“Here Is Your Stuff Back, Man”: When Returning a Driver’s License and Registration Doesn’t Terminate a Stop

Consider a fact pattern that takes place every day, all across the country: a police officer stops a motorist for a traffic infraction, runs the motorist’s license through a computer database and finds nothing exceptional, and returns the driver’s license and registration, perhaps along with a warning or a citation. The officer then asks the driver for consent to search the driver’s car. The driver consents and the officer finds drugs. Did the officer do anything wrong in this situation? Are the drugs subject to suppression? The answers depend on whether the traffic stop ended when the officer returned the driver’s license. As a recent case shows, that can be a complex determination.

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Asking for Consent to Search During a Traffic Stop

Suppose an officer conducts a traffic stop. During the stop, the officer gets a hunch that the driver may have drugs in the car. Can the officer ask the driver for consent to search the car? Even without reasonable suspicion? Does the time it takes to ask for consent, or the time it takes to conduct the search, unlawfully extend the stop? I’ll try to answer these important questions in this post.

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Extending Traffic Stops to Wait for Other Officers

May an officer prolong a traffic stop to wait for a second officer to come to the scene? An officer may want another officer present to provide backup, or may need assistance from an officer who speaks Spanish, is proficient at administering Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, or is a certified Drug Recognition Expert. Under Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. __ (2015), a traffic stop may last no longer than necessary to complete the “mission” of the stop — addressing the traffic violation that prompted the stop while attending to officer safety. When waiting for another officer is part of the mission of the stop is a question with which courts across the country are grappling.

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Lawful Gun Possession and Encounters with Police

During a Terry stop, an officer who has reasonable suspicion that a suspect is armed and dangerous may frisk the suspect and may confiscate any weapons that the officer finds. Does an officer have the same authority during a traffic stop? In other words, if an officer reasonably suspects that a driver is in possession of a gun, even lawfully, may the officer confiscate the gun for the duration of the stop as a safety precaution? What about during a consensual encounter between an officer and a pedestrian?

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A Bright Line Rule for Traffic Stops

A couple of recent court of appeals opinions emphasize a bright-line rule in cases involving traffic stops. An officer who observes a driver commit a traffic violation may stop the driver to address that violation, even when the violation is minor and the officer has elected to respond to the observed violation because she suspects that other unsubstantiated criminal activity may be afoot.

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Supreme Court of North Carolina: Officer Did Not Improperly Extend a Traffic Stop by Frisking a Driver and Ordering the Driver into a Patrol Car

In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015). Rodriguez held that it was improper for an officer to extend a traffic stop for several minutes in order to conduct a dog sniff of the stopped vehicle. More generally, the decision requires an officer to pursue the “mission” of a traffic stop diligently, without measurably extending the duration of the stop for investigative activity unrelated to the purpose of the stop.

Our court of appeals has issued several decisions under Rodriguez, including some in defendants’ favor. Everyone has been waiting for those cases to make their way to the state supreme court. Now one has, and it turns out that the supreme court’s understanding of Rodriguez differs considerably from the view adopted by at least some panels of the court of appeals.

The case in question is State v. Bullock, __ N.C. __, __ S.E.2d __, 2017 WL 5017435 (2017), and this post explores it further.

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New Book on Traffic Stops and Offenses

I’m pleased to announce that the School of Government has just released a new book entitled Pulled Over: The Law of Traffic Stops and Offenses in North Carolina. Shea Denning, Christopher Tyner, and I are the authors. It’s an important topic given that North Carolina officers conduct more than a million traffic stops each year and that many criminal cases, small and large, begin with a motor vehicle stop. This post provides more information about the book.

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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.

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Post-Rodriguez North Carolina Appellate Cases at a Glance

By now, most court actors are familiar with the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Rodriguez v. United States, ___ U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (April 21, 2015) (discussed in a prior post) that a law enforcement officer may not extend a traffic stop to investigate matters unrelated to the mission for the stop–that is, to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and attend to related safety concerns–unless the extension is supported by reasonable suspicion. Defense attorneys and other court actors were curious to see how North Carolina appellate courts would analyze this significant new limitation on the scope of traffic stops.

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