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.