State v. Cobb, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec. 31, 2020)

The defendant was charged with driving while impaired after being stopped at a checkpoint on Highway 27 in Harnett County.  She moved to suppress the evidence on the basis that the checkpoint violated her Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion, and the defendant pled guilty preserving her right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. She then appealed.

The Court of Appeals, over a dissent, determined that the trial court did not adequately weigh the factors necessary to judge the reasonableness and hence, the constitutionality, of the checkpoint.  Those factors are: (1) the gravity of the public concern served by the seizure; (2) the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest; and (3) the severity of the interference with individual liberty. If, on balance, these factors weigh in favor of the public interest, the checkpoint is reasonable and therefore constitutional.

As for the first factor, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court failed to make findings that assessed the importance of this particular checkpoint stop to the public. While the trial court made ample findings, in the Court’s view, that the checkpoint’s primary purpose (detecting violations of the state’s motor vehicle laws) was lawful, those findings did not substitute for findings that the checkpoint furthered the public concern.

As for the second factor, the Court of Appeals noted that while the trial court made pertinent findings regarding the location of the checkpoint, the time it occurred and its duration, it failed to consider other relevant factors such as whether it “was set up on a whim,” had a predetermined start and end time, why the time was chosen, and why its location was chosen (beyond the finding that it was a major thoroughfare that was heavily traveled at times).

The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court thoroughly considered the final factor; nevertheless, the deficiencies related to the findings on the first two factors prevented it from meaningfully applying the three-prong test. 

Finally, the appellate court declined to consider whether the trial court erred in concluding that the checkpoint complied with statutory requirements as that issue was not preserved for review.

Judge Stroud dissented from the majority’s resolution of the constitutional issue, expressing her view that the trial court made findings of fact sufficient to permit appellate review and that it correctly addressed the three prongs of the balancing test. The dissent would have held that the trial court’s findings supported the conclusion that the checkpoint was reasonable.