State v. McNeil, ___ N.C. App. ___, 822 S.E.2d 317 (Nov. 20, 2018)

In this DWI case, an officer did not unduly prolong a traffic stop. While on patrol, officers ran a vehicle’s tag and learned that the registered owner was a male with a suspended license. An officer stopped the vehicle based on the suspicion that it was being driven without a valid license. The officer who approached the vehicle immediately saw that the defendant, a female, was in the driver’s seat and that a female passenger was next to her. Although the officer determined that the owner was not driving the vehicle, the defendant ended up charged with DWI. On appeal, the defendant argued that while the officers may have had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle, the stop became unlawful when they verified that the male owner was not driving the vehicle. The court disagreed, stating:

Defendant’s argument is based upon a basic erroneous assumption: that a police officer can discern the gender of a driver from a distance based simply upon outward appearance. Not all men wear stereotypical “male” hairstyles nor do they all wear “male” clothing. The driver’s license includes a physical description of the driver, including “sex.” Until [the] Officer . . . had seen Defendant’s driver’s license, he had not confirmed that the person driving the car was female and not its owner. While he was waiting for her to find her license, he noticed her difficulty with her wallet, the odor of alcohol, and her slurred speech.

Additionally, the time needed to complete a stop includes the time for ordinary inquiries incident to the stop, including checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the vehicle’s registration and proof of insurance. The officer’s mission upon stopping the vehicle included talking with the defendant to inform her of the basis for the stop, asking for her driver’s license, and checking that the vehicle’s registration and insurance had not expired. While the officer was pursuing these tasks, the defendant avoided rolling her window all the way down and repeatedly fumbled through cards trying to find her license. Additionally because she was mumbling and had a slight slur in her speech, the officer leaned towards the window where he smelled an odor of alcohol. This evidence gave him reasonable suspicion to believe that the defendant was intoxicated. Because he developed this reasonable suspicion while completing the original mission of the stop, no fourth amendment violation occurred.