News Roundup – North Carolina Criminal Law

A recent study published by The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania examines the use of presumptive field tests used by law enforcement to detect the presence of illegal drugs. It notes that field tests are “notoriously imprecise” and commonly produce a positive result even when no controlled substance is present. The study found that more than 770,000 drug arrests in the nation involved field tests and suggests that around 30,000 people are wrongfully arrested based on false positives from the tests each year. North Carolina law recognizes that field tests do not meet the standards for expert testimony under Evid. R. 702. State v. Carter, 237 N.C. App. 274 (2014). But the use of field tests on the ground—whether to establish probable cause or to determine compliance with conditions of supervision, for instance—remains a common occurrence. You can read the study here. Read on for more criminal law news.

Substitute Analysts Back at the High Court. SCOTUSblog reports that Arizona v. Smith was argued last week at the U.S. Supreme Court. The story notes that the winds seemed to favor the petitioner’s position. Smith challenges the use of so-called “substitute” analysts to admit forensic reports when the testing analyst is not available for trial as a Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause violation. North Carolina generally permits substitute analyst testimony (see State v. Ball for a very recent example). I blogged about the potential impacts in North Carolina of a decision in Smith’s favor last October, here. A ruling in Smith is expected this summer.

New Database on Police Surveillance. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (or “EFF”) released its Street Level Surveillance Hub this week, which aims to inform the public about the various methods of surveillance technology being used by law enforcement across the country. Using the ‘Atlas of Surveillance’ tool on the site, users can explore specific methods and techniques being used in their jurisdiction. The website provides a deep dive into the different technologies, explains how law enforcement uses them, describes the limitations of the methods, and more.

Unmarked and Unremarked. According to this NPR story, at least 215 unmarked graves were discovered behind a jail in Jackson, Mississippi last week. The jail has apparently been burying deceased inmates in the area since 2016. The story quotes families who claim that they were never notified of the death of their relatives while in custody and were not provided an opportunity to provide a proper burial for the deceased (or who were only notified of the relative’s death long after they were buried). A spokesperson for the City of Jackson claims that the bodies were either unclaimed by families or were without identifiable next of kin, but at least some of the cases seem to have involved circumstances where the authorities knew or should have known to identify and contact surviving family, according to the report.

“Gas Station Heroin.” The Times reported this week on the largely unregulated substance tianeptine, a drug with antidepressant and antianxiety properties, being sold as a dietary supplement in some gas stations and other stores. Tianeptine is prescribed as medicine in other countries for treatment of depression and other conditions but has not been approved in the U.S. for medical use. WRAL investigated the story and found the substance being sold in local establishments. According to the FDA, the drug mimics opioids and can result in serious health risks, including addiction, high blood pressure, coma, and death (among other potential effects). Nine states have banned the substance, but it remains unregulated in North Carolina.

Juvenile Detention Center Facilities Litigation. The N&O reports on children being held in solitary-like conditions in North Carolina juvenile detention facilities due to chronic understaffing and other system problems. In addition to allegedly improper isolation of the minors, the report chronicles unsanitary conditions in state facilities and a lack of proper educational resources for detained juveniles. A federal lawsuit has been filed on behalf of some of the affected juveniles seeking to enjoin some of the alleged complaints.

Greensboro Police Limit Methods for Investigating Prostitution. The News & Record reports that Greensboro police recently announced changes to their methods for investigating prostitution and human trafficking. Following a September arrest of workers at a massage parlor, local media reported that the investigation apparently involved hands-on sexual contact between the massage parlor employee and the undercover officer. Law enforcement defended this approach under the theory that non-verbal acts of solicitation and solicitations involving euphemistic terms were more difficult to prove in court. Moving forward, the department has agreed to stop such investigations at the solicitation phase (whatever form that takes), out of concern that police could be further exploiting victims of human trafficking by engaging in sexual contact.

No More Traffic Control Jokes? Sometimes jokesters like to get playful with the safety messages posted on roadside electronic signs. Notable messages from various states include, “Visiting in-laws? Slow down, get there late,” and “Don’t drive Star-Spangled Hammered,” according to this report. In Arizona, the state conducts a contest each year for the funniest message, which is then displayed on official state electronic signs. Under new regulations released by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, such humorous messages will soon be a thing of the past. States will be required to stick to straightforward traffic warnings and safety messages come 2026, so enjoy any silly messages you may come across in the meantime.

Nude Aquarium Diving. An Alabama man was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, public lewdness, and other offenses after stripping off all of his clothes and “cannonballing” into a giant aquarium inside of a Pro Bass store. This happened after the man allegedly crashed his car nearby. After jumping into the tank, the man climbed out to shout at responding officers before jumping back into the water. Officers eventually were able to take the man into custody. The AP has the story here.

I hope everyone has a safe and relaxing weekend. I can always be reached with questions or comments at [email protected].

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