State v. Woolard, 208PA22, ___ N.C. ___ (Dec. 15, 2023)

In this Beaufort County case, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the State’s appeal of a district court order suppressing evidence gathered during a DWI traffic stop. The Supreme Court found that the arresting officer had probable cause to arrest defendant and reversed the suppression order, remanding for further proceedings. 

In April of 2020, a State Highway Patrol officer stopped defendant after observing him weaving across the centerline. The officer noticed defendant smelled of alcohol and had glassy eyes, and defendant admitted to having a couple of beers earlier in the day. Afte administering a preliminary breath test (PBT) and horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test, the officer arrested defendant for DWI. When the matter came to district court, defendant moved to suppress the results of the stop. The trial court found that the officer did not have probable cause to suspect defendant of DWI before his arrest, and also that the officer failed to ensure defendant had nothing in his mouth before the PBT, excluding the results. After the trial court’s preliminary ruling, the State challenged the determination in superior court under G.S. 20-38.7(a), but that court affirmed the trial court’s determination and directed it to enter a final order. The Court of Appeals denied the State’s petition for a writ of certiorari. 

Taking up the State’s petition, the Supreme Court first established its jurisdiction and the lack of other appeal routes, explaining that the final suppression order from district court was interlocutory, and the statute governing appeals from district court, G.S. 15A-1432, provided no other route for the State to appeal because there was no dismissal or motion for new trial. Since there was no vehicle for appeal and the State “would otherwise be marooned in an ‘interlocutory no-man’s land,’” Rule of Appellate Procedure 21 allowed the State to petition the Court for certiorari. Slip Op. at 8. This also meant that the Court was considering the district court’s final order, as there was no Court of Appeals opinion on the matter. 

Moving to the suppression order, the Court explained the applicable standard for probable cause in DWI arrests, and noted the extensive facts in the record supporting the officer’s suspicion of defendant, including “erratic weaving; the smell of alcohol on his breath and in his truck; his red, glassy eyes; his admission to drinking; and his performance on the HGN test.” Id. at 23.  Based on the totality of the evidence, the Court concluded that “a reasonable officer would find a ‘substantial basis’ to arrest in this case,” and defendant’s arrest did not offend the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 22.