Recent North Carolina Case on Lack of Reasonable Suspicion to Make Vehicle Stop

Although reasonable suspicion requires less evidence than probable cause and often is not a difficult standard for an officer to satisfy to make an investigative stop, the standard requires an articulation of facts that is more than a mere hunch or suspicion. An example of the latter is last week’s North Carolina Court of Appeals opinion in State v. Watson (November 15, 2016), which ruled that an officer lacked reasonable suspicion to make a vehicle stop for illegal drugs. This post discusses the reasonable suspicion standard as applied in this case.

State v. Watson. The defendant was convicted of several drug offenses. He argued on appeal that the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s suppression motion, which contended that an officer did not have reasonable suspicion to stop his vehicle. The court of appeals reversed the trial court.

Officers received a tip from a confidential informant concerning “suspicious” packages that the defendant had received from a local UPS store. The informant was an employee of a UPS store who had been trained to detect narcotics. He had notified law enforcement on prior occasions about packages later found to contain illegal drugs, and these tips were successfully used to secure a number of felony drug convictions.

Concerning this case, the informant advised law enforcement that a man, later identified as the defendant, had arrived at the UPS store in a truck with another person and retrieved four packages with a Utah return address, when in fact the packages had been sent from Arizona. After receiving this tip, officers arrived at the store, saw the defendant drive away, and initiated a vehicle stop. During the stop they conducted a canine sniff, which led to the discovery of drugs inside the packages.

The court said that the officers acted reasonably in relying on the informant’s tip to conclude the defendant had retrieved packages with Arizona shipping addresses that were in fact shipped from Utah. The court noted that this fact may legitimately be considered in determining reasonable suspicion. However, there was nothing illegal about the mailing, and there were many innocent explanations why it may have occurred (e.g., a Utah resident could have sent them while vacationing in Arizona). The court, citing United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1 (1989), recognized that innocent factors, when considered together, may establish reasonable suspicion. However, the court said that it was unaware of any case when a court has found reasonable suspicion based solely on a suspicious return address. Rather, additional factors have existed in other cases upholding vehicle stops. The court set out these factors in its opinion, which included: (1) size and shape of mailing; (2) package taped to seal all openings; (3) handwritten mailing label; (4) fictitious return address; (5) unusual odors from package; (6) city of origin being a common drug source; and (7) repeated mailings from same sender and addresses. The court then ruled that reasonable suspicion did not exist to support the vehicle stop.

Comment. The court’s ruling is clearly supported by prior case law. There was no articulation by the informant why the packages were “suspicious” other than they were mailed from Arizona with a Utah return address. Perhaps the informant had additional information, but it either was not communicated to the officers or produced at the suppression hearing. Or, just as likely, the informant did not have any additional information.

Resource. For a textual discussion of the reasonable suspicion standard, see pages 27-41 of Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina (4th ed. 2011), and pages 9-10 of its 2015 supplement. For case summaries in the same publications, see pages 90-121 of the book and pages 17-25 of the supplement. A fifth edition of the book, which replaces the fourth edition and its 2015 supplement, will be available in December 2016.