State v. Cottrell, 234 N.C. App. 736 (Jul. 1, 2014)

The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress where the defendant was subjected to a seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, the officer continued to detain the defendant after completing the original purpose of the stop without having reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity. The officer initiated a traffic stop because of a headlights infraction and a potential noise violation. The defendant turned his headlights on before he stopped and apologized to the officer for not having his headlights on. The officer asked the defendant for his license and registration and said that if everything checked out, the defendant would soon be cleared to go. The defendant did not smell of alcohol, did not have glassy eyes, was not sweating or fidgeting, and made no contradictory statements. A check revealed that the defendant's license and registration were valid. However a criminal history check revealed that the defendant had a history of drug charges and felonies. When the officer re-approached the car, he told the defendant to keep his music down because of a noise ordinance. At this point the officer smelled a strong odor that he believed was a fragrance to cover up the smell of drugs. The officer asked the defendant about the odor, and the defendant showed him a small, clear glass bottle, stating that it was a body oil. Still holding the defendant’s license and registration, the officer asked for consent to search. The defendant declined consent but after the officer said he would call for a drug dog, the defendant agreed to the search. Contraband was found and the defendant moved to suppress. The court began by following State v. Myles, 188 N.C. App. 42, aff'd per curiam, 362 N.C. 344 (2008), and concluding that the purpose of the initial stop was concluded by the time the officer asked for consent to search. The court held that once the officer returned to the vehicle and told the defendant to keep his music down, the officer had completely addressed the original purpose for the stop. It continued:

Defendant had turned on his headlights, he had been warned about his music, his license and registration were valid, and he had no outstanding warrants. Consequently, [the officer] was then required to have "defendant's consent or 'grounds which provide a reasonable and articulable suspicion in order to justify further delay' before" asking defendant additional questions.

Next, the court held that the officer had no reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity in order to extend the stop beyond its original scope: “a strong incense-like fragrance, which the officer believes to be a ‘cover scent,’ and a known felony and drug history are not, without more, sufficient to support a finding of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” Finally, the court rejected the argument that the detention of the defendant after the original purpose had ended was proper because it equated to a “de minimis” extension for a drug dog sniff. The court declined to extend the de minimis analysis to situations where—as here—no drug dog was at the scene prior to the completion of the purpose of the stop.