State v. Johnson, 370 N.C. 32 (Aug. 18, 2017)

The Supreme Court reversed the decision below, State v. James Johnson, ___ N.C. App. ___, 784 S.E.2d 633 (April 5, 2016), which had held that because a police officer lacked reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop in this DWI case, the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. The defendant was stopped at a red light on a snowy evening. When the light turned green, the officer saw the defendant’s truck abruptly accelerate, turn sharply left, and fishtail. The officer pulled the defendant over for driving at an unsafe speed given the road conditions. The Supreme Court held that the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle. It noted that G.S. 20-141(a) provides that “[n]o person shall drive a vehicle on a highway or in a public vehicular area at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions then existing.” The Court concluded:

All of these facts show that it was reasonable for [the] Officer . . . to believe that defendant’s truck had fishtailed, and that defendant had lost control of his truck, because of defendant’s abrupt acceleration while turning in the snow. It is common knowledge that drivers must drive more slowly when it is snowing, because it is easier to lose control of a vehicle on snowy roads than on clear ones. And any time that a driver loses control of his vehicle, he is in danger of damaging that vehicle or other vehicles, and of injuring himself or others. So, under the totality of these circumstances, it was reasonable for [the] Officer . . . to believe that defendant had violated [G.S.] 20-141(a) by driving too quickly given the conditions of the road.

The Court further noted that no actual traffic violation need have occurred for a stop to occur. It clarified: “To meet the reasonable suspicion standard, it is enough for the officer to reasonably believe that a driver has violated the law.”