State v. Wiles, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Mar. 17, 2020)

While parked on the side of the road, a trooper saw a truck pass by and believed that the passenger was not wearing a seat belt. After the trooper stopped the truck and approached the passenger side, he realized that passenger was wearing his seat belt, but the gray belt had not been visible against the passenger’s gray shirt. The passenger stated that he was wearing his seat belt the whole time, and the trooper did not cite him for a seat belt infraction.

However, upon approaching the window, the trooper had also immediately noticed an odor of alcohol coming from the vehicle. The trooper asked the passenger and the driver (the defendant) if they had been drinking, and both men said yes. The trooper asked the men to step out of the truck, and saw that the defendant’s eyes were red, glassy, and bloodshot. After further investigation, the trooper determined the defendant was impaired and charged him with DWI. The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing there was no reasonable suspicion to support the initial or extended vehicle stop. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the trooper had a mistaken but lawful basis for the initial stop, and he developed reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity that warranted an extension of the stop. The defendant proceeded to trial, was convicted of DWI, and appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the findings and rulings denying the suppression motion. First, the trial court’s findings of fact were adequately supported by the trooper’s testimony. Second, even though the trooper’s initial belief that the passenger was not wearing a seat belt turned out to be mistaken, it was nevertheless objectively reasonable (“failing to see a gray seat belt atop a gray shirt is one a reasonable officer could make”) and the extension of the stop was permissible based on the trooper “instantaneously” smelling an odor of alcohol coming from the vehicle, raising a reasonable suspicion of DWI. Defendant’s related constitutional arguments concerning the extension of the stop and probable cause to arrest were not properly raised at the trial level, so they were dismissed on appeal. As to defendant’s remaining arguments regarding his trial (denial of motion to dismiss at close of evidence, allowing a “positive” PBT reading into evidence, and qualifying the trooper as an expert in HGN), the appellate court likewise found no error.