131.3Suppression Motions

Rulings & Appeals
Last Updated: 11/16/20

Key Concepts

  • The judge must make a ruling (either written or oral) on the suppression motion during the same session of court, unless the parties consent to a later ruling. Findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of the ruling are also required, but may be entered later.
  • The judge can later change his or her mind and admit or deny the evidence at trial, but may not reverse a different judge’s ruling without a substantial change in circumstances.
  • The state has a very limited ability to appeal from a ruling on a motion to suppress in district court, except in cases involving implied consent offenses.
  • The state has a slightly broader ability to appeal from a ruling on a motion to suppress in superior court, but remains subject to statutory restrictions.

Judge’s Ruling on the Motion

After a hearing on a motion to suppress, the judge may immediately issue a ruling or may “reserve judgment until trial.” G.S. 15A-976; State v. Love, 131 N.C. App. 350 (1998).  However, the judge’s ruling must be announced in open court or otherwise entered at some point during the same “session” in which the motion was heard, unless the court has the explicit consent of both parties to enter the ruling after the session ends. An order entered outside of the session without consent is null and void. See State v. Trent, 359 N.C. 583 (2005); citing to Capital Outdoor Adver., Inc. v. City of Raleigh, 337 N.C. 150 (1994) (noting that “the use of ‘term’ has come to refer to the typical six-month assignment of superior court judges, and ‘session’ to the typical one-week assignments within the session”).

The court must also make findings of fact and conclusions of law to support the ruling. See G.S. 15A-977(f); 974(b). Findings and conclusions may be either oral or written, but written findings are preferred. State v. Oates, 366 N.C. 264 (2012) (written determination is “best practice,” but not required by the statute). The findings of fact should resolve all material conflicts, meaning any conflict that potentially affects the outcome of the suppression motion, and the findings should address all issues necessary to correctly determine the matter before the court. See State v. Bartlett, 368 N.C. 309 (2016). Findings of fact are not required if there is no ‘material conflict’ in the evidence, such that the findings can be implied from the evidence. See State v. Munsey, 342 N.C. 882 (1996); State v. Norman, 100 N.C. App. 660 (1990). Conclusions of law explaining the reasons for the court’s decision are always required. See State v. Williams, 195 N.C. App. 554 (2009); State v. Baker, 208 N.C. App. 376 (2010). The explanation does not have to be lengthy, but it is not sufficient to merely state the result without giving any explanation (e.g., “the officer was justified in stopping the vehicle – motion denied”). See State v. Baskins, 247 N.C. App. 603 (2016).

Supporting findings of fact and conclusions of law do not have to be made at the same time as the ruling. They can be made after the session (or term) has ended, as long as the delay is not prejudicial to the defendant. See State v. Wilson, 225 N.C. App. 498 (2013) (statute does not require immediate entry of findings and conclusions); State v. Lippard, 152 N.C. App. 564 (2002) (purpose of findings, which is to facilitate appellate review, is not thwarted by allowing findings and conclusions to be entered later); State v. Hicks, 79 N.C. App. 599 (1986).

Even if the trial judge grants a defendant’s pretrial suppression motion, the judge may later decide to allow the evidence to be admitted at trial. State v. McNeill, 170 N.C. App. 574 (2005). However, a trial judge has no authority to rule on a state’s motion to reconsider another trial judge’s order granting a defendant’s suppression motion, unless the state makes a sufficient showing of a substantial change of circumstances to warrant reconsideration. See State v. Woolridge, 357 N.C. 544 (2003) (this ruling would appear to be equally applicable to a defendant who files a motion to reconsider).

Good Faith Exception in North Carolina?

G.S. 15A-974 was amended effective July 1, 2011, to add a statutory good faith exception, which provides that “evidence shall not be suppressed under this subdivision if the person committing the violation of the provision or provisions under this Chapter acted under the objectively reasonable, good faith belief that the actions were lawful.” However, North Carolina cases interpreting and applying the good faith exception have held that the exclusion of such evidence is still required under the state constitution, so this statutory exception does not yet provide a viable method to avoid suppression. See State v. Carter, 322 N.C. 709 (1988); State v. Elder, 232 N.C. App. 80 (2014). In other words, a statute cannot overrule the state Supreme Court’s interpretation of a constitutional issue, so any evidence obtained as result of a substantial violation of the defendant’s state constitutional rights remains subject to exclusion under Carter in North Carolina. For a more complete discussion of this issue, see Robert Farb, "New North Carolina Legislation on Good Faith Exception to Exclusionary Rules,” N.C. Criminal Law Blog, March 21, 2011 and Jonathan Holbrook, "Resurrecting the Good Faith Exception in North Carolina?," N.C. Criminal Law Blog, July 14, 2020.

