State v. Dalton, 274 N.C. App. 48 (Oct. 20, 2020)

A police officer stopped the defendant for suspected texting while driving. When the officer returned to his vehicle to check on the defendant’s identity, the defendant fled. (1) Before his trial on charges of texting while driving and felony fleeing to elude, the defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the stop. At the suppression hearing, the officer testified that he did not stop the defendant for merely using the phone, but rather for using it in a manner that he reasonably believed ran afoul of G.S. 20-137.4A(a), North Carolina’s prohibition on texting and emailing while driving. The officer testified that the defendant was using and handling the phone in a manner more consistent with texting or reading text messages than with using a mapping system. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion and the defendant was convicted of felonious fleeing to elude. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court committed plain error by concluding that the officer was justified in stopping his car solely based on his observation that the operator was using a cell phone while driving. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that under the specific facts of this case, which included additional indicia of criminal activity beyond mere phone use, the trial court did not err by finding that the officer had reasonable, articulable suspicion to believe that the defendant was using the phone in a manner proscribed by law. The Court emphasized that its holding should not be viewed as establishing a test for meeting the reasonable suspicion requirement in other texting while driving cases. (2) The Court remanded the case for the defendant to be sentenced at prior record level two instead of level three, as his prior record level worksheet improperly counted a point for a prior misdemeanor. The Court rejected the State’s argument that the improperly counted point could be offset by adding for the first time an additional point under G.S. 15A-1340-14(b)(7) for the defendant being on probation at the time of the offense, as the State did not comply with the statutory notice procedures for that point.