By Popular Demand

Once in a while, someone requests a post on a particular topic. Today’s post is in response to such a request — which, as I understand it, is not based on any particular pending case. It involves the following scenario: an officer who works in a college town sees a young person walking out of a grocery store with a case of beer. What can the officer do to investigate what she suspects is an underage purchase of alcohol?

If the buyer looks young enough, the officer can simply arrest him for a violation of G.S. 18B-302, which makes it illegal for a person under 21 to purchase beer. In the child pornography context, among others, courts have recognized that in appropriate circumstances, probable cause regarding a person’s age can be based on the person’s appearance. So if our hypothetical beer buyer is a Doogie Howser type, plainly far under 21, the officer can arrest him and then undertake whatever additional investigation is necessary to determine his age.

Presumably, though, it isn’t very often that an officer sees a ten-year-old leaving Harris Teeter with a case of Coors Light. More often, the beer buyer will be college-aged, and although the officer may suspect that he’s under 21, the officer won’t have probable cause based on the buyer’s appearance alone. More likely, the officer will have reasonable suspicion based on the buyer’s appearance, so one option is for the officer to conduct a Terry stop to investigate the possible underage purchase. Sometimes a stop and a few questions will resolve the matter: the buyer may admit to being under 21, or may be willing to produce identification that can confirm his age, or, more likely, that will be an obvious product of someone’s dorm-room inkjet printer and a Kinko’s laminating machine.

Suppose that the buyer is a tougher nut to crack, though, and claims (1) that he is old enough to buy the beer, and (2) that he isn’t required to produce any identification. The officer’s immediate options are limited. The buyer is right that he isn’t required to produce identification. But wait, you say, wasn’t there a Supreme Court case to the contrary a few years ago? No. In Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial Dist. Court of Nev., 542 U.S. 177 (2004), the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Nevada law that required people stopped by police to identify themselves. However, North Carolina has no similar stop-and-identify statute, and Hiibel did not create a free-standing requirement that detained persons identify themselves. So although the officer may be able to detain the beer buyer for a few minutes while attempting to verify his age — for example, by asking the store clerk who sold him the beer about the transaction — if the officer can’t make any progress within a reasonable time, the officer likely must let the buyer go.

A clever officer, though, will take a slightly different approach. Rather than stop the buyer as he leaves the store, the officer will wait until the buyer enters his car and begins to drive away. Then the officer will then conduct a Terry stop. But because it is a vehicular stop, the officer can compel the buyer to produce his license under G.S. 20-29. Of course, this won’t work if the buyer walked to the store, or if the buyer got a ride from a friend, but most of the time, it will enable the officer to check the buyer’s identification. 

I’d be interested to hear about how these stops happen in the real world. My guess is that most college students, confronted by a uniformed officer shortly after making an underage purchase, will voluntarily produce their identification upon request, but maybe undergraduates are a tougher bunch than I think they are.

8 thoughts on “By Popular Demand”

  1. Since college students often buy in bulk, violations of 18B-304 are a favorite of mine. Anyone transporting over a certain amount or in kegs is required to produce a permit “on request” of any LEO. An officer in my agency seized 804 cans of beer from a 19YO this way. Of course, most of us LEOs really don’t bother enforcing underage drinking laws unless the person is causing a problem; we were once young and thirsty too.

  2. I noticed the author’s comment of “A clever officer, though, will take a slightly different approach …” … But to let our imaginary student get into his vehicle, drive off, and then get stopped with a “Terry stop” — well, in that scenario, the imaginary student may get himself an imaginary lawyer, and then the officer will have to be able to prove “articulable reasonable suspicion” for the “Terry stop” of the vehicle, or end up dealing with a verdict in civil court for damages for “unlawful detention” at the least …. So, even though this thread is
    kinda forgotten, I came onto it after viewing a recent youtube video titled “1st Amendment Audit Winston-Salem Police Dept.” I have surfed a bit to discover the citizen did not have to show his ID there in N Carolina since there is no “Stop and Identify” statute in N. Carolina which would allow the U.S. Supreme Court case ruling of Hibel to apply. And certainly the citizen did not have to volunteer where he worked, only to have his job threatened by this “officer” … So I am curious if (a) anyone knows if the imaginary scenario in the above article would work in N. Carolina for “reasonable suspicion” if the person buying the beer just “looked” underage …and (b) if anyone can fathom what law this 28-year police person felt he was enforcing by going nutso on the citizen for 22 minutes, when the citizen seems to be completely within the law of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on filming police of Nov. 2012.
    Thanks …

    • A: Yes, if the person buying beer looked young enough for a reasonable person to believe he was under 21, it would work for “reasonable suspicion.”

      B: Simply put… Stalking.

      • If he had reasonable suspicion, he could confront him coming out of the store. Stopping him after letting him drive away requires the same, so a clever college student might ascertain why he was stopped and file a complaint.

        Stalking, no. Read the statutes, although I appreciate your response, as it prompted me to look it up.

  3. Can you show me the law that states a person traveling in his vehicle and not conducting business has to have a drivers liscence in reference to:
    Case #1 chicago motor coach v. Chicago ,169 NE 221
    Case#2 thompson v. Smith 154 SE 579
    Case#3 kent v. Dulles 357 us 116,125
    Case#4 schactman v. Dulles 96 app dc 287 , 225

    • They don’t. It’s post like these from so called Attorneys who are officers of the very system that mis-applies statues and codes. It’s all about commerce. So when you are approached by what is called a public servant you better understand that you the natural living man or woman is on the private side. The public is the po po the attorneys, the courts who are all private for profit corporations. They are the Public side. So don’t be fooled into thinking that when you hear the statement you are here to protect the public tha they are talking about we the people. The public they serve is commerce.

  4. How do you square this with State v. Friend, 237 N.C. App. 490 which makes no reference to N.C.G.S. 20-29 as the justification for requesting the suspect to provide their name?


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