The Right to Life, Liberty, and Fifteen Additional Days to Renew Your Registration

Before I became a lawyer, I finished everything ahead of time. Term paper? Completed two weeks early. Trip? Packed a week in advance. Taxes? Filed in February. Alas, those days are nearly two decades behind me. Now I squeak in just under the wire with everything I do—including my weekly blog posts. I could proffer a host of reasons, but don’t think I need to so long as I meet the deadline. My modus operandi may explain why I was particularly troubled by the traffic stop in State v. Baskins, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 17, 2016).

Facts. An undercover Greensboro narcotics detective was monitoring the activities of passengers who disembarked from a bus early in the morning of October 6, 2014, when the actions of one passenger caught his attention. The passenger and his companion got off of the bus and walked into a nearby convenience store. The passenger came back out of the store a couple of minutes later, walked backwards towards the detective’s unmarked car, looked into the car, shooed the detective away, and walked back into the store. A burgundy Buick then pulled into the parking lot. The bus passenger got into the passenger seat of the Buick and his companion got into the right rear seat. The Buick then left the parking lot. The detective entered the Buick’s license plate into his mobile computer terminal, which accessed information from the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The detective, who suspected the pair of drug trafficking activity, subsequently radioed other officers to report that the Buick’s registration was expired and that it “had an inspection violation.”

Another detective received the alert and independently typed the license plate information into his computer. The report from DMV showed that the Buick’s license plate was issued on 9/26/2013, that its status was “EXPIRED,” and that the plate was “VALID THRU: 10152014.” The DMV report contained no information about the status of the car’s inspection. Based on this information, the detective stopped the vehicle and told the driver, Sandy Baskins, that he had been stopped for an expired registration and inspection violation. Baskins consented to a search of the car. A drug-trained dog alerted to the front and rear passenger seats. All three passengers were searched, and officers found heroin inside the pants of the rear seat passenger.

Procedure. The driver, Sandy Baskins, was indicted for trafficking in heroin. He filed a motion to suppress evidence resulting from the traffic stop. The trial court denied the motion. Baskins was convicted at trial and appealed.

Court of Appeals. Baskins challenged the trial court’s findings of fact that the registration and inspection for the Buick had expired. With respect to the registration, the court of appeals cited the rule in G.S. 20-66(g) that permits operation of a vehicle until midnight on the fifteenth day of the month following the month in which the sticker expires

Thus, the court concluded that “[a]s far as the registration was concerned, Defendant was operating the Buick lawfully, and Detective O’Hal was provided confirmation of this fact in the information he requested and received from DMV.” (Slip op. at 7-8).

As for the inspection, the court noted that the DMV screen the officers examined did not contain information about the vehicle’s inspection. Thus, the record did not contain substantial evidence that the Buick was being operated with an expired inspection status.  (Unfortunately for procrastinators like me, there is no fifteen day grace period to obtain a vehicle inspection. See G.S. 20-183.4C(a)(6).)

The appellate court thus overruled the objected-to findings of fact.

But the appellate court did not reverse Baskins’ conviction. Instead, the court of appeals determined that the trial court had not made a proper conclusion of law when it found that “[t]he temporary detention of a motorist upon probable cause to believe he has violated a traffic law (such as operating a vehicle with expired registration and inspection) is not inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment . . . . O’Hal was justified in stopping Defendant[s’] vehicle.”

The court of appeals explained that while this conclusion “intimates that Detective O’Hal was justified in initiating the stop based upon either the alleged registration violations or the alleged inspection violation . . . it does not actually make any such conclusion.” (Slip Op. at 12.)

Thus, the court remanded for “further action consistent with this opinion, including making additional findings of fact and conclusions of law as necessary.” (Slip Op. at 13.) The appellate court stated that the trial court had discretion to take additional evidence “in order to comply with this holding.” Id. (citing State v. Gabriel, 192 N.C. App. 517 (2008) (vacating order denying motion to suppress and remanding for additional evidence where trial court failed to enter a written suppression order containing findings of fact or conclusions of law)).

Down to the wire. I thought everyone knew that a vehicle could not be stopped for an expired NC registration during the fifteen-day grace period following expiration. Now that the court of appeals has cleared up any doubt about that issue, NC motorists can continue to drive halfway through the month that follows the expiration of their vehicles’ registrations without worry of being stopped for a violation of G.S. 20-66. It remains to be seen, however, whether the application of this rule will result in a new trial for Sandy Baskins.