The Court of Appeals recently decided State v. Bullock, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (May 10, 2016). The Court held the officer unreasonably extended a traffic stop, and reasonable suspicion did not support extending the stop. The Court further held that because the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the stop, whether the defendant may have subsequently consented to a search is irrelevant as consent obtained during an unlawful extension of a stop is not voluntary.
In Bullock, the officer stopped the Defendant for speeding and following too closely. The Court noted “the mission of the stop was to issue a traffic infraction warning ticket to defendant for speeding and following a truck too closely.” The Court further stated the stop “could … last only as long as necessary to complete that mission and certain permissible unrelated ‘checks,' including checking defendant's driver's license, determining whether there were outstanding warrants against defendant, and inspecting the automobile's registration and proof of insurance.”
So, the officer completed the purpose of the stop when he issued the warning citation. An officer is allowed to conduct permissible checks of a motorist's license, registration, etc. However, the officer is not allowed to prolong the stop, absent reasonable suspicion to otherwise justify detaining the motorist. I believe this is a common problem with officers, and it's unfortunately hard to stop absent internal Police practices against such. In Bullock, the officer made the Defendant exit his vehicle, subjected the Defendant to a search of his person, and required the Defendant to sit in his patrol vehicle while the officer conducted a search of various databases. The officer further questioned the Defendant regarding subjects unrelated to the two traffic matters.
The Court focused its analysis on the extension of the traffic stop. The Court again followed Rodriguez. The Court held all of these actions by the officer were completely improper. Therefore, the Court held there was no reasonable suspicion to extend the stop.
In the past, we have unfortunately seen our higher Courts issue opinions that seemed tailored to achieve outcomes favorable to the State. In the recent weeks, we have seen a couple common-sense opinions that are more consistent with well-established Constitutional principles. This is a nice trend that will hopefully continue.