Last weekend, North Carolina released the numbers from its most recent Booze It and Lose It campaign, which was held from March 13 through March 17 and meant to encourage those out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day to do so safely. The numbers of DWIs in both the whole state and in Mecklenburg County were down from last year. This year, 785 people were charged with DWI in North Carolina during this recent campaign, compared with over 800 in 2014. In Mecklenburg County, 50 people were charged with DWI, compared with 64 during the campaign in 2014.
The campaign involved both increased patrols as well as checkpoints. Officers on patrol must have reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop impaired driving. The Fourth Amendment provides protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and states that
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a “traffic stop is a seizure even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting detention quite brief.” A police officer must have “reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot” to make a traffic stop. This reasonable suspicion can be justified by the violation of a traffic law or other behavior that might indicate impairment, such as a significant amount of weaving or failing to proceed at a green light.
North Carolina general statutes give law enforcement officers the ability to “conduct checking stations to determine compliance with the provisions” of the Motor Vehicles Chapter of the statutes. Checkpoint stops are different from other traffic stops because a police officer at a checkpoint stop is not required to have reasonable suspicion to make that stop. Although the officer does not need reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle at a checkpoint, the officer must have reasonable suspicion to further detain the driver after satisfying the primary purpose of the checkpoint (often eviewing the driver’s valid license and registration). The North Carolina Court of Appeals has explained that
[o]nce the original purpose of the stop has been addressed, in order to justify further delay, there must be grounds which provide the detaining officer with additional reasonable and articulable suspicion or the encounter must have become consensual. Where no grounds for a reasonable and articulable suspicion exist and where the encounter has not become consensual, a detainee’s extended seizure is unconstitutional.
State v. Jackson (2009)
In addition, the United States Supreme Court has stated that “police officers [may] act appropriately upon information that they properly learn during a checkpoint stop justified by a lawful primary purpose, even where such action may result in the arrest of a motorist for an offense unrelated to that purpose.” (City of Indianapolis v. Edmond 2000) Therefore, even if a checkpoint is being conducted for the primary purpose of checking licenses, if a police officer makes observations which might indicate impairment, he can investigate further based on reasonable suspicion of impairment.
G.S. 20-16.3A sets out the requirements with which a checkpoint must comply in order for evidence collected to be admissible. Subsection (b) of this statute provides that
An officer who determines there is a reasonable suspicion that an occupant has violated a provision of this Chapter, or any other provision of law, may detain the driver to further investigate in accordance with law. The operator of any vehicle stopped at a checking station established under this subsection may be requested to submit to an alcohol screening test under G.S. 20-16.3 if during the course of the stop the officer determines the driver had previously consumed alcohol or has an open container of alcoholic beverage in the vehicle. The officer so requesting shall consider the results of any alcohol screening test or the driver’s refusal in determining if there is reasonable suspicion to investigate further.
Therefore, under the statute, a police officer may request a driver to submit to an alcohol screening test if the driver admits to having consumed any alcohol at all or if the police officer observes that there is an open container in the car. If the driver refuses to submit or if the screening test indicates that the driver has alcohol in his system, these circumstances can go towards providing reasonable suspicion to investigating further.
North Carolina courts have helped shed light on what can provide reasonable suspicion to further detain a driver at a checkpoint. In State v. Jarrett (2009), the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the police officer possessed reasonable suspicion to further detain the driver when he saw an aluminum can in between the driver and passenger, questioned the contents of the can and determined that it was an alcoholic beverage. Just last year, the court of appeals held that where an officer smelled an odor of alcohol and a driver admitted to drinking alcohol earlier in the evening, a police officer had reasonable suspicion to further detain a driver after a checkpoint stop. (State v. Townsend 2014) The court of appeals has also held that an officer who detected an odor of marijuana coming from a vehicle had reasonable suspicion to further detain a driver. (State v. Smith 2013)
If you have been charged with impaired driving, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450, to discuss your options.