State v. Royster, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-595 (Nov. 2, 2021)

In this Forsyth County case, the defendant was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon, several drug crimes including trafficking opium or heroin by possession, possession of a weapon on school property, and attaining the status of habitual felon after an investigatory stop on school grounds stemming from an anonymous tip. The police received a detailed anonymous report saying that a black male named Joseph Royster who went by the nickname “Gooney” had heroin and a gun in the armrest of his black Chevrolet Impala with a specific license plate number, that he was wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans, had gold teeth and a gold necklace, and that he was parked near South Fork Elementary School. An experienced officer who received the tip searched a police database that showed a person by that name as a black male with gold teeth and a history of drug and weapon charges. Officers went to the named elementary school, saw a vehicle with the specified license plate number matching the description in the tip in the parking lot, and eventually saw a person matching the description in the tip return to the vehicle. When that person quickly exited the vehicle, reached back into it and turned it off, began to walk away from officers and reached for his waistband, officers frisked him for weapons and detained him for a narcotics investigation. The defendant moved to suppress, arguing that officers did not have reasonable articulable suspicion for the stop. The trial court denied the motion and the defendant pled guilty.

On appeal of the denial of the motion to suppress, the defendant argued that the anonymous call did not demonstrate sufficient reliability. The Court of Appeals noted that the anonymous call itself merely provided identifying information, and there was nothing inherent in the tip itself that would give officers reasonable suspicion to make the stop. The Court rejected the State’s argument, based on Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393 (2014), that the caller’s use of a phone to make the tip sufficiently bolstered its reliability, because there was no evidence as to whether the caller used 911 or a non-emergency number or otherwise preserved her anonymity. The Court was likewise unpersuaded that the caller’s use of the defendant’s nickname showed a level of familiarity with the defendant that made the call sufficiently reliable in its assertion of illegality. Thus, the anonymous call itself was insufficient to provide officers with reasonable articulable suspicion.

Looking at the totality of the circumstances, however, the Court concluded that officers did have reasonable articulable suspicion. The defendant’s actions in exiting the vehicle, reaching back into it, walking away from officers, and reaching for his waistband demonstrated evasive behavior that went beyond merely walking away from officers and supported a finding of reasonable suspicion for the stop. Additionally, the caller’s allegation that the defendant was in possession of a firearm, coupled with his presence on school grounds and his prior criminal record obtained through the police database gave officers reasonable suspicion that he was in possession of a firearm, and that he was thus violating the criminal statute prohibiting the possession of a firearm on school property. As a result, the stop was deemed proper, and the Court concluded that the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress.