- A unanimous N.C. Court of Appeals panel ruled that a law enforcement officer "seized" a driver by parking behind that driver with blue lights flashing and blocking the driver's exit.
- The "seizure" under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment and the N.C. Constitution's ban on general warrants will help an Orange County defendant challenge an impaired driving conviction.
An Orange County sheriff’s deputy effectively “seized” a driver in 2019 when she pulled behind a parked car, activated her blue lights, and blocked the driver’s exit. That “seizure” means the driver can move to have evidence of impaired driving thrown out of court.
That’s the conclusion of a unanimous N.C. Court of Appeals opinion released Tuesday. The case is called State v. Eagle.
“The issue in this case is whether a driver is ‘seized’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when a police officer in a marked police cruiser drives slowly past a parked vehicle at night, backs up, pulls in behind the vehicle while activating the patrol car’s blue lights, blocks the driver’s exit, and then remains in the police cruiser while checking Defendant’s license plate,” wrote Judge Darren Jackson.
“Because we conclude that no reasonable person would believe she was free to drive off under such circumstances, we hold that Defendant was seized for purposes of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as Article I, § 20 of the North Carolina Constitution at the point in time when Deputy Belk pulled in behind Defendant while activating the patrol car’s blue lights and blocked her exit.”
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects people against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Article I, § 20 of the N.C. Constitution discusses general warrants “whereby any officer or other person may be commanded to search suspected places without evidence of the act committed, or to seize any person or persons not named, whose offense is not particularly described and supported by evidence.” The state constitution labels general warrants “dangerous to liberty” and says they “shall not be granted.”
In November 2019, about 3 a.m., a deputy identified as “R. Belk” noticed a white sedan pull into the driveway of the closed Maple View Agriculture Center in Orange County. After waiting to see whether the car would turn around, Belk backed up her cruiser, activated her blue lights, and parked about 10 feet behind the car.
Belk “had observed no criminal violations prior to turning her blue lights on and pulling in behind Defendant’s vehicle, thereby conceding the absence of reasonable suspicion,” Jackson wrote.
After checking the car’s license plate, Belk approached the vehicle. She noticed a “strong odor of alcohol” in the car and observed that driver Jessica Eagle had “red, glassy eyes and slurred speech.” Belk collected identification cards from Eagle and a passenger and returned to the cruiser.
During a later hearing, a trial judge determined that Eagle had not been “seized at any point up until Deputy Belk took the identification cards to the patrol vehicle,” Jackson wrote.
Eagle faced charges for impaired driving, and a trial court rejected her motion to have evidence from the encounter with Belk suppressed.
“Ultimately, we agree with Defendant that the trial court erred in concluding that the encounter between herself and Deputy Belk was not a seizure under the Fourth Amendment at the point in time when Deputy Belk pulled in behind Defendant’s vehicle while activating her blue lights and blocked Defendant’s exit,” Jackson wrote.
“The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects ‘the right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures,’” he wrote. “Article I, § 20 of the North Carolina Constitution likewise ‘protect[s] against unreasonable searches and seizures.’”
Jackson cites a 2006 state court precedent: “Fourth Amendment rights are enforced primarily through ‘the exclusionary rule,’ which provides that evidence derived from an unconstitutional search or seizure is generally inadmissible in a criminal prosecution of the individual subjected to the constitutional violation.”
Appellate judges rejected the state’s arguments that the driver had been free to leave the scene at any time before Belk approached the car. Trying to drive a car in reverse past a parked sheriff’s cruiser with flashing blue lights could have led to even worse consequences.
“Defendant made the only safe and reasonable choice available by remaining in her car at the scene,” Jackson wrote. “The State’s argument is not only illogical, but it is also potentially dangerous.”
“We are not expressing the view that Deputy Belk did anything wrong, and it may be true that she did not believe this was a stop,” the opinion added. “However, when analyzed from the view of a reasonable person in Defendant’s position, even at this early point in the encounter, any reasonable person would have realized that they were the target of police suspicion and were likewise not free to drive off. To hold otherwise could instigate the escalation of encounters between the police and drivers in North Carolina and lead to far worse results for those involved.”
The trial judge should have allowed the driver’s motion to suppress evidence collected during the “seizure,” Jackson concluded.
“[N]o reasonable person in Defendant’s position would have felt free to ignore Deputy Belk’s show of authority,” he wrote. “Accordingly, we hold that Defendant was seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, § 20 of the North Carolina Constitution at the point that Deputy Belk pulled in behind Defendant’s car while activating her blue lights and blocked Defendant’s available exit. Therefore, the trial court erred in denying Defendant’s motion to suppress.”
Judges Hunter Murphy and Jeff Carpenter joined Jackson’s opinion.