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Reasonable Suspicion for a Traffic Stop in North Carolina

A DWI arrest all starts with a traffic stop.  But an officer cannot stop cars whenever he wants because the Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures.  In order for an officer to conduct a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment, he must have “reasonable suspicion” that the driver has committed a crime or infraction.  But what constitutes “reasonable suspicion”?

The Fourth Amendment 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 US 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."”  Historically, traffic stops were reviewed under the standard set out in the US Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, under which to make a traffic stop an officer must have “"reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot."  However, in 1996, the US Supreme Court stated in dictum, in the case Whren v. US, that “the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.”

The North Carolina Supreme Court resolved the resulting confusion from this dictum in 2008 in State v. Styles.  It determined that reasonable suspicion, not probable cause is “the necessary standard for stops based on traffic violations” in North Carolina.  The Court described reasonable suspicion as a "less demanding standard than probable cause” which “requires a showing considerably less than preponderance of the evidence."  Furthermore, it “is satisfied by “‘some minimal level of objective justification.’””  The North Carolina Supreme Court requires that "[t]he stop ... 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."  In addition, a court must look at ““the totality of the circumstances—the whole picture” in determining whether a reasonable suspicion’ exists.”

So now we have the general standard for reasonable suspicion, but how is this standard applied?   Typically, any traffic infraction can provide reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop.  There are also a few other situations, which can create reasonable suspicion even though they do not violate any traffic law.  Let’s look at a few situations that provide reasonable suspicion.

Weaving:  Weaving outside of one’s lane violates North Carolina statute G.S. 20-146 and provides reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop.  Weaving within one’s lane must be coupled with other specific facts which indicate impairment.  Where a driver was weaving “constantly and continuously”  for three-quarters of a mile and the stop was made at 11:00 p.m. on a Friday night, the stop was supported by reasonable suspicion, even though the driver’s weaving never caused her to leave her lane.  (State v. Otto 2012)  “There was reasonable suspicion for the traffic stop when a driver was weaving within his own lane and traveling below the speed limit.” (State v. Aubin 1990)   “The Court of Appeals found reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop when the driver was weaving within his own lane and driving at 1:43 a.m. in the vicinity of several bars.”  (State v. Jacobs 2004)  In contrast, there was not reasonable suspicion to support a traffic stop when a driver was weaving in his own lane and “stopped at approximately 4:00 p.m., which is not an unusual hour, and there was no evidence that defendant was near any places to purchase alcohol.” (State v. Fields 2009)

Failure to Proceed at a Green Light:  A driver’s thirty second delay at a green light in an area of town in which a number of bars were located “gave rise to a reasonable, articulable suspicion that he may have been driving while impaired.”  It did not matter that the driver was not in violation of any statute because the officer who made the stop “made a rational inference from the thirty-second delay that defendant might be impaired” “based on his training and experience.” (State v. Barnard 2008)  A driver’s eight-to-ten second delay at a green light at 4:30 a.m. in an area of town in which bars where located did not provide reasonable suspicion because bars were required to stop serving at 2:00 a.m. and because such a delay “does not appear so unusual as to give rise to suspicion justifying a stop.”  (State v. Roberson 2004)

Attempting to Avoid a Checkpoint:  Where a driver approached a checkpoint, and then turned around in the middle of the road, not at an intersection, an officer suspected him of trying to avoid a checkpoint, and this provided reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop.  (State v. Griffin 2013)  A legal turn away from a checkpoint, by itself, is not enough to provide reasonable suspicion, but a legal turn attempting to avoid a checkpoint provided reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop.  (State v. Foreman 2000)

Brake Light Violation:  Where an officer stopped a car because it was missing a brake light, the stop did not violate the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights, even though the Court of Appeals determined that the applicable statute was not violated.  The officer’s reasonable mistake of the law was sufficient to meet the reasonable suspicion standard. (Heien v. North Carolina 2012)  Note that the US Supreme Court will hear the appeal of this case in the fall to determine if a traffic stop because of an officer’s reasonable mistake of the law violates a driver’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Driving with Revoked License:  Where an officer knew the driver over the course of two or three years, during which time the driver’s license was suspended and the officer had never seen him drive a car, the officer had reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop when he saw the driver driving, even though the driver had a valid license at the time of the stop.  The officer’s reasonable mistake of fact did not violate the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights.  (State v. Kincaid 2001)

Speeding:  G.S. 20-141 sets out speed restrictions (both maximum and minimum) and authorizes municipalities to create their own speed restrictions.  Failure to comply with speed restrictions provides reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop.

License Plate Light:  G.S. 20-129(d) requires that the license plate on a car be “ illuminated by a white light as to be read from a distance of 50 feet to the rear of such vehicle.”  Violation of this statute provides reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop.  (State v. Shearin 2005)

Window Tint Violation:  A traffic stop was constitutional when the driver was stopped due to a window tint in violation of North Carolina statute G.S. 20-127.  (State v. Williams 2012)

Not Travelling at a Safe Distance:  G.S. 20-152 requires that “The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of such vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway.”  Failure to comply with this statute would provide reasonable suspicion.

Insurance Stop:  G.S. 20-313 requires a driver to have proper insurance to operate a motor vehicle.  If an officer runs a car’s license plate and DMV records indicate “insurance stop,” the officer has reasonable suspicion to stop the car.  (State v. Townes 2012)

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