Appeals in District Court

Except for the special provisions regarding DWI cases in G.S. 20-38.6 and 20-38.7, discussed in the related entry on Suppression Motions – Content and Requirements (see also Shea Denning, "More About Those Weird DWI Motions Procedures," NC Criminal Law Blog, Nov. 18, 2015, and Shea Denning, "State v. Parisi Answers DWI Procedural Riddle," NC Criminal Law Blog, Feb. 8, 2017), the state generally does not have a right to appeal from a district court judge’s ruling granting a motion to suppress.

In all other cases, the state’s right to appeal from district court to superior court is limited by G.S. 15A-1432 to decisions or judgments in which the district court judge: (i) dismisses a charge or (ii) grants a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. As a practical matter, most suppression motions in district court misdemeanor cases will not be made until mid-trial anyway, after jeopardy has already attached. See G.S. 15A-973. When evidence is excluded at that point, the state may fail to prove its case and the defendant may be found not guilty.

In felony cases, if the district court grants a motion to suppress at a probable cause hearing, the state has no statutory right to appeal that ruling. However, the district court’s ruling has no binding effect on the superior court following indictment. If the defendant wishes to challenge the evidence again in superior court, he or she must timely refile the motion in superior court. See State v. Lay, 56 N.C. App. 796 (1982).

In rare circumstances, it may be possible for the state to file a verified petition seeking a writ of certiorari under Rule 19 of the General Rules of Practice for the Superior and District Courts, asking the superior court to review a district court’s ruling granting a pre-trial motion to suppress. The superior court has the discretion to grant such a writ “in proper cases.” For more information on this type of relief, see Section E, "Writ of Certiorari," in the related entry on State's Right to Appeal.

The defendant has similarly limited options for appealing a district court ruling denying a motion to suppress. In practice, if the motion is denied and the defendant is convicted (either by plea or by trial), the defendant’s remedy is to appeal the case for trial de novo in superior court and renew the suppression motions with the superior court. See G.S. 15A-953, 15A-975, 15A-979; State v. Sparrow, 276 N.C. 499 (1970) (defendant may appeal for trial de novo in superior court, even after a district court guilty plea). Upon appeal for trial de novo in superior court, a motion to suppress based on a constitutional or Chapter 15A violation must be made before trial. See G.S. 15A-975(c), Official Commentary; State v. Simmons, 59 N.C. App. 287 (1982); State v. Golden, 96 N.C. App. 249 (1989).

Defendant’s Appeal in Superior Court

A defendant may appeal from a superior court’s denial of a motion to suppress in superior court, regardless of whether the defendant is subsequently convicted by jury trial or by pleading guilty. G.S. 15A-979(b). However, the defendant must wait until after the final judgment is entered to make an appeal.

If the defendant elects to plead guilty by agreement, but also intends to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress after the judgment is entered, the defendant must notify the state of his intent to do so before plea negotiations are finalized, or provide notice of his or her intent to appeal before the court accepts the guilty plea, in order to preserve his right to appeal. See State v. Reynolds, 298 N.C. 380 (1979) (“when a defendant intends to appeal from a suppression motion denial pursuant to G.S. 15A-979(b), he must give notice of his intention to the prosecutor and the court before plea negotiations are finalized or he will waive the appeal of right provisions of the statute”); State v. Cottrell, 234 N.C. App. 736 (2014); State v. Parker, 183 N.C. App. 1 (2007); State v. McBride, 120 N.C. App. 623 (1995), affirmed, 344 N.C. 623 (1996); State v. Christie, 96 N.C. App. 178 (1989).

