When “It Depends” Isn’t Good Enough: The Problems Caused by the Supreme Court of North Carolina’s Decision in State v. Mbacke

BY Rebecca A. Fiss

In State v. Mbacke, the Supreme Court of North Carolina did not seem to be in on the joke. This case was the court’s first attempt to interpret and apply Arizona v. Gant, a 2009 decision from the United States Supreme Court that both law enforcement officers and defense and civil liberties groups around the country viewed as a “big deal.” The state court was tasked with deciding whether, after a vehicle’s occupant has been arrested, it is “reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.” Of course, it depends. On what, however, the Supreme Court of North Carolina effectively refused to answer. This Recent Development explores two diverging interpretations of Gant’s novel (and substantially undeveloped) “reasonable to believe” standard, in which courts have split over whether the reasonableness of a law enforcement officer’s belief that a vehicle “contains evidence of the offense of arrest” should be decided with respect to “the offense, by its nature” or the “circumstances of each case.” It then examines the Supreme Court of North Carolina’s failure to clearly rule on the issue and the consequences of such a failure. As lower courts struggle to apply the Mbacke holding in the future, the state of North Carolina risks sliding back into a pre-Gant era of “exploratory searches” and “police entitlement” of the sort that the United States Supreme Court meant to avoid.

DOWNLOAD PDF | 91 N.C. L. Rev.1404 (2013)