consequence that the search was not conductedat the parking lot; the officers could search the vehicle at the
parking lot or could seize it and search it at police
headquarters."), cert. denied
, 323 N.C. 179, 373 S.E.2d 124 (1988).
Here, the trial court found that the officers moved the vehicle
because they needed "better lighting conditions" to complete the
search and that the search at the police department (using lights
from a fire truck) was commenced 25 or 30 minutes after the car had
initially been stopped. Based on these findings,
the search of
defendant's vehicle did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights,
and the trial court properly denied his motion to suppress.
Judges TYSON and JACKSON concur.
Report per Rule 30(e).