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Sunday, February 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Justices to Assess Search Behind Drug Charges

WASHINGTON (CN) - The constitutionality of a traffic stop that led to the cocaine-trafficking charges in North Carolina will go before the Supreme Court, the justices said Monday.

After pulling a car over for a broken brake light early one morning, Sgt. M.M. Darisse with the Surry County Sheriff's Department found Nicholas Heien lying in the back seat beneath a blanket.

The driver stepped outside as instructed and answered the officer's questions, saying Heien was tired and that they were going to West Virginia. Though Heien was not driving, the car belonged to him.

As Darisse prepared to issue the driver a warning citation for the brake light, another officer, named only as Ward in the court record, asked Heien for his driver's license in order to determine his identity and check for outstanding warrants.

Ward provided his license while remaining splayed out in the back seat, and Darisse issued the citation.

Darisse continued asking the driver questions, however, and then asked for permission to search the vehicle,

Heien consented to the search, and the officers then a duffle bag inside the vehicle. That bag contained a grocery bag containing paper-towel-covered sandwich bag containing drugs.

After the Surry County Superior Court denied Heien's motion to suppress, Heien pleaded guilty in 2010 to attempted trafficking in cocaine by transportation and possession.

Though the North Carolina Court of Appeals later reversed that conviction, the state Supreme Court disagreed that the traffic stop that led to Heien's arrest was not based on reasonable suspicion.

After considering Heien's remaining challenges, the divided appellate panel affirmed denial of the motion to suppress.

The North Carolina Supreme Court then affirmed in 2013, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted Heien a writ of certiorari Monday.

Per its custom, the court did not issue any comment in taking up the case.

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