Status of North Carolina Court of Appeals Cases Before the North Carolina Supreme Court on the Scope of a Traffic Stop under Rodriguez v. United States

In Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), the United States Supreme Court significantly limited the scope of a traffic stop. It is almost exactly two years since the ruling, and appellate court opinions throughout the country are still proliferating. And so have our faculty’s blog posts: Jeff Welty has written relevant posts here, here, here, here, and here, Alyson Grine here and here, Shea Denning here, Phil Dixon here, and my posts are here, here, and here. This post summarizes Rodriguez and three North Carolina Court of Appeals rulings that are currently before the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Rodriguez v. United States. The officer in Rodriguez completed a traffic stop for driving on the shoulder of a highway after checking the vehicle registration and driver’s licenses of the driver and passenger, conducting a warrant check, returning all documents, and by issuing the driver a warning ticket. The officer then asked the driver for consent to walk his drug dog around the vehicle, but the driver refused to give his consent. Nonetheless, the officer told the driver to turn off the ignition, leave the vehicle, and wait for a second officer. When the second officer arrived, the first officer walked his drug dog around the car, and the dog alerted to the presence of drugs. A search of the vehicle revealed methamphetamine. Seven to eight minutes had elapsed from the time the officer issued the written warning until the dog’s alert.

The Court recognized that during a traffic stop, in addition to determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, an officer’s mission includes ordinary inquiries incident to the stop, such as

  • checking a driver’s license,
  • inspecting a vehicle’s registration and insurance, and
  • determining whether there are outstanding warrants.

The Court said that these checks serve the same objective as enforcement of traffic laws, ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly. However, it noted that an officer must act reasonably in completing these authorized checks—that is, an officer cannot deliberately or unreasonably delay the checks to allow time, for example, so a drug dog can arrive at the scene.

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 clearly indicated, however, that if a dog sniff or other non-traffic-related activity does not add any time to the stop (in this case, it added seven to eight 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) (traffic stop was not unconstitutionally extended because dog sniff was conducted by one officer while another officer was still executing the traffic stop).

The text of the Rodriguez summary, set out above, appears on pages 48-49 of Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina (5th ed. 2016), less the footnotes, which you can read there.

North Carolina cases. Two significant Rodriguez cases are pending for decision in the North Carolina Supreme Court because there were dissenting opinions in the court of appeals in both cases and for which the State exercised its right to appeal to the state supreme court. One case is State v. Reed, ___ N.C. App. ___, 791 S.E.2d 486 (Sept. 20, 2016) (officer did not have reasonable suspicion to detain the defendant after the tasks related to the traffic stop were or reasonably should have been concluded). Oral argument was held yesterday, April 10 will be held later this year. The other case is State v. Bullock, ___ N.C. App. ___, 785 S.E.2d 746 (May 10, 2016) (officer unconstitutionally prolonged the detention during a traffic stop by causing the defendant to be subjected to a frisk, to sit in the officer’s vehicle, and to answer questions while the officer searched law enforcement databases for reasons unrelated to the mission of the traffic stop and for reasons exceeding the routine checks authorized by Rodriguez, and reasonable suspicion did not exist to prolong the traffic stop). Oral argument will likely be held later this year. was held yesterday, April 10.

Another significant case is State v. Miller, ___ N.C. App. ___, 795 S.E.2d 374 (Dec. 20, 2016), in which the court unanimously ruled based on Rodriguez that an officer unconstitutionally extended a traffic stop by beginning an investigation about weapons and drugs when there was neither reasonable suspicion nor consent to extend the stop. The state supreme court has allowed the State’s motion for a temporary stay of this ruling, and the State’s petition for discretionary review is pending. So there is the possibility of further proceedings in this case.

The state supreme court’s disposition of these three cases (and other cases pending before the court that I may have overlooked) may give additional guidance to judges, attorneys, and officers about Rodriguez issues.


2 thoughts on “Status of North Carolina Court of Appeals Cases Before the North Carolina Supreme Court on the Scope of a Traffic Stop under Rodriguez v. United States”

  1. if we don’t have some restraint on police power we will end up with airport police who drag people off planes. except they’ll be dragging you out of your car.

  2. I think it is fair to state that these recent state and federal cases are an attempt to address and limit the subjective motivations of law enforcement to use a minor traffic violation as a “pretext” to conduct criminal investigations based on perceived stereotypes for criminal activities. It would be interesting to know the number of “Christmas Tree” air fresheners, one of the facts relied on by LEO, sold throughout the country, the market areas, and the retailers. The company has been around for almost 60 years.

    Bob, hope you are and the rest of the crowd at IOG are doing well.


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