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Court of Appeals Finds Reasonable Suspicion for Extension of Traffic Stop

Today, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an opinion today which examined the extension of a traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff in a post-Rodriguez world. Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s issuing of Rodriguez v. United States in April of this year, the officer would have been able to use a de minimis extension of the traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff. However, Rodriguez required that anything that would prolong a traffic stop must be supported by reasonable suspicion. In State v. Warren, the court of appeals held, over a dissent, that the officer had the required reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop.

The defendant in Warren was stopped for a traffic offense. During the traffic stop, the officer called for backup. When the backup arrived, the officer conducted a dog sniff around the defendant’s car while the backup wrote the traffic citation. The entire traffic stop lasted ten minutes. However, the dog sniff led to the discovery of illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia. The defendant was later found guilty of possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia and subsequently pled guilty to attaining the status of habitual felon. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress the evidence found during the traffic stop because the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop to conduct the dog sniff.

The court of appeals began its analysis by reviewing the holding of Rodriguez, which allows an officer to “perform checks which ‘serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code,’” as well as write out traffic citations. These checks include “checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” The Fourth Amendment prohibits an officer from conducting “certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop” without reasonable suspicion if those unrelated checks prolong the stop. In Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court “specifically held that the performance of a dog sniff is not a type of check which is related to an officer’s traffic mission.” The court of appeals concluded that

Therefore, under Rodriguez, an officer who lawfully stops a vehicle for a traffic violation but who otherwise does not have reasonable suspicion that any crime is afoot beyond a traffic violation may execute a dog sniff only if the check does not prolong the traffic stop.

The court noted that prior to Rodriguez, there would have been a different analysis in North Carolina under the de minimis rule. The de minimis rule “allowed police officers to prolong a traffic stop “for a very short period of time” to investigate for other criminal activity unrelated to the traffic stop – for example, to execute a dog sniff – though the officer has no reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity.” However, Rodriguez overruled the use of the de minimis rule.

The court also noted that the findings of the trial court in Warren do not make clear whether the officer’s call for backup and then waiting for backup to arrive prolonged the traffic stop. However, the court then went on to distinguish Warren from Rodriguez by stating that “the trial court’s findings support the conclusion that the officer had developed reasonable suspicion of illegal drug activity during the course of his investigation of the traffic offense and was therefore justified to prolong the traffic stop to execute the dog sniff.”

To determine whether an officer has reasonable suspicion, “the court must examine both the facts known to the officer at the time he decided to approach the defendant and the rational inferences that may be drawn from those facts.” The court should “take into account an officer’s training and experience” and “view the totality of the circumstances through the eyes of a reasonable and cautious police officer at the scene.”

In Warren, the defendant was stopped “in an area [the officer] knew to be a high crime/high drug activity area” and “appeared to have something in his mouth which he was not chewing and which affected his speech.” Although proximity to a high crime area is not alone sufficient to provide reasonable suspicion, proximity to a high crime area coupled with evasive behavior can provide reasonable suspicion.

In a 2007 court of appeals case, In re I.R.T., the court held that the behavior of a juvenile who was present in a high crime area and turned his head when approached by an officer was sufficient to lead the officer to suspect that the juvenile was hiding something in his mouth, based on the “officer’s knowledge, experience, and training.” The totality of the circumstances in In re I.R.T. justified a seizure of the juvenile based on reasonable suspicion.

The court likened the facts of Warren to those in In re I.R.T. because “during his six years of experience [the officer in Warren] who ha[d] specific training in narcotics detection, ha[d] made numerous ‘drug stops’ and ha[d] observed individuals attempt to hide drugs in their mouths and... swallow drugs to destroy evidence.” Therefore, the court held “that based on the totality of the facts the trial court’s unchallenged findings establish the ‘minimal level of objective justification’ to show that the officer had reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity was occurring to justify the extension of the traffic stop.”

The dissent in Warren disagreed with the majority that the facts of In re I.R.T. were analogous to those in Warren. The defendant in In re I.R.T. took evasive actions to avoid the officer by turning his head and not opening his mouth when he was speaking. However, the defendant in Warren actually consented to a search of his person. The officer searched the defendant, but did not search the defendant’s mouth until after the dog sniff. The dissent opinion argued that this behavior was not effasive and did not support a finding of reasonable suspicion when taken in the totality of the circumstances. The dissent opinion explained that

Because the officer neither questioned defendant about having an item in his mouth nor did he search defendant’s mouth, I find it highly objectionable that the purported evasive conduct that essentially tipped the scale in favor of finding reasonable suspicion was the officer’s mere alleged suspicion that defendant had an unknown object in his mouth. Had the officer taken any steps to confirm his suspicion, a canine search of defendant’s vehicle would debatably have been permissible based upon reasonable suspicion.

The dissent also disagreed that the findings of the trial court do not make clear whether the officer’s call for backup and then waiting for backup to arrive prolonged the traffic stop, instead reasoning that “the officer’s actions inevitably prolonged the traffic stop beyond the amount of time reasonably required to complete the stop’s mission.” Therefore, because there was no reasonable suspicion to prolong the traffic stop, the dissent argued that the evidence should have been suppressed.

If you have been charged with DWI, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450, to discuss your options.

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