North Carolina Supreme Court Affirms Post-Rodriguez Court of Appeals Ruling in State v. Warren

Last April, 2015, the United States Supreme Court in Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), significantly limited the scope of a traffic stop. The Court ruled that an officer may not extend a completed traffic stop for any period of time, no matter how brief, to conduct a dog sniff—absent reasonable suspicion of criminal activity (or consent). The Court rejected the government’s argument that an officer may incrementally prolong a traffic stop, which some lower courts, including North Carolina’s, had justified as a de minimis intrusion. The Court reasoned that a dog alert is not a permissible part of a traffic stop because it detects evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing, which is not part of an officer’s traffic mission. The Court, however, clearly indicated that if a dog sniff or other non-traffic-related activity does not add any time to the stop (in this case, it added 7–8 minutes), then the dog sniff or other activity is valid under the Fourth Amendment, as it previously had ruled in Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005).

My January 27, 2016, post, available here, discussed the two post-Rodriguez published North Carolina appellate cases, State v. Leak, ___ N.C. App. ___, 773 S.E.2d 340 (June 2, 2015), and State v. Warren, ___ N.C. App. ___, 775 S.E.2d 362 (August 4, 2015). As I noted in the post, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed Leak and vacated the court of appeals decision and remanded the case to the trial court to reconsider the defendant’s suppression motion in light of Rodriguez. Thus Leak is no longer a binding precedent on the Fourth Amendment issue, and whether this case reappears in the appellate courts remains to be seen.

There is an update on Warren since I prepared the post. On Friday, March 18, 2016, the North Carolina Supreme Court summarily affirmed without an opinion the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling in Warren (in which there had been a dissenting opinion, so the defendant exercised his right to appeal the ruling to the supreme court). So we now have a binding post-Rodriguez precedent for North Carolina state courts. What follows is the Warren summary that I had provided in the post.

State v. Warren. The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled in Warren that an officer had reasonable suspicion to extend a traffic stop to allow a dog sniff of a vehicle.

The defendant in Warren did not contest the validity of the traffic stop. Instead, the defendant contended that the trial court erred in ruling that the officer had reasonable suspicion to extend the scope and length of time of a routine traffic stop to allow a dog sniff outside the defendant’s vehicle. Before discussing whether reasonable suspicion existed, the court recognized that Rodriquez overturned prior rulings of lower appellate courts, including North Carolina’s (see State v. Brimmer, 187 N.C. 451 (2007), and State v. Sellars, 222 N.C. App. 245 (2012)), to the extent that they permitted a de minimus time period to prolong a traffic stop for activities unrelated to a traffic stop, such as a dog sniff.

The court noted that it was unclear whether the officer’s call for backup or waiting for backup to arrive prolonged the stop beyond what was necessary to complete the traffic stop. However, the court did not need to decide that issue, because it found that reasonable suspicion justified an extension of the traffic stop to execute a dog sniff based on the following trial court’s findings: (1) defendant was observed and stopped in an area that the officer knew to be a high crime and drug area; (2) while writing a warning citation, the officer saw that the defendant appeared to have something in his mouth that he was not chewing and that affected his speech; (3) the officer has had specific training in drug detection and during his six years of experience, he has made many drug stops and has seen suspects attempt to hide drugs in their mouths and swallow them to destroy evidence; and (4) during the officer’s conversation with the defendant, he denied being involved in drug activity “any longer.” The court stated that this case was similar to the facts in In re I.R.T., 184 N.C. App. 579 (2007), which also upheld a finding of reasonable suspicion.

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