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Reasonable Suspicion and the Collective Knowledge Doctrine

The North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the case State v. Shaw yesterday which involved a defendant arrested for DWI. The court held that the officer who made the stop had reasonable suspicion to justify the stop based on statements from other officers that the defendant was weaving in her lane. Under the collective knowledge doctrine, reasonable suspicion can be based on the “collective knowledge” of the law enforcement officers.

In Shaw, the stopping officer was on patrol and working in a “DWI saturation operation.” As part of this operation, several officers worked together to patrol an area that was known to have prevalent impaired driving violations. Two officers rode in an unmarked car and were to identify potentially impaired drivers. They then radioed this information to other officers who would intercept these drivers.

At 12:28 a.m., the officers in the unmarked car radioed the stopping officer that the defendant’s car “was weaving outside its lane of travel several times.” The stopping officer was about a mile away and drove towards the location of defendant’s car. When the stopping officer located the defendant’s car, the officers in the unmarked car (who had been trailing the defendant) drove away. The stopping officer noticed that the lights were not lit on the defendant’s car, and then initiated the traffic stop of the defendant.

When the officer approached the defendant, he detected a strong odor of alcohol. The defendant performed several field sobriety tests and submitted to two Alco-Sensor tests. Based on the results of these tests, the officer placed the defendant under arrest for dwi. The defendant was subsequently convicted of DWI.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to justify the traffic stop of her vehicle because the reasonable suspicion was improperly based on hearsay statements from the officers in the unmarked car.

To begin its analysis, the court reviewed that to justify a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment, an officer must have “reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.” This standard is less demanding than probable cause but  “must be based on specific and articulable facts, as well as the rational inferences from those facts, as viewed through the eyes of a reasonable, cautious officer, guided by his experience and training.” To determine whether reasonable suspicion exists, courts “must consider the totality of the circumstances — the whole picture.”

The court of appeals has previously held that an officer’s observation of weaving, together with other factors, can create reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop. “These other factors may include traveling at an unusual hour or driving in an area in close proximity to bars and nightclubs.” In addition, the North Carolina Supreme Court has held that “‘weaving constantly and continuously [within her lane of travel] over the course of three-quarters of a mile’ at 11:00 p.m. on a Friday night constituted reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop.”

The trial court used the doctrine of “collective knowledge” to make its determination that the officer had reasonable suspicion to justify the traffic stop of the defendant. The court of appeals explained this doctrine as follows:

[i]f the officer making the investigatory stop (the second officer) does not have the necessary reasonable suspicion, the stop may nonetheless be made if the second officer receives from another officer (the first officer) a request to stop the vehicle, and if, at the time the request is issued, the first officer possessed a reasonable suspicion that criminal conduct had occurred, was occurring, or was about to occur. . . . Where there is no request from the first officer that the second officer stop a vehicle, the collective knowledge of both officers may form the basis for reasonable suspicion by the second officer, if and to the extent the knowledge possessed by the first officer is communicated to the second officer.

The explanation of this doctrine came from the 1993 court of appeals case, State v. Battle. In Battle, an officer had radioed the arresting officer to “be on the lookout” for the defendant’s vehicle because he suspected the defendant was driving while impaired. The radioing officer based this suspicion on his earlier interaction with the defendant, during which he had observed the defendant sitting behind the wheel of his car. He performed field sobriety tests on the defendant and smelled alcohol on the defendant’s breath. He then told the defendant not to drive and left. Because the officer believed that the defendant might drive anyway, he radioed the arresting officer to lookout for the defendant’s car. When the arresting officer saw the defendant’s car, he followed him for a couple of blocks. He did not observe anything that would provide reasonable suspicion. However, based on the radioing officer’s statements, he stopped the defendant and arrested him for DWI.

The court of appeals held in Battle that

an officer making a traffic stop need not have personally observed the defendant’s conduct giving rise to reasonable suspicion if (1) “the officer making the stop has received a request to stop the defendant from another officer, if that other officer had, prior to the issuance of the request, the necessary reasonable suspicion”; or (2) “the officer making the stop received, prior to the stop, information from another officer, which, when combined with the observations made by the stopping officer, constitute the necessary reasonable suspicion.”

In Shaw, the officers in the unmarked car radioed the stopping officer that they observed the defendant’s car “weave several times outside of its lane.” The defendant was also driving in an area in which there had been a high number of alcohol related motor vehicle accidents and in which there were many establishments serving alcohol late at night. Together, these factors created reasonable suspicion to justify the stop of the defendant.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the statements of the radioing officers was hearsay because the statements were not offered to prove that the defendant did weave outside of her lane. Instead, the statements were offered to show that the stopping officer was told that the defendant weaved outside of her lane, which justified the stopping officer’s formation of reasonable suspicion that the defendant was driving while impaired.

If you have been charged with impaired driving, visit for legal help.

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