State v. Nicholson, 371 N.C. 284 (Jun. 8, 2018)

On appeal from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 805 S.E.2d 348 (2017), the court reversed, holding that an officer’s decision to briefly detain the defendant for questioning was supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. While on patrol at 4 AM, Lieutenant Marotz noticed a car parked in a turn lane of the street, with its headlights on but no turn signal blinking. Marotz saw two men inside the vehicle, one in the driver’s seat and the other—later identified as the defendant—in the seat directly behind the driver. The windows were down despite rain and low temperatures. As Marotz pulled alongside of the vehicle, he saw the defendant pull down a hood or toboggan style mask with holes in the eyes, but then push the item back up when he saw the officer. Martoz asked the two whether everything was okay and they responded that it was. The driver said that the man in the back was his brother and they had been arguing. The driver said the argument was over and everything was okay. Sensing that something was not right, the officer again asked if they were okay, and they nodded that they were. Then the driver moved his hand near his neck, “scratching or doing something with his hand,” but Marotz was not sure how to interpret the gesture. Still feeling that something was amiss, Marotz drove to a nearby gas station to observe the situation. After the car remained immobile in the turn lane for another half minute, Marotz got out of his vehicle and started on foot towards the car. The defendant stepped out of the vehicle and the driver began to edge the car forward. Marotz asked the driver what he was doing and the driver said he was late and had to get to work. The officer again asked whether everything was okay and the men said that everything was fine. However, although the driver responded “yes” to the officer’s question, he shook his head “no.” This prompted the officer to further question the defendant. The driver insisted he just had to get to work and the officer told him to go. After the driver left, the defendant asked the officer if he could walk to a nearby store. The officer responded, “[H]ang tight for me just a second . . . you don’t have any weapons on you do you?” The defendant said he had a knife but a frisk by a backup officer did not reveal a weapon. After additional questioning the officers learned the defendant’s identity and told him he was free to go. Later that day the driver reported to the police that the defendant was not his brother and had been robbing him when Marotz pulled up. The defendant held a knife to the driver’s throat and demanded money. Officers later found a steak knife in the back seat of the vehicle. The defendant was charged with armed robbery and he moved to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of his seizure by Marotz. The parties agreed that the defendant was seized when Marotz told him to “hang tight.” The court found that the circumstances established a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. Although the facts might not establish reasonable suspicion when viewed in isolation, when considered in their totality they could lead a reasonable officer to suspect that he had just happened upon a robbery in progress. The court also found that the Court of Appeals placed undue weight on Marotz’s subjective interpretation of the facts (the officer’s testimony suggested that he did not believe he had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity), rather than focusing on how an objective, reasonable officer would have viewed them. The court noted that an action is reasonable under the fourth amendment regardless of the officer’s state of mind, if the circumstances viewed objectively justify the action. Here they do.