In most cases involving a person charged with impaired driving, that person is stopped while in the act of driving by a law enforcement officer in a patrol car. However, sometimes police officers are not in a car, but on a bicycle or on foot. The 2013 North Carolina Court of Appeals case, State v. Knudsen, involves a police officer on a bicycle stopping a person who was eventually charged with DWI.
In Knudsen, an officer in a patrol car saw the defendant get into his car, which was parked on the street in an area with lots of bars, while the defendant was carrying a clear cup similar to the ones used in bars. After the officer in the patrol car drove just past the defendant’s car, he stopped and talked to an officer on a bicycle. He asked the officer on the bicycle to ride past the defendant’s car to try to determine what type of liquid was in the defendant’s cup. Riding against traffic, the officer on the bicycle rode “very close” to the defendant’s car and and “made it obvious” that he was looking into the defendant’s car. At the time that the officer on the bicycle drove by, the lights on the defendant’s car were on and the engine was running.
After the officer on the bicycle rode past the defendant’s car, the defendant and his passenger got out of the car. When the officer on the bicycle saw the defendant and the passenger exit the car and walk up the sidewalk, he moved his bicycle from the road up onto the sidewalk “in an effort to initiate contact with the Defendant” at the entrance to a parking lot.
Meanwhile, after speaking with the officer on the bicycle, the officer in the police car had turned his car around. Just as the officer on the bicycle initiated contact with the defendant, the officer in the police car pulled his car directly behind the officer on the bicycle. The officer on the bicycle was in uniform with the word “POLICE” marked on his shirt, helmet and bag. The officer also carried a firearm.
The officer on the bicycle dismounted and asked the defendant what was in the cup. The defendant replied that there was water in the cup. The officers did not notice an odor of alcohol coming from the defendant, nor did they observe any other signs of impairment.
Although the court of appeals opinion does not continue the story of what happened after the officer questioned the contents of the defendant’s cup, we do know that the defendant was arrested for driving while impaired, so we can assume that the defendant behaved in a way that gave the officers probable cause to believe that he was impaired.
The main issue on appeal was whether the officer’s encounter with the defendant qualified as a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. For an investigatory stop to be justified, an officer must have reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in criminal activity.
The court began its analysis by noting that not every encounter a person has with a police officer has to be justified by reasonable suspicion. The United State Supreme Court held in Florida v. Royer (1983) that a police officer does not violate “the Fourth Amendment merely by approaching an individual in a public place and by putting questions to him.” For a person to be “seized” under the Fourth Amendment, his freedom of movement must be restrained “by means of physical force or show of authority.”
The court noted that the officers in this case did not employ physical force so the analysis turned on whether “taking into account all of the circumstances surrounding the encounter, the police conduct would have communicated to a reasonable person that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business.” The court noted that
When there has been no physical force or attempt to leave, examples of circumstances that might indicate a seizure include “the threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical touching of the person of the citizen, or the use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer's request might be compelled.” Several North Carolina Supreme Court opinions have also found the fact that an officer was in uniform to be a significant factor to consider when determining whether a seizure has occurred.
In reviewing the facts of the case, the court noted that the United Supreme Court has held that “an encounter between police and a defendant ‘will not trigger Fourth Amendment scrutiny unless it loses its consensual nature.’” In this case, the court concluded that the following facts constituted “police conduct [which] would have communicated to a reasonable person that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business”: the officer on the bicycle impeded the “Defendant’s continued movement along the sidewalk”; the officer in the police car parked his car behind the bicycle officer, thereby blocking the sidewalk; the officer in the car got out of his car and stood by the bicycle officer “directly in Defendant’s path of travel”; and the bicycle officer “demanded” to know what was in the defendant’s cup.
Therefore, the court concluded that “the totality of the circumstances” showed that the “Defendant was seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
The court then addressed the State’s final contention that even if the defendant was seized, the officer’s seizure of the defendant was based on reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion must be based on “some minimal level of objective justification.” “In order to meet the reasonable suspicion threshold, ‘[t]he officer, of course, must be able to articulate something more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch. To determine if reasonable suspicion exists, a court must look at “the totality of the circumstances—the whole picture.”
In this case, the court reasoned that the officers observed the defendant get into his car with a clear plastic cup filled with a clear liquid. They “stopped and questioned Defendant ‘only because he was walking on the sidewalk with a cup in his hand with clear liquid in it’ and the officers wanted to know what was in the cup.” The court concluded “that the officers had, at most, an inchoate and unparticularized hunch that Defendant was involved in some form of criminal activity. Defendant's actions did not give rise to the minimal level of objective justification required by the Fourth Amendment.”
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