CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Mariah Chambers came home to a find a mess Friday afternoon. She says both her front and back doors had been kicked in, furniture was torn open and the clothes inside her dresser drawers had been dumped out onto her bed.
Chambers' house hadn't been broken into; officers with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department had executed a search warrant.
The officers were looking for drugs.
A copy of the search warrant left by police on Chambers' kitchen counter included a copy of the affidavit that officers used to demonstrate to a magistrate that there was probable cause to search her house.
In the probable cause affidavit, Officer S. Selogy said one confidential informant had "seen individuals that are involved in drug activity frequent the listed residence." The affidavit said that same confidential informant had "on several occasions seen a lot of vehicle and foot traffic coming and going from the listed residence."
Selogy's affidavit then referenced information from a second confidential informant who, according to the affidavit, had "been at the listed residence numerous times and saw individuals possessing and selling cocaine" and marijuana.
"Within the past forty-eight hours (48) of the issuance of this warrant, CRI # 2 stated that they were at the listed residence and saw the listed suspect possessing and selling cocaine," the affidavit continued.
But the warrant does not list a specific suspect alleged to be selling cocaine from Chambers' house.
Instead, the warrant lists the suspect merely as "one black male, approximately 30-40 years old, 5'10" tall and 180 pounds with short hairstyle."
The affidavit does not include any specific facts as to exactly how many times the confidential informants had seen the alleged drug activity take place at Chambers' home nor does it spell out specifically how or why officers have come to believe either confidential informant is credible.
Additionally, the affidavit makes no mention of officers trying to independently investigate or confirm the confidential sources' information—either through a controlled purchase of drugs or surveillance.
The CMPD directives guide says "a confidential source can provide sufficient probable cause upon which to base a sworn affidavit for a search warrant." But applicable case law and guidance from at least one criminal law expert says the standard for using confidential informants to establish probable cause to obtain a search warrant is less cut and dry.
North Carolina's appellate courts have weighed in on police officers' use of confidential informants to establish probable cause as recently as this past February in the case of State of North Carolina v. James Paul Brody.
Jeff Welty, a professor and criminal law expert at the UNC School of Government, outlined the court's guidance on confidential informants in a blog post earlier this year.
Generally speaking, Welty said officers should establish a combination of several factors, among others, when using confidential informants to establish probable cause:
- By establishing the reliability of the confidential informant, including listing specific facts from previous cases in which the informants provided reliable information
- By providing additional evidence corroborating the confidential informant’s information (through a controlled buy or surveillance, for instance)
- By providing a detailed account of the alleged illegal activity provided by the confidential informant
In the Brody case, which was the subject of higher court review just this past February, CMPD officers both provided additional details about the confidential informant to establish the informant's credibility and the attesting officer supervised the informant in a controlled buy.
In its opinion in Brody, the North Carolina Court of Appeals said there was sufficient evidence to establish probable cause. But Welty, in his blog post about the case, had a clear takeaway.
"Bottom line, without the controlled buy, I think the affidavit would be rather weak," Welty wrote.
Unlike in the Brody case, the officers who busted down Chambers' door did not execute a controlled buy. Officers also did not provide details to substantiate the credibility of the confidential informants or list specific details of the crimes the informants claimed to have witnessed at Chambers' home.
Chambers, who said she supports police and frequently calls 911 when she witnesses crime in her neighborhood, felt like the search warrant violated her rights.
"Whenever they go in they feel like, because of that badge, they have the authority. We got authority, too!" Chambers said. "We got rights, too! Come on, this is the 4th of July! This is what America's made of!"
A spokesman for CMPD did not provide any justification for why Selogy relied solely upon two confidential informants to obtain a warrant to search Chambers' house but emailed the following statement:
A copy of the search warrant left at Chambers' home shows officers confiscated a scale and sandwich bags.
A CMPD spokesman did not respond to a question from WBTV seeking clarification on what qualities of the scale found in Chambers' home made it a "drug scale."