State v. Cabbagestalk, ___ N.C. App. ___, 820 S.E.2d 5 (Jun. 18, 2019)

In this driving while impaired case, the officer observed the defendant sitting on a porch and drinking a tall beer at approximately 9:00pm. The defendant was known to the officer as someone he had previously stopped for driving while license revoked and an open container offense. Around 11:00pm, the officer encountered the defendant at a gas station, where she paid for another beer and returned to her car. The officer did not observe any signs of impairment while observing her at the store and did not speak to her. When the defendant drove away from the store, the officer followed her and saw her driving “normally”—she did not speed or drive too slow, she did not weave or swerve, she did not drink the beer, and otherwise conformed to all rules of the road. After two or three blocks, the officer stopped the car. He testified the stop was based on having seen her drinking beer earlier in the evening, then purchase more beer at the store later and drive away. The trial court denied the motion to suppress and the defendant was convicted at trial. The court of appeals unanimously reversed. The court noted that a traffic violation is not always necessary for reasonable suspicion to stop (collecting sample cases), but observed that “when the basis for an officer’s suspicion connects only tenuously with the criminal behavior suspected, if at all, courts have not found the requisite reasonable suspicion.” Here, the officer had no information that the defendant was impaired and did not observe any traffic violations. The court also rejected the State’s argument that the defendant’s past criminal history for driving while license revoked and open container supplemented the officer’s suspicions: “Prior charges alone, however, do not provide the requisite reasonable suspicion and these particular priors are too attenuated from the facts of the current controversy to aid the State’s argument.” Despite the lack of objection at trial, the court found the trial court’s finding of reasonable suspicion to be an error which had a probable impact on the jury’s verdict, reversing the denial of the motion and vacating the conviction under plain error review.