State v. Bullock, 370 N.C. 256 (Nov. 3, 2017)

On an appeal from a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 785 S.E.2d 746 (2016), the court reversed, concluding that the stop at issue was not unduly prolonged. An officer puller over the defendant for several traffic violations. During the traffic stop that ensued, officers discovered heroin inside a bag in the car. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the search was unduly prolonged under Rodriguez. The trial court denied the motion and the Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the stop had been unduly prolonged. The Supreme Court reversed. After initiating the stop, the officer asked the defendant, the vehicle’s sole occupant, for his license and registration. The defendant’s hand trembled as he provided his license. Although the car was a rental vehicle, the defendant was not listed as a driver on the rental agreement. The officer noticed that the defendant had two cell phones, a fact he associated, based on experience, with those transporting drugs. The defendant was stopped on I-85, a major drug trafficking thoroughfare. When the officer asked the defendant where he was going, the defendant said he was going to his girlfriend’s house on Century Oaks Drive and that he had missed his exit. The officer knew however that the defendant was well past the exit for that location, having passed three exits that would have taken him there. The defendant said that he recently moved to North Carolina. The officer asked the defendant to step out of the vehicle and sit in the patrol car, telling him that he would receive a warning, not a ticket. At this point the officer frisked the defendant, finding $372 in cash. The defendant sat in the patrol car while the officer ran the defendant’s information through law enforcement databases, and the two continued to talk. The defendant gave contradictory statements about his girlfriend. Although the defendant made eye contact with the officer when answering certain questions, he looked away when asked about his girlfriend and where he was traveling. The database checks revealed that the defendant was issued a driver’s license in 2000 and that he had a criminal history in North Carolina starting in 2001, facts contradicting his earlier claim to have just moved to the state. The officer asked the defendant for permission to search the vehicle. The defendant agreed to let the officer search the vehicle but declined to allow a search of a bag and two hoodies. When the officer found the bag and hoodies in the trunk, the defendant quickly objected that the bag was not his, contradicting his earlier statement, and said he did not want it searched. The officer put the bag on the ground and a police dog alerted to it. Officers opened the bag and found a large amount of heroin. The defendant did not challenge the validity of the initial stop. The court began by noting during a lawful stop, an officer can ask the driver to exit the vehicle. Next, it held that the frisk was lawful for two reasons. First, frisking the defendant before putting them in the patrol car enhanced the officer safety. And second, where, as here, the frisk lasted only 8-9 seconds it did not measurably prolong stop so as to require reasonable suspicion. The court went on to find that asking the defendant to sit in the patrol car did not unlawfully extend the stop. The officer was required to check three databases before the stop could be finished and it was not prolonged by having the defendant in the patrol car while this was done. This action took a few minutes to complete and while it was being done, the officer was free to talk with the defendant “at least up until the moment that all three database checks had been completed.” The court went on to conclude that the conversation the two had while the database checks were running provided reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop. It noted that I-85 is a major drug trafficking corridor, the defendant was nervous and had two cell phones, the rental car was in someone else’s name, the defendant gave an illogical account of where he was going, and cash was discovered during the frisk. All of this provided reasonable suspicion of drug activity that justified prolonging the stop shortly after the defendant entered the patrol car. There, as he continued his conversation with the officer, he gave inconsistent statements about his girlfriend and the database check revealed that the defendant had not been truthful about a recent move to North Carolina. This, combined with the defendant’s broken eye contact, allowed the officer to extend the stop for purposes of the dog sniff.