State v. Johnson, 378 N.C. 236 (Aug. 13, 2021)

An officer on patrol ran the license plate of the car the defendant was driving and discovered that the license plate was registered to another car. The officer initiated a traffic stop. As the officer approached the driver’s side of the car, he noticed that the defendant had raised his hands in the air. On inquiry, the defendant denied the presence of any weapons in the car. When the officer explained that the mismatched license plate served as the reason for the traffic stop, the defendant responded that he had just purchased the car in a private sale that day. The defendant produced his driver’s license, the car’s registration, and bill of sale. The officer sensed that the defendant seemed nervous and was “blading his body” as he searched for the requested documentation. Slip op. at ¶ 3.

When the officer ran the defendant’s information through the police database, he found that the defendant had been charged with multiple violent crimes and offenses related to weapons over the span of several years. When the officer returned, he asked the defendant to step out of the car with the intent of conducting a frisk of defendant’s person and a search of the vehicle. The defendant consented to be frisked for weapons, and a pat down of the defendant’s clothing revealed no weapons or other indicia of contraband. The defendant refused to grant consent to search the car, but the officer explained that he was going to conduct a limited search of car nonetheless based on the defendant’s “criminal history . . . and some other things.” Slip op. at ¶ 5. The officer found a baggie of powder cocaine and arrested the defendant.

The defendant was indicted for possession of cocaine. At trial, the defendant file a motion to suppress, which the trial court ultimately denied. The defendant agreed to plead guilty to felony possession of cocaine and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia. The defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, affirmed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress. The defendant appealed to the Supreme Court based on the dissenting opinion from the Court of Appeals.

The defendant’s first argument was that the officer did not have a reasonable suspicion that defendant was armed. In rejecting this argument, the Court noted that the officer rendered uncontroverted testimony that he conducted a late-night traffic stop of the defendant’s vehicle in a high-crime area and encountered the defendant who acted very nervous, appeared to purposely hamper the officer’s open view of the defendant’s entry into the vehicle’s center console, and possessed a criminal history which depicted a “trend in violent crime.” Slip op. at ¶ 18. The Court thus concluded that the officer’s suspicion of the defendant’s potentially armed and dangerous status was reasonable.

The defendant next argued that the Terry search of defendant’s vehicle represented an unconstitutional extension of the traffic stop. The Court rejected this argument, noting that the testimony rendered by the officer as to the actual chain of events and the observations by the officer which culminated in the Terry search did not equate to a conclusion that the officer unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop.

The defendant finally argued that the Court’s correction of the trial court’s supposed error should result in an outcome which vacates the trial court’s order and overturns defendant’s conviction. The Court concluded that the unconflicted evidence introduced by the State at the suppression hearing was sufficient for the trial court to make findings of fact and conclusions of law that the investigating officer had reasonable suspicion to conduct a Terry search of the defendant’s person and car. The Court thus left the lower court’s ruling undisturbed.

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Hudson, dissented. She wrote that the result reached by the majority is a decision inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment and fails to consider the racial dynamics underlying reasonable suspicion determinations.