Giving notice to the state that the defendant "intends" to appeal after entry of the guilty plea does not satisfy the requirement of giving actual notice of the appeal after conviction. See State v. Miller, 205 N.C. App. 724 (2010); State v. McBride, 120 N.C. App. 623 (1995) (“The two forms of notice serve different functions, and performance of one does not substitute for completion of the other.”). The defendant’s notice of appeal does not have to specifically state the grounds for the appeal. See State v. Brown, 217 N.C. App. 566 (2001) (where defendant pleaded guilty mid-trial, it was sufficient for defense counsel to state that defendant wished to “preserve any appellate issues that may stem from the motions in this trial”). It is not clear from the statute whether a defendant’s oral notice is sufficient, or if it must be in writing to be effective. See State v. Christie, 96 N.C. App. 178 (1989) (notice was sufficient where both verbal and written notice were given).

If the defendant proceeds to trial, no special notice of intent to appeal is required to preserve the suppression issue. See State v. McDougald, 192 N.C. App. 253 (2008) (allowing review after a trial, and reversing trial judge’s ruling on motion to suppress); State v. Grogan, 40 N.C. App. 371 (1979) (allowing review of denial of motion to suppress after retrial, where motion was decided at first trial and rehearing was denied at second trial) However, the defendant must object at the time the evidence is introduced at trial, or else he or she will be deemed to have waived the argument on appeal. See State v. Golphin, 352 N.C. 364 (2000).

State’s Appeal in Superior Court

If a motion to suppress is granted in superior court, the state may appeal the ruling prior to trial. This means that the state may pursue an "interlocutory appeal" before jeopardy attaches – that is, before a jury is empaneled and sworn. G.S. 15A-979(c); State v. Brunson, 327 N.C. 244 (1990). The state’s appeal goes to the appellate court that would have jurisdiction over the appeal if the defendant were convicted of the most serious charge and received the maximum sentence. G.S. 15A-979(c). In practice, this means that most cases will be appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, except for capital cases, which are appealed directly to the North Carolina Supreme Court. See G.S. 7A-27.

The state must appeal within ten (10) days, and must certify to the superior court that “the appeal is not taken for the purpose of delay and that the evidence is essential to the case.” See G.S. 15A-1448(a)(1); G.S. 15A-979(c); State v. Turner, 305 N.C. 356 (1982). That certificate must be filed prior to the certification of the record on appeal, or the state’s appeal will be dismissed. See State v. Blandin, 60 N.C. App. 271 (1983).

Issues Decided at the Appellate Court

A defendant may not assert on appeal a ground for suppression that the defendant did not assert at the trial level. State v. Williams, 98 N.C. App. 405 (1990); State v. Benson, 323 N.C. 318 (1988). Similarly, the state may not assert on appeal a ground against suppression that the state did not assert at the trial level. State v. Cooke, 306 N.C. 132 (1982).

If the defendant failed to satisfy the statutory requirements for filing the motion to suppress, the defendant waives the right to contest that issue on appeal. State v. Maccia, 311 N.C. 222 (1984); State v. Satterfield, 300 N.C. 621 (1980). Even if the state fails to object to the sufficiency of the motion and the trial court holds a hearing on it, the underlying deficiency of the motion still acts as a waiver on appeal. See State v. Holloway, 311 N.C. 573 (1984) (“The State's failure to object to the form of the motion affects neither that waiver nor the authority statutorily vested in the trial court to deny summarily the motion to suppress when the defendant fails to comply with the procedural requirements of Article 53.”); State v. Harrell, 244 N.C. App. 345 (2015) (unpublished) (“even if the State did not argue the absence of the supporting affidavit in opposing the motion to suppress, and even if the trial court did not rely on the lack of a supporting affidavit to deny the motion, the failure to attach a supporting affidavit waives any arguments challenging the suppression ruling on appeal, thus precluding this Court from addressing them”).

Other Courts, Other Rulings

A federal court’s suppression of evidence does not collaterally estop the state from introducing the same evidence in state court. State v. Brooks, 337 N.C. 132 (1994). Additionally, the “law of the case” does not necessarily bar the defendant on retrial from filing a motion to suppress evidence, even after an appellate court affirmed the first trial court’s denial of the suppression motion, provided the defendant offers new evidence concerning the suppression motion. State v. Lewis, 365 N.C. 488 (2012).

Portions of this entry were excerpted from the 2013 North Carolina Defender Manual, Volume I, Chapter 14, and “Motions to Suppress Evidence in Superior Court,” by Jeff Welty, January 2017.