News: CJ Exclusives

Courts Clarify Traffic-Stop Constitutionality

Rulings in two recent cases clarify rules regarding traffic stops

The state’s second highest court has held that a traffic stop based upon an officer’s mistaken belief that someone is speeding is unconstitutional and that evidence of other crimes obtained during the stop cannot be admitted as evidence at trial.

The ruling comes in a case from Hyde County and is one of two cases the N.C. Court of Appeals recently decided challenging the constitutionality of traffic stops.

Deputy Matthew Shane Bryan spotted a sports utility vehicle going around a curve on Ocracoke Island at about 30 mph. Believing that the speed limit was 20 mph on that stretch of road, the officer pulled the vehicle over. Bryan issued the driver, William McLamb, a warning ticket for speeding and arrested him for driving while impaired.

At trial, McLamb moved to suppress the results of the stop, arguing that Bryan had no legal basis for pulling him over. Critically, though Bryan thought the speed limit was 20, it really was 55. After Judge William C. Griffin, Jr. ruled in McLamb’s favor, the state brought the case before the Court of Appeals.

“The question presented for our review is whether a mistaken belief by a law enforcement officer that a defendant has violated the speed limit can constitutionally support a stop of the vehicle,” Judge Sanford Steelman said for the Court of Appeals. The appeals court held that it could not.

Last year, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled in State v. Ivey on whether failing to use a turn signal was enough to allow for a traffic stop. It held:

In examining the legality of a traffic stop, the proper inquiry is not the subjective reasoning of the officer, but whether the objective facts support a finding that probable cause existed to stop the defendant. Probable cause exists when there is a fair probability or substantial chance a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it. Thus, the United States and North Carolina Constitutions require an officer who makes a seizure on the basis of a perceived traffic violation to have probable cause to believe the driver’s actions violated a motor vehicle law.

Finding that the failure to use a turn signal in that case did not violate the law, the Supreme Court ruled that the officer in Ivey did not have probable cause to conduct the stop, and thus the stop violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and that evidence obtained must be suppressed.

A number of federal appeals courts have come to the same conclusion. The Fifth Circuit, for example, has held that “[I]f officers are allowed to stop vehicles based upon their subjective belief that traffic laws have been violated even where no such violation has, in fact, occurred, the potential for abuse of traffic infractions as pretext for effecting stops seems boundless and the costs to privacy rights excessive.”

The N.C. Court of Appeals was persuaded by the logic of these rulings.

“Based upon Whren, Ivey, and the reasoning of the many cases cited from the Federal Courts of Appeals, we conclude that the legal justification for Deputy Bryan’s stop of defendant’s vehicle was not objectively reasonable,” Steelman wrote. “Whether the legal justification for Deputy Bryan’s traffic stop was subjectively reasonable is irrelevant.”

“Because the legal justification for this traffic stop was not objectively reasonable, we hold that the stop violated defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.”

A different three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals ruled Oct. 2 in another case concerning the constitutionality of a traffic stop.

On the evening of Feb. 2, 2005, Greenville Police Department patrol officers Lascallette and Webb discussed the possibility of setting up a “driver’s license checkpoint” at about 2:30 a.m. on Firetower Road. As Lascallette testified in court, he “didn’t think it was a very effective spot, but it served the purpose — it kept us gainfully employed.”

While Webb and a third officer handled the checkpoint proper, Lascallette positioned his car to chase down vehicles that tried to evade the checkpoint. One possible way to do so was to turn on to a side road 400 to 500 yards from the checkpoint called Dudley’s Grant Drive. When a car driven by Shannon Haislip turned onto Dudley’s Grant, Lascallette proceeded to stop it. Lascallette arrested Haislip for driving while impaired.

At trial, Haislip said he sought to contest the constitutionality of the checkpoint plan. Superior Court Judge William C. Griffin, Jr. ruled, however, that she couldn’t do so because she had not been stopped at the actual checkpoint.

Haislip challenged Griffin’s ruling and her DWI conviction before the N.C. Court of Appeals.

“In this case, according to his undisputed testimony, Lascallette stopped Defendant “pursuant to . . . the checkpoint plan,” not “in light of and pursuant to the totality of the circumstances,” Judge Linda Stephens wrote for the appeals court.

“He did not stop her because she turned across the center turn lane, because of how she drove down Dudley’s Grant, or because of the manner in which she exited her vehicle. He stopped her based on the systematic plan of the checkpoint. It necessarily follows, and we so hold, that when a defendant is stopped pursuant to a checkpoint plan, a defendant has standing to challenge the constitutionality of the plan by which she was ‘snared.’”

In reaching this conclusion, the appeals court specifically rejected the state’s argument that a N.C. Supreme Court decision in 2004 should control the outcome of the case. In State v. Mitchell, the high court held “that it is error to analyze the stop and arrest of someone eluding a checkpoint in terms of the legality of the checkpoint.” The Court of Appeals noted that Mitchell was a case about a driver running through a roadblock.

The appeals court sent the case back to Superior Court for a determination of the constitutionality of the checkpoint.

N.C. Court of Appeals rulings are controlling interpretations of state law that the state’s trial courts are obligated to follow unless overruled by the N.C. Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court.

The cases are State v. McLamb (06-1319) and State v. Haislip (06-1488).

Michael Lowrey is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.