State v. Reed, 373 N.C. 498 (Feb. 28, 2020)

In this drug trafficking case arising out of a traffic stop, the court affirmed the conclusion of the Court of Appeals that the law enforcement officer who arrested the defendant violated the Fourth amendment by prolonging the stop without the defendant’s consent or a reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity.  Highway Patrol Trooper Lamm, a member of the Patrol’s Criminal Interdiction Unit who was assigned to aggressively enforce traffic laws while being on the lookout for other criminal activity including drug interdiction and drug activity, clocked the black male defendant’s vehicle by radar being operated at a speed of 78 miles per hour in a 65 mile-per-hour zone.  Lamm initiated a traffic stop and observed at its outset that there was a black female passenger and a female pit bull dog inside the vehicle.  The defendant provided Lamm with his New York driver’s license and the rental agreement for the vehicle, which indicated that the female passenger, Usha Peart who also was the defendant’s fiancée, was the renter and that the defendant was an additional authorized driver.  Trooper Lamm ordered the defendant out of the vehicle, which Lamm characterized as displaying “signs of . . . hard [continuous] driving,” and into the front seat of Lamm’s patrol car, where he further ordered the defendant to close the door of the patrol car, which the defendant did after expressing some reluctance.  Trooper Lamm did not consider the defendant to be free to leave at this point and began to question the defendant about his travel and other activities.  Upon confirming that things were sufficiently in order regarding the rental car, Lamm completed the traffic stop and returned all paperwork to the defendant, telling him that the stop was concluded.  About 20 minutes had elapsed at this point.  After telling the defendant that the stop had ended, Lamm said “I’m going to ask you a few more questions if it is okay with you,” and construed the defendant’s continued presence in his patrol car as voluntary.  Lamm testified that despite informing the defendant that the stop had ended, defendant would still have been detained, even if he denied consent to search the vehicle and wanted to leave.  Lamm asked the defendant for consent to search the vehicle, to which he replied “you could break the car down,” but further explained that Lamm should seek consent from Peart since she had rented the car.  Lamm told the defendant to “sit tight” in the patrol vehicle as Lamm went to confer with Peart.  At this time, Trooper Ellerbe, also a member of the Criminal Interdiction Unit, arrived at the scene in response to Lamm’s request for backup where he was informed by Lamm that Lamm was going to attempt to obtain consent to search from Peat.  Ellerbe then stationed himself next to Lamm’s passenger seat where the defendant remained seated with the door closed.  Lamm proceeded to talk with Peart and obtained her signature on the State Highway Patrol form “Written Consent to Search,” which he had completed himself.  Lamm then discovered cocaine in the backseat area of the vehicle and directed Ellerbe to place the defendant in handcuffs.

With this recitation of the factual circumstances surrounding the stop and search, the court proceeded to analyze, under the two-pronged analysis of Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), (1) whether the stop was reasonable at its inception, and (2) whether the continued stop was “sufficiently limited in scope and duration to satisfy the conditions of an investigative seizure.”  Focusing on the second prong of the analysis because the defendant conceded that the stop was lawful at is inception, the court cited its previous decision in State v. Bullock, 370 N.C. 256 (2017) while explaining that “the duration of a traffic stop must be limited to the length of time that is reasonably necessary to accomplish the mission of the stop,” and that a law enforcement officer may not detain a person “even momentarily without reasonable, objective grounds for doing so.”  The critical question on this second prong in the traffic stop context is whether Trooper Lamm “diligently pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel [his] suspicions quickly, during which time it was necessary to detain the defendant” or whether Lamm unlawfully extended an otherwise-completed stop.  Reviewing its own precedent and that of the U.S. Supreme Court, the court explained that all of Trooper Lamm’s investigative activities until the point where Lamm returned the defendant’s paperwork, issued the warning ticket, and told the defendant that the stop had ended were lawful.  At that point, however, the mission of the stop was accomplished and Lamm unlawfully prolonged it by detaining the defendant in his patrol car and asking the defendant further questions without reasonable suspicion.  As to whether reasonable suspicion existed to prolong the stop, the court found that inconsistencies in Lamm’s testimony demonstrated that he was unable to articulate an objective basis for his purported reasonable suspicion and was unable to articulate the time at which he formulated such suspicion.  The court disagreed with dissenting justices who took the view that the defendant’s nervousness, his explanation of travel plans, the condition of the rental car, and the fact that it had been paid for in cash provided reasonable suspicion, saying that these circumstances were generally consistent with lawful travel and were unremarkable.  The court concluded by agreeing with the Court of Appeals that the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the defendant’s unlawful detention.

Justice Newby dissented, explaining that in his view, and as the trial court had found, the defendant consented to the prolonging of the stop in order to allow Trooper Lamm to ask him a few more questions.

Justice Davis, joined by Justices Newby and Ervin, also dissented, expressing the view that even is the defendant’s consent to search was not voluntary, Trooper Lamm possessed reasonable suspicion to extend the stop.  In finding that reasonable suspicion existed, Justice Davis noted the defendant and his passenger’s inconsistent statements regarding their travel plans, certain features of the rental car agreement, the fact that the car had been paid for in cash, and the condition of the interior of the car, including that dog food was strewn about and that air fresheners were present.