A Bright Line Rule for Traffic Stops

A couple of recent court of appeals opinions emphasize a bright-line rule in cases involving traffic stops. An officer who observes a driver commit a traffic violation may stop the driver to address that violation, even when the violation is minor and the officer has elected to respond to the observed violation because she suspects that other unsubstantiated criminal activity may be afoot.

State v. Sutton, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d. ___ (June 5, 2018). In Sutton, an officer with the Jackson County sheriff’s office who was patrolling an area known for drug activity stopped the defendant’s truck after seeing its driver’s side tires cross over the double yellow lines in the center of a curvy, two-lane road by one inch. After the officer stopped the truck, he recognized that the defendant was a person for whom he had been advised to be on the lookout. Earlier that day, an SBI agent told the officer to watch for a vehicle driven by the defendant that was bringing large quantities of methamphetamine to a supplier off of the road where the defendant was stopped. During the stop, the officer developed reasonable suspicion to believe that the defendant had methamphetamine in the truck. He summoned an officer with a canine, methamphetamine was recovered from the truck, and the defendant was indicted for trafficking in methamphetamine.

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence gathered during the traffic stop, arguing in part that it was not supported by reasonable suspicion. The trial court determined that the stop was lawful because the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the truck for failing to drive on the right half of a two-lane roadway that was of sufficient width, a violation of G.S. 20-146(a). The court of appeals agreed, stating that though the rules for determining whether a driver could be stopped for weaving are “hazy at best. . . . there is a ‘bright line’ rule in some traffic stop cases.” Slip op. at 3. In Sutton, the court identified that bright line as the double yellow line down the center of the road. The court explained that “[w]here a vehicle actually crosses over the double yellow lines in the center of a road, even once, and even without endangering any other drivers, the driver has committed a traffic violation of [G.S. 20-146] . . . . and the officer may stop the driver without violating his constitutional rights.” Id.

State v. Jones, ___ N.C. App. ___, 813 S.E.2d 668 (April 3, 2018). In Jones, a highway patrol trooper stopped the defendant after seeing his black Chevrolet truck drive slightly left of center in a curve. It was dark, but the trooper could tell that the truck drove left of center because it was driving in the opposite direction from the trooper and one of its headlights was in the trooper’s lane of travel. The trooper had just received notice from dispatch that a caller reported that a black Chevrolet truck was traveling on that road in the direction the defendant was traveling at “‘a careless/reckless high speed.’” Slip op. at 2. Right after the trooper passed the truck, it pulled off on the right hand shoulder of the road. The trooper then turned his vehicle around, activated his blue lights, and stopped the defendant, who subsequently was arrested for driving while impaired.

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence resulting from the stop and the trial court denied the defendant’s motion, concluding that the stop was supported by reasonable suspicion. The defendant appealed, arguing that the anonymous call to dispatch did not provide the trooper with reasonable suspicion for the stop. The appellate court rejected the defendant’s argument, finding that the trooper’s “direct observations provided reasonable suspicion for the vehicle stop” since the “Defendant’s act of crossing the double yellow centerline clearly constituted a traffic violation.” Slip op. at 10. The Jones court identified the violation in that case as falling under G.S. 20-150(d), which prohibits a driver from driving to the left side of a visible centerline of a highway on the crest of a grade or on a curve.

That’s the rule, but not everyone likes it. I wrote earlier this year about Justice Ginsburg’s suggestion in her concurrence in District of Columbia v. Wesby, ___ U.S. ___, 138 S.Ct. 577 (2018), that it might be time for the court to re-examine Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996). Whren is the case that removes an officer’s subjective motivations for taking action from the Fourth Amendment analysis. If the officers have probable cause to believe a driver has violated a traffic law, they may stop the driver, regardless of whether they are motivated to make the stop by other as-yet unfounded suspicions. Despite that suggestion and notwithstanding other criticism of Whren (recounted here), it remains the law and North Carolina’s appellate courts continue to apply a bright line rule that sanctions stops based on observed traffic violations.