State v. Ezzell, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-182 (May. 4, 2021)

The defendant was convicted of driving while impaired and appealed. He argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress evidence gathered following his arrest on the basis that his arrest was not supported by probable cause. The Court of Appeals found no error.

(1) The Highway Patrol trooper who arrested the defendant testified about his training in the administration of the horizontal gaze nystagmus test (HGN) for the detection of impairment and the interpretation of the results on the test.  He testified about performing the HGN test on the defendant and his observation of all six indications of impairment.

The defendant argued on appeal that the rules of evidence applied to the suppression hearing and the trial court erred by permitting the trooper to testify as an expert witness on HGN because he was not qualified under Rule 702. The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument, citing Rules 104(a) and 1101(b)(1), which explicitly state that the evidence rules do not apply to the determination of preliminary questions concerning the admissibility of evidence—the very issues presented in a hearing on a motion to suppress. The Court further held that the trooper’s testimony regarding the HGN test was relevant to the determination of probable cause and the trial court did not abuse its discretion by considering this evidence.

(2) The defendant argued that several findings of fact were not supported by the evidence.  The Court rejected the defendant’s argument, as to all but one objected-to finding. The trial court’s finding that the trooper noted a strong odor of alcohol on the defendant’s person was supported by the trooper’s testimony and the affidavit and revocation report he prepared. The finding that the defendant “deceptively denied” consuming alcohol was supported by the trooper’s testimony that the defendant denied having anything to drink as contrasted with the evidence that the defendant had consumed alcohol. The finding that the alcosensor was in proper working order and properly calibrated was supported by the trooper’s testimony. The finding that the trooper formed an opinion that the defendant was appreciably impaired was supported by the trooper’s testimony that the defendant was impaired; the trooper’s omission of the modifier “appreciably” was “a mere slip of the tongue.” (Slip op at ¶ 19.)  And the trial court’s findings regarding the HGN test were supported by competent evidence.

The Court did not find evidentiary support for the finding that no other field tests were performed as a result of potential dangers from traffic.

The Court determined that the findings supported the trial court’s conclusion that the trooper had probable cause to arrest the defendant. Specifically, the Court pointed to the strong odor of alcohol, the positive alcosensor tests, and the HGN test revealing all six indications of impairment.