State v. Duncan, 2023-NCCOA-5, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jan. 17, 2023)

In this Catawba County case, the state appealed an order granting defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained after his arrest. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, determining that officers had reasonable suspicion to stop defendant and probable cause to arrest him and conduct a search.

In 2018, officers were surveilling a residence where drug-related activity was allegedly occurring, and they had been informed a black male with dreadlocks frequented the location. Defendant drove into the driveway of the residence to drop off a passenger and then depart; the officers observed his license plate. After accessing database information related to the license plate, officers determined defendant was driving with a medically cancelled license and pulled him over. Defendant was arrested for driving with a revoked license; during the arrest, officers searched defendant and found baggies containing methamphetamine hidden in his hair. Before trial, defendant moved to suppress the results of the search. The trial court granted his motion, finding that officers did not have reasonable suspicion to stop defendant based only upon the tip about a male with dreadlocks, and defendant’s offense was no operator’s license under G.S. 20-29.1, which did not constitute probable cause for arrest. Slip Op. at 4.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court’s analysis, finding that officers did not need reasonable suspicion to investigate a license plate as Fourth Amendment protections do not apply where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Id. at 6-7. Once officers determined defendant had a medically cancelled license, they had reasonable suspicion based upon the traffic violation, not upon the original tip. Id. at 8-9. The court also examined the nature of defendant’s offense, exploring whether his medically cancelled license led to an infraction (which would not support the arrest/search), or a misdemeanor (which would support the arrest/search). Looking to G.S. 20-35(a), the court found that the offense was a Class 2 misdemeanor, and none of the enumerated exceptions applied to defendant’s situation. Id. at 15.