News: CJ Exclusives

Court Rules in Traffic-Stop Case

Car ownership by revoked-license driver rule enough for a police stop

The U.S. Constitution allows police officers to conduct traffic stops based upon a “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. Does reasonable suspicion for a stop exist if a police officer detects an automobile whose registered owner has a suspended driver’s license but the officer can’t see the driver and the car isn’t otherwise violating any traffic regulations? The answer, according to the state’s second highest court, is “yes.”

On May 15, 2004, Officer Jarrett Doty of the Granite Quarry Police Department was patrolling in an unmarked vehicle. He came up behind a Pontiac. It was dark and Doty couldn’t determine the gender of the driver or how many people were in the car.

The driver of the Pontiac was obeying all traffic regulations and not weaving. Still, Doty ran a computer check on the plate of the vehicle, which came back as being registered to a Bryan Hess. Doty ran a check on the driver’s license number associated with the registration and determined that Hess’ driver’s license had been suspended.

At that point, Doty, though still not knowing who the driver was, elected to pull the Pontiac over. Hess was driving and was arrested for driving while impaired and driving with a revoked license.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Courts have held, however, that brief investigatory stops are legal if based upon “a reasonable suspicion, based on objective facts, that the individual is involved in criminal activity.”

At trial, Hess challenged the legality of the stop, contending that Doty lacked reasonable suspicion to stop his car. Hess repeated this claim on appeal before the N.C. Court of Appeals.

North Carolina’s appellate courts had not previously addressed whether observing a car registered to someone with a suspended license by itself rises to the level of a reasonable suspicion. Courts in a number of other states had, however, addressed the issue and the N.C. Court of Appeals looked to these rulings for guidance.

Most, but not all, of the state courts that have addressed the issue have found that reasonable suspicion existed. For example, the Illinois Court of Appeals held that “[p]olice knowledge that an owner of a vehicle has a revoked driver’s license provides a reasonable suspicion to stop the owner’s vehicle for the purpose of ascertaining the status of the license of the driver. Common sense dictates that such information, even alone, is enough to provide a constitutional basis for stopping a vehicle or its occupants.”

Appellate courts in at least six other states reached the same conclusion.

Not all courts have found such stops legal. The Idaho Court of Appeals held “that the mere observation of a vehicle being driven by someone of the same gender as the unlicensed owner is insufficient to give rise to a reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity.”

“In sum, our research reveals that when an officer knows that a vehicle being operated is registered to an owner with a suspended or revoked driver’s license, the majority of jurisdictions have held that an officer has reasonable suspicion to make an investigatory stop, absent evidence that the driver is not the owner,” Stephens wrote for the N.C. Court of Appeals.

“We are persuaded by the rationale of the majority of jurisdictions and thus adopt the holding of the majority of jurisdictions that when a police officer becomes aware that a vehicle being operated is registered to an owner with a suspended or revoked driver’s license, and there is no evidence appearing to the officer that the owner is not the individual driving the automobile, reasonable suspicion exists to warrant an investigatory stop.”

N.C. Court of Appeals rulings are binding interpretations of state law unless overruled by the N.C. Supreme Court. Because the ruling by the three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals was unanimous, the high court is not required to take the case should Hess further appeal.

The case is State v. Hess, (06-1413).

Michael Lowrey is associate editor of Carolina Journal.