State v. Steele, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-148 (Apr. 20, 2021)

An East Carolina University police officer was responding to a traffic accident call at 2:50 a.m. in Pitt County. He noticed a vehicle on the road and followed it, suspecting it had been involved in the accident. The officer testified that the vehicle did not have its rear lights on. There were no other cars on the road at the time. The vehicle pulled into a parking lot and circled around to exit. The officer entered the parking lot and pulled alongside the defendant’s car as it was exiting the lot. The officer gestured with his hand for the other vehicle to stop but did not activate his blue lights or siren and did not obstruct the defendant’s path. The defendant’s vehicle stopped, and the officer engaged the driver in conversation. He quickly suspected the driver was impaired and ultimately arrested the defendant for impaired driving. The defendant moved to suppress. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the defendant was not seized and that the encounter was voluntary. The defendant pled guilty, reserving his right to appeal the denial of the suppression motion. A majority of the Court of Appeals reversed.

The trial court made a finding of fact that the officer’s intention was to conduct a voluntary encounter. While the officer did so testify, this finding did not resolve the conflict between the State’s evidence that the encounter was voluntary and consensual and the defendant’s evidence that the encounter amounted to a traffic stop. “[W]hen there is a material conflict in the evidence regarding a certain issue, it is improper for the trial court to make findings which ‘do not resolve conflicts in the evidence but are merely statements of what a particular witness said.’” Steele Slip op. at 8-9. This finding therefore failed to support the trial court’s conclusions of law. Additionally, the defendant challenged two other findings of fact relating to the defendant’s rear lights. According to the defendant, the officer’s testimony about the rear lights was plainly contradicted by the officer’s dash cam video. The Court of Appeals, though “inclined to agree” with the defendant, found that these findings were not relevant to the issue at hand:

The issue of whether Defendant’s taillights were illuminated is irrelevant because the trial court’s ruling did not turn on whether [the officer] had reasonable suspicion to pull over Defendant for a traffic stop. Instead . . .  the dispositive issue is whether this encounter qualified as a traffic stop at all (as opposed to a voluntary encounter which did not implicate the Fourth Amendment). Id. at 11-12.

The state argued that the defendant was not stopped and that the encounter was consensual. A seizure occurs when an officer uses physical force with intent to seize a suspect or when a suspect submits to an officer’s show of authority. See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). An officer’s show of authority amounts to a seizure when a reasonable person would not feel free to terminate the encounter and leave. The court noted that this case was unusual, as most seizure cases involve pedestrian stops. The trial court (and the dissent) erred by relying on pedestrian stop cases to find that no seizure occurred. Unlike when an officer approaches a person or parked car on foot, this case involved the officer following the defendant with each party in moving vehicles and the officer gesturing for the defendant to stop. According to the court:

There is an important legal distinction between an officer who tails and waves down a moving vehicle in his patrol car; and an officer who walks up to a stationary vehicle on foot. In the latter scenario, the officer has taken no actions to impede the movement of the defendant—whereas in the former scenario, the officer’s show of authority has obligated the defendant to halt the movement of his vehicle in order to converse with the officer. Steele Slip op. at 18.

Given the criminal penalties for failure to follow traffic control commands and resisting a public officer, a reasonable driver would likely feel obligated to stop an officer gesturing for the driver to stop. “[W]hen a person would likely face criminal charges for failing to comply with an officer’s ‘request,’ then that person has been seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, § 20 of our state Constitution.” Id. at 20. Further, the trial court failed to properly weigh the time and location of the encounter. Given the late hour and deserted parking lot, the environment was more “intimidating” than a public, daytime encounter, and a reasonable person would be “more susceptible to police pressure” in these circumstances. Id. at 21. Finally, the trial court also failed to properly weigh the effect of the officer’s hand gestures. The “authoritative” gestures by the uniformed officer in a marked patrol car (and presumably armed) supported the defendant’s argument that he was seized. Had the officer not been in a marked police vehicle, it was unlikely that a reasonable person would have voluntarily stopped under these circumstances. The majority of the court therefore agreed that the defendant was seized and reversed the denial of the suppression motion. The matter was remanded for the trial court to determine whether the seizure was supported by reasonable suspicion.

Judge Hampson dissented and would have affirmed the trial court’s order.