In State v. Jonas, [2021-NCCOA-660; No. COA20-712 filed 7 December 2021, the Court of Appeals discussed an appellate requirement that sometimes bedevils criminal defense attorneys: preserving the right to appeal the trial court’s denial of a motion to suppress evidence when a guilty plea is entered.  In Jonas, defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence, the trial court denied the motion, defendant pled guilty, the court entered judgment, and then defendant noticed an appeal of the trial court’s order denying the suppression motion.

The case arose the evening of 28 June 2019, when a patrolling Concord police officer saw a vehicle pull out of a trucking company parking lot.  Because the otherwise-empty parking lot’s gate was closed and was illuminated by only one light, the officer believed that the trucking company was closed.  He also noted that the vehicle sported a transporter license plate.  (Transporter plates should not be confused with dealer plates or tags.  Transporter plates are used for statutorily defined purposes on vehicles that are not currently registered to any owner and do not have a license plate.  Dealer plates are used by dealers to allow customers legally to drive unregistered cars.  Thanks, Google!)

The officer followed the car and ran the transporter plate number, which came back as “not assigned to [a] vehicle.”   The officer initiated a traffic stop to see what was going on.  Defendant, the registered owner of the vehicle, was a passenger.  A canine sniff during the stop ferreted out 0.1 gram of methamphetamine in a backpack in the vehicle’s trunk.  Defendant was indicted for possession of a Schedule II controlled substance.

Prior to trial, defendant moved to suppress the drug evidence, arguing that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop the car.  Following a hearing, the trial court denied the motion in a written order.  Defendant then pled guilty as charged and received a suspended sentence.

After the court entered judgment, defendant noticed an appeal to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.  At the same time, defendant filed a conditional petition for writ of certiorari that asked the Court to review the case even if defendant’s appeal failed to comply with the requirements of State v. Reynolds [298 NC. 380, 259 S.E.2d 943 (1979)Reynolds held that when a defendant who pleads guilty wants to preserve his or her right to challenge a trial court’s denial of a motion to suppress evidence, the defendant must notify the prosecutor and the trial court before plea negotiations are finalized.  According to the Supreme Court, such notice provides transparency to parties negotiating the terms of the plea agreement.

Following supplemental briefing requested by the Court of Appeals, the Court held that defendant’s notice of appeal was proper.  North Carolina General Statute § 15A-979(b) allows a criminal defendant whose motion to suppress has been denied to plead guilty while reserving the right to appeal the denial of the motion.  As noted above, Reynolds added the gloss that the defendant must give notice of his or her intent before a negotiated plea is entered.

Here, however, the Court of Appeals observed that defendant pled straight up, as criminal practitioners say.  In other words, he pled guilty as charged in the indictment with no accompanying plea agreement, terms, or conditions.  The defendant’s colloquy with the court at the time the plea was entered included statements that there was no plea agreement.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals found that Reynolds was inapplicable and that the right to notice the appeal had been preserved.

Defendant’s winning streak continued as the Court of Appeals went on to find that the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress.  Since the focus of this blog entry is appellate practices and procedures, I won’t go into the details of the Court’s analysis but search-and-seizure mavins should give it a look.

The takeaway is pretty plain.  If a criminal defendant’s strategy after losing a motion to suppress is to negotiate a plea while still holding on to a right to appeal the ruling on the motion, counsel (or pro se defendant) needs to be mindful of Reynolds’ notice requirement.  The rationale underlying Reynolds is sensible.  However, if the defendant is willing to bite the bullet with a plea of guilty as charged and no plea agreement, advance notice of the forthcoming appeal is not required.

–Bob Edmunds