Defense says cellphone search in fatal I-85 crash illegal
Posted August 16, 2016
Hillsborough, N.C. — Defense attorneys for a former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student accused of killing three people a year ago in a wrong-way collision on Interstate 85 argued Tuesday that any evidence obtained from his cellphone should be excluded from his trial.
Authorities said Chandler Michael Kania was driving north in the southbound lanes near the split of I-85 and Interstate 40 in Orange County on July 19, 2015, when his Jeep Wrangler collided with a Suzuki driven by Felecia Harris.
Harris, 49, of Charlotte, her friend Darlene McGee, 46, of Charlotte, and Harris' granddaughter Jahnice Beard, 6, of Brooklyn, N.Y., were killed in the fiery wreck. Harris' daughter, Jahnia King, 9, was seriously injured.
Defense attorneys said in a motions hearing Tuesday that the search warrant used to seize Kania's phone was flawed because it allowed state troopers to search only Kania's hospital room at UNC Hospitals and they actually retrieved it from his father, Michael Kania, in Asheboro.
"You can't have a search warrant for a cellphone in an Orange County hospital and serve it in Asheboro. You just can't do that," defense attorney Roger Smith Jr. said.
Trooper Stephen Foster said Chandler Kania's mother told them at the hospital after the crash that her son's friends had the cellphone and would be bringing it to the hospital.
"We felt like he had the phone the night prior. We felt like there may be text messages on there that might involve drinking or anything of that nature, back and forth with friends," Foster testified, describing why investigators wanted the phone.
Trooper Christopher Hazleton said he went to the Kania home in Asheboro to serve the warrant because authorities never got the phone at the hospital. He said called the home number and left a message that he was outside, and Michael Kania came out, got the warrant, went back inside and brought the phone back out to surrender it.
Hazleton said he never went onto the Kania property, let alone inside the home.
"The trooper did not go in the house. The castle was protected," Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour said.
Baddour didn't rule on the admissibility of any phone evidence, however, saying he might do so later this week.
"It's really just one piece of evidence in the big picture. It's just one piece of the puzzle," Smith said. "I would certainly say the case does not rise and fall on one issue whatsoever."
Baddour declined a defense motion to delay the trial, which is scheduled to start Oct. 3, and he left it up to the trial judge to handle motions on whether photos and dashboard camera of the crash scene and eyewitness estimates of Kania's speed on I-85 would be allowed into evidence.
The defense also wants Chandler Kania's blood tests excluded as evidence, arguing the blood was drawn improperly and any analysis of it is therefore unreliable.
Toxicology tests show that he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.17, which is more than twice the level at which a driver is considered impaired under North Carolina law. Because Kania was 20 at the time, however, any alcohol in his system would have been illegal because he was underage.
Baddour didn't hear that motion Tuesday and there was no word on when it would be addressed.
Kania is under house arrest awaiting trial on three counts each of second-degree murder and felony death by motor vehicle and one count each of felony serious injury by motor vehicle, driving while impaired, driving left of center, obtaining alcohol by a minor and underage consumption of alcohol as a minor. A grand jury also indicted him on an aggravating factor linked to a fight he had with friends who tried to stop him from driving after drinking that night.
He appeared in court without the wheelchair or crutches he has used in previous court hearings as he recovered from his injuries from the crash.
Still, his attorneys said, the emotion scars remain.
"I think he struggles. He's struggling, he naturally would," attorney Wade Smith said.
Kania and his parents left the courtroom without saying a word.
"That family is appropriately keeping in mind the victims. They talk about that all the time," Wade Smith said. "They never will be OK because these people died."