Myers McNeill and What Happens When Reasonable Suspicion Dissipates

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Last week, the court of appeals ruled that during a traffic stop, an officer may require a driver to produce his or her license and may run computer checks on it — even when the reasonable suspicion that initially supported the traffic stop has been dispelled before the officer asks for the license. This issue comes up regularly and has divided courts in other jurisdictions, so I thought it worth discussing here.

The case in question is State v. Myers McNeil.

Facts. Raleigh officers were running computer checks on the license plates of passing vehicles. When they determined that the registered owner of one passing car was a man with a suspended license, they pulled the car over to determine whether the owner was driving unlawfully. An officer approached the vehicle and noticed immediately that the driver was a woman. She did not roll her window down at first, instead fumbling with her wallet. When the officer knocked on the window and asked her to roll it down, she opened it about two inches. He asked her for her license, and she said that she had one, but kept going through her wallet without producing one. At that point, the officer smelled the odor of alcohol coming from the vehicle, and also noticed that the driver was slurring her words slightly. The officer then began a DWI investigation that culminated in the defendant’s arrest.

Procedural history. The defendant was convicted in district court and appealed to superior court. She moved to suppress all the evidence obtained at the traffic stop, arguing that the officer “was required to cease his investigation once he saw that the driver of the vehicle was . . . a woman [because] the sole ‘purpose for the stop [was] to address a male driver with a revoked license.’” The superior court judge denied the motion. The defendant was convicted and appealed to the appellate division.

Court of appeals opinion. Judge Zachary wrote the majority opinion, which made two main points:

  • First, just because the driver appeared to be a female did not rule out the possibility that the driver was actually the male registered owner: “Not all men wear stereotypical ‘male’ hairstyles nor do they all wear ‘male’ clothing. . . . Until [the officer] had seen Defendant’s driver’s license, he had not confirmed that the person driving the car was female and not its owner.”
  • Second, every traffic stop may include certain routine inquiries. Relying on Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. __ (2015), and several state cases interpreting it, the majority stated: “[T]he time needed to complete an officer’s mission will always include time for . . . ordinary inquiries incident to the traffic stop . . . [such as] checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance. Regardless of an officer’s precise reason for initially stopping a vehicle, database searches of driver’s licenses, warrants, vehicle registrations, and proof of insurance all fall within the mission of a traffic stop.” (Internal quotation marks and citations omitted.)

Judge Murphy dissented on procedural grounds, arguing for reasons not pertinent here that the court of appeals lacked jurisdiction over the matter.

Analysis. In this prior blog post, I discussed the exact fact pattern at issue in Myers McNeil and noted that most courts have held that an officer is required to depart immediately once reasonable suspicion is dispelled, perhaps after explaining the officer’s mistake to the driver. Several additional courts in other jurisdictions have ruled on the issue since I wrote that post, with mixed results. Compare, e.g., State v. Coleman, 890 N.W.2d 284 (Iowa 2017) (on facts virtually identical to Myers McNeil, exhaustively collecting state and federal precedents and ruling that “when the reason for a traffic stop is resolved and there is no other basis for reasonable suspicion, [the state constitution] requires that the driver must be allowed to go his or her way without further ado”), with, e.g., State v. Smith, 905 N.W.2d 353 (Wisc. 2018) (again on facts virtually identical to Myers McNeil, concluding that “when an officer conducts a valid traffic stop, part of that stop includes checking identification, even if the reasonable suspicion that formed the basis for the stop in the first place has dissipated”). Given the split of authority, this seems to me to be an issue worth preserving and pursuing. The state supreme court, or even the Supreme Court of the United States, might be willing to take it up.

6 comments on “Myers McNeill and What Happens When Reasonable Suspicion Dissipates

  1. […] of Appeals decided a case on point after this post was written. For a discussion of that case, see this blog […]

  2. Under even the most stringent views of the topic, I think Myer’s arrest was inevitable. Say the officer noticed the driver was a woman and decided to conclude the traffic stop. It defies reason to expect the officer would just turn heel and walk back to his car. As noted in the article, an explanation of the mistake would be in order. Putting yourself in the driver’s shoes, can you imagine being pulled over, having the officer come up to your window and then before any interaction, going back to his car and driving away? Imagine being the officer who would rightly suppose he or she might receive a complaint for “stopping cars for no reason.”

    So then it becomes a sort of an inevitable discovery case: she cracks the window to have a conversation, the officer smells alcohol. The original reason for the stop become moot as new circumstances have presented themselves.

  3. I know the caselaw is squarely against what I am about to say, but I’ll say it anyway: it is not reasonable to stop a car just because the owner of the car has a revoked drivers’ license. There is typically no indication that it is the revoked-license-owner of the car driving rather than someone else. The stop is an unreasonable seizure. Just because precedent is binding doesn’t mean it is correct.

    • reasonable suspicion noun
      Legal Definition of reasonable suspicion
      : an objectively justifiable suspicion that is based on specific facts or circumstances and that justifies stopping and sometimes searching (as by frisking) a person thought to be involved in criminal activity at the time
      — see also REASONABLE CAUSE at CAUSE sense 2
      — compare PROBABLE CAUSE at CAUSE sense 2, TERRY STOP
      NOTE: A police officer stopping a person must be able to point to specific facts or circumstances even though the level of suspicion need not rise to that of the belief that is supported by probable cause. A reasonable suspicion is more than a hunch.

      It’s not just case, read the very definition (Merriam Webster), and it’s common sense. A read out from the DMV states the owner of the vehicle is suspended and a male is driving the car, then you have more than a hunch, any reasonable peson would conclude that the person driving is likely the owner of the vehicle. It is the duty of the police officer to investigate further. In the case listed above, the officer got an impaired person off the street. If the officer hadn’t done their job that person could have driven off and crashed into somebody killing them. If that had happened, the officer would/could be at fault for not ensuring the driver of said vehicle was licensed to drive. Not to mention there were other indicators that were present to justify the officer to continue looking into the female driving.

    • As a 16 year veteran of LE, I concur. Officers should reasonably believe the registered owner is driving the vehicle if using the fact that the registered owner is not appropriately licensed as reasonable suspicion. If the registration indicates a white male is the registered owner, then the officer should see the driver appears to be a white male before initiating the stop. It’s just good procedure; and good policing.

  4. What’s reasonable is that the R/O has, since they can’t drive it, lent their car to someone who can. I see (lacking facts) no reason for a police officer to think otherwise. Does this mean whenever we barrow a car from someone we need to validate that persons driving record and we could be stopped every ten miles if an officer suspects the registered owner has somehow snuck into the drivers’ seat. What is the purpose of the DMV printout to associate the vehicle with a specific crime? In which case why not put a scarlet letter on the hood and trunk (doesn’t that line ring a bell)? If I had rented the car for 6-12 months during the R/O suspension would it not infringe upon my freedom to be continuously stopped based upon a DMV printout and a hunch? In this particular instance I do not find case law to agree. If the R/O had never driven their own car with a suspended license but some other would it be fair to assume they would be driving a car registered to them now? It could also be said, stopping a vehicle because it is registered to someone guilty of a crime and for all intent and purposes that person is abiding by the ruling of the court is harassment. Detaining an innocent and law-abiding motorist whose only crime was unfortunate enough to be driving a “guilty” vehicle is profiling. If the officer firmly believed they recognized the driver regardless of wig, dress or number of arms then and only then is there probable cause. Seriously, the officer’s were just setting and running vehicle license plates through a computer without a specific focus is not consistent with the intent of the system. What’s next a facial recognition camera at every stop sign?

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