What is Reasonable Suspicion For a Stop?

This week the Court of Appeals published the decision in State v. Johnson.  Only nine pages in length, the opinion is important in regards to whether an officer had the requisite “reasonable suspicion” that is necessary for a traffic stop.  Many may be surprised by the Court’s holding.

The facts from the Court’s opinion:

     The evidence presented at Defendant’s suppression hearing tended to establish the following: Around 10:00 p.m. on 16 February 2013, Officer Garrett Gardin (“Officer Gardin”), a patrol officer with the Hendersonville Police Department since 2011, was on duty in his patrol vehicle stopped at a red light at the intersection of King Street and Bearcat Boulevard when Defendant’s black Chevy truck pulled beside him in the left-hand turning lane.   It was snowing, and the snow was just beginning to stick to the ground.  Defendant was “blaring” his music “really loud” and was “revving” his engine.  The speed limit was 35 miles per hour.  When the light turned green, Defendant “revved his engine” and “immediately took a left turn onto Bearcat Boulevard, screeching the tires toward the back end,and the tailgate went towards the corner.” Defendant’s car never made contact with the sidewalk, and Defendant was able to “correct []” the car, all the while maintaining proper lane control.   According to Officer Gardin, Defendant “sped down Bearcat [Boulevard]” and then stopped at the next red light without incident.  Officer Gardin “immediately” initiated a traffic stop based on “unsafe movement for the conditions of the roadway.”  Officer Gardin testified that, in his opinion, Defendant was driving “too fast” down Bearcat Boulevard “for what was going on at the time as far as weather was concerned.”  Defendant stopped his truck promptly after Officer Gardin initiated the stop. When Officer Gardin approached the truck, he observed that Defendant had red, glassy eyes and a red face.     When Defendant spoke, his speech was slurred. Defendant admitted that he had consumed a few beers that evening.    After performing various field sobriety tests, Officer Gardin placed Defendant under arrest for driving while impaired (“DWI”).  Defendant blew a .13 on the Intoxilyzer.

On cross-examination, Officer Gardin stated that he did not know how fast Defendant was driving down Bearcat Boulevard, noting only that he believed that it was “too fast” for the conditions given that Defendant “almost lost control making the left turn.”   Officer Gardin admitted that there were no other cars or pedestrians in the area and that he did not cite Defendant for any traffic violations.

Defendant filed a motion to suppress the traffic stop in District Court, which was granted by Judge Peter Knight on 5 June 2014. The State appealed to Superior Court for de novo review.  Following an evidentiary hearing on Defendant’s motion to suppress, Judge Powell denied the motion and remanded the matter back to District Court for entry of an order and further proceedings.  Defendant pled guilty to DWI in District Court and appealed the judgment to Superior Court.  Defendant refiled his motion to suppress, which was again denied.    Pursuant to a plea agreement, Defendant again pled guilty but preserved his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress.  Defendant received a suspended sentence of 12 months of unsupervised probation.  Defendant timely appeals.

     The Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop. The Court considered two statutes: G.S. 20-141(a), which prohibits driving at a speed “greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions then existing,” and G.S. 20-154(a), which prohibits “starting, stopping or turning from a direct line” without first “see[ing] that such movement can be made in safety.”

The Court found that the defendant (1) stayed in his lane, (2) did not hit the sidewalk, (3) did not exceed any posted speed limit, and (4) did not risk a collision with another vehicle or a pedestrian and therefore it concluded that “[n]othing that . . . the trial court found that Defendant had done . . . constituted unsafe driving, as defined by our statutes, even factoring in the weather conditions.”

Also recently, there was this story from the Wake County Court house that had an impact on a lot of DWI defendants. You can read the entire article here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/crime/article69183567.html but below are some parts of the story:

  • Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman dismissed more than 100 driving while impaired cases this week after a sheriff’s deputy was found to have lied on the stand.
  • Freeman’s actions came after District Court Judge Jacqueline Brewer disqualified Wake sheriff’s Deputy Robert Davis, a member of the DWI Task Force, as a witness.
  • Freeman said because Davis had been untruthful in some cases that he was no longer competent to testify in any of them. Davis, who worked at the Wake County Sheriff’s Office for 15 years, was fired last week by Sheriff Donnie Harrison.
  • In addition to the 104 DWI cases dismissed by Freeman on Wednesday, the district attorney’s office also found 71 traffic citations written by Davis, which also will be dismissed. Her office does not plan to review cases involving Davis that were heard before the March 22 court order issued by Brewer. Moving forward, Freeman said, it would be difficult for prosecutors to call Davis as a “competent witness.” But in cases heard before then, she said, defense attorneys and the defendants had an opportunity to raise questions about the credibility of the officer and a judge presided over those hearings.

Our Services:

When you are charged with a traffic or criminal defense it is important to have an experienced attorney, well versed in the current status of the law, and also plugged in to what is going on at the local court house. The attorneys at GAY JACKSON & McNALLY, LLP have years of experience representing criminal defendants, both in state and federal court.  If you or a family member have been charged with a crime, GAY JACKSON & McNALLY, LLP is here to provide you with the very best possible legal representation and advice. If you need representation for a traffic or criminal offense, call 919-269-2234 or email andygay@gayjacksonandmcnally.com