State v. Carver, 373 N.C. 453 (Feb. 28, 2020)

The court per curiam affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 828 S.E.2.d 195 (2019), which had held over a dissent that no reasonable suspicion supported a warrantless traffic stop based on an anonymous tip. 

A sheriff’s deputy received a dispatch call, originating from an anonymous tipster, just before 11 PM. The deputy was advised of a vehicle in a ditch on a specified road, possibly with a “drunk driver, someone intoxicated” and that “a truck was attempting—getting ready to pull them out.” The tip provided no description of the car, truck or driver, nor was there information regarding the caller or when the call was received. When the deputy arrived at the scene about 10 minutes later, he noticed a white Cadillac at an angle partially in someone’s driveway. The vehicle had mud on the driver’s side and the deputy opined from gouges in the road that it was the vehicle that had run off the road. However he continued driving and saw a truck traveling away from his location. He estimated that the truck was travelling approximately 15 to 20 miles below the posted 55 mph speed limit. He testified that the truck was the only one on the highway and that it was big enough to pull the car out. He did not see any chains, straps, or other devices that would indicate it had just pulled the vehicle out of the ditch. He initiated a traffic stop. His sole reason for doing so was “due to what was called out from communications.” The truck was driven by Griekspoor; the defendant was in the passenger seat. When the deputy explained to the driver that there was a report of a truck attempting to pull a vehicle out of the ditch, the driver reported that he had pulled the defendant’s car out of the ditch and was giving him a ride home. The deputy’s supervisor arrived and went to talk with the defendant. The defendant was eventually charged with impaired driving. At trial he unsuccessfully moved to suppress, was convicted and appealed. The court found that the stop was improper. As the State conceded, the anonymous tip likely fails to provide sufficient reliability to support the stop. It provided no description of either the car or the truck or how many people were involved and there is no indication when the call came in or when the anonymous tipster saw the car in the ditch with the truck attempting to pull it out. The State argued however that because nearly every aspect of the tip was corroborated by the officer there was reasonable suspicion for the stop. The court disagreed. When the deputy passed the Cadillac and came up behind the truck, he saw no equipment to indicate the truck had pulled, or was able to pull, a car out of the ditch and could not see how many people were in the truck. He testified that it was not operating in violation of the law. “He believed it was a suspicious vehicle merely because of the fact it was on the highway.” The details in the anonymous tip were insufficient to establish identifying characteristics, let alone allow the deputy to corroborate the details. The tipster merely indicated a car was in a ditch, someone was present who may be intoxicated, and a truck was preparing to pull the vehicle out of the ditch. There was no description of the car, the truck, or any individuals who may have been involved. After the deputy passed the scene and the Cadillac he noticed a truck driving under the posted speed limit. He provided no testimony to show that the truck was engaging in unsafe, reckless, or illegal driving. He was unable to ascertain if it contained a passenger. The court concluded: “At best all we have is a tip with no indicia of reliability, no corroboration, and conduct falling within the broad range of what can be described as normal driving behavior.” (quotation omitted). Under the totality of the circumstances the deputy lacked reasonable suspicion to conduct a warrantless stop of the truck.