News: CJ Exclusives

When Is A Traffic Stop Legit?

Court of Appeals rules that an officer must have more than a

Is remaining stopped eight to 10 seconds at a traffic light after it turns green but otherwise not doing anything wrong enough justification for a cop to pull a motorist over? The answer, according to a March 2 decision by the N.C. Court of Appeals, is that it is not.

On Oct. 19, 2001, Deputy J. S. Eaton of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department noticed a car that remained stopped at a traffic light some seconds after it turned green. The officer did a U-turn and came up behind the vehicle, which was moving normally by then. Deputy Eaton pulled the car over and eventually arrested the driver, Ellen Roberson, for driving while impaired.

Roberson was not, however, convicted. Superior Court Judge Mark E. Klass ordered that the results of Eaton’s stop should be suppressed, finding that the officer did not have a reasonable suspicion to justify the stop. The state, in turn, appealed Klass’s ruling.

The critical issue, the Court of Appeals noted, was whether Roberson’s delayed reaction at a traffic light gave rise to a “reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity may be afoot.” While the standard for what constitutes such a suspicion is low, the N.C. Supreme Court has ruled that it must have some objective element and be more than an “unparticularized suspicion or hunch.”

Whether a brief delay before going after a light turns green rises to the level of a reasonable suspicion had not been addressed previously by North Carolina courts. Appellate courts in Idaho, Minnesota, and New Jersey have, however, ruled on the issue. In each case, they found that a delay of about five seconds did not give rise to a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. The N.C. Court of Appeals found their reasoning persuasive.

“A motorist waiting at a traffic light can have her attention diverted for any number of reasons,” wrote Judge Wanda Bryant for the court. “Moreover, as there was no other vehicle behind defendant to redirect her attention to the green light through a quick honk of the horn, a time lapse of eight to ten seconds does not appear so unusual as to give rise to suspicion justifying a stop. When defendant did cross the intersection, there was nothing suspicious about her driving and thus no indication that she may have been under the influence of alcohol. Consequently, defendant’s driving, including the delayed reaction at the traffic light, did not give rise to a reasonable, articulable suspicion that she was driving while under the influence. ”

The case is State v. Roberson, (03-397).

Michael Lowrey is associate editor of Carolina Journal.