in the Supreme Court on 10 April 2017.
pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a
divided panel of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 785
S.E.2d 746 (2016), reversing an order denying defendant's
motion to suppress entered on 4 August 2014, and vacating
defendant's guilty plea entered on 30 July 2014 and a
judgment entered on 30 July 2014, all by Judge Orlando F.
Hudson, Jr. in Superior Court, Durham County, and remanding
the case for further proceedings.
H. Stein, Attorney General, by Derrick C. Mertz, Special
Deputy Attorney General, for the State-appellant.
Gerding, Appellate Defender, by Jon H. Hunt and Michele
Goldman, Assistant Appellate Defenders, for
MARTIN, CHIEF JUSTICE.
John McDonough pulled defendant over for several traffic
violations on I-85 in Durham. During the traffic stop that
followed, Officer McDonough and another police officer
discovered a large amount of heroin inside of a bag in the
car that defendant was driving. Before the superior court,
defendant moved to suppress all evidence derived from this
search, arguing that the search had violated the Fourth
Amendment. The trial court denied defendant's motion to
suppress, defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeals
reversed the trial court's order. State v.
Bullock, __ N.C.App. __, __, 785 S.E.2d 746, 747 (2016).
The Court of Appeals concluded that the traffic stop that led
to the discovery of the heroin had been unlawfully prolonged
under the standard that the Supreme Court of the United
States set out in Rodriguez v. United States, 575
U.S., 135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015). Bullock, __ N.C.App. at
__, __, 785 S.E.2d at 750, 752. We hold that the stop was not
unlawfully prolonged under that standard, and therefore
the superior court denied defendant's motion to suppress,
defendant pleaded guilty but specifically reserved the right
to appeal the denial of his motion. Before the Court of
Appeals, defendant raised three arguments: first, that
Officer McDonough unlawfully prolonged the traffic stop;
second, that the consent to search defendant's car that
defendant gave during the stop was not voluntary; and third,
that the superior court erred in accepting defendant's
guilty plea. In a divided opinion, the Court of Appeals
agreed with defendant's first argument, which made it
unnecessary for the court to rule on his other two arguments.
See id. at, 785 S.E.2d at 755. The State exercised
its statutory right of appeal to this Court based on the
dissenting opinion in the Court of Appeals.
Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states
that "[t]he right of the people to be secure . . .,
against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be
violated." U.S. Const. amend. IV. "A traffic stop
is a seizure 'even though the purpose of the stop is
limited and the resulting detention quite brief.' "
State v. Styles, 362 N.C. 412, 414, 665 S.E.2d 438,
439 (2008) (quoting Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S.
648, 653 (1979)). Under Rodriguez, 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,
see 575 U.S. at___, 135 S.Ct. at 1612 (quoting
Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407 (2005)),
unless reasonable suspicion of another crime arose before
that mission was completed, see id. at___, ___, 135
S.Ct. at 1614, 1615. The reasonable duration of a traffic
stop, however, includes more than just the time needed to
write a ticket. "Beyond determining whether to issue a
traffic ticket, an officer's mission includes
'ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop.'
" Id. at___, 135 S.Ct. at 1615 (alteration in
original) (quoting Caballes, 543 U.S. at 408). These
inquiries include "checking the driver's license,
determining whether there are outstanding warrants against
the driver, and inspecting the automobile's registration
and proof of insurance." Id.
addition, "an officer may need to take certain
negligibly burdensome precautions in order to complete his
mission safely." Id. at___, 135 S.Ct. at 1616.
These precautions appear to include conducting criminal
history checks, as Rodriguez favorably cited a Tenth
Circuit case that allows officers to conduct those checks to
protect officer safety. See id. (citing United
States v. Holt, 264 F.3d 1215, 1221-22 (10th Cir. 2001)
(en banc), abrogated on other grounds as recognized in
United States v. Stewart, 473 F.3d 1265, 1269
(10th Cir. 2007)); see also United States v. McRae,
81 F.3d 1528, 1536 n.6 (10th Cir. 1996) ("Considering
the tragedy of the many officers who are shot during routine
traffic stops each year, the almost simultaneous computer
check of a person's criminal record, along with his or
her license and registration, is reasonable and hardly
intrusive."), quoted in Holt, 264 F.3d at 1221.
Safety precautions taken to facilitate investigations into
crimes that are unrelated to the reasons for which a driver
has been stopped, however, are not permitted if they extend
the duration of the stop. Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at___,
135 S.Ct. at 1616. But investigations into unrelated crimes
during a traffic stop, even when conducted without reasonable
suspicion, are permitted if those investigations do not
extend the duration of the stop. See id. at___, ___,
135 S.Ct. at 1612, 1614.
reasonable suspicion standard is "a less demanding
standard than probable cause" and a "considerably
less [demanding standard] than preponderance of the
evidence." Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119,
123 (2000). In order to meet this standard, an officer simply
must "reasonably . . . conclude in light of his
experience that criminal activity may be afoot."
Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968). The officer
"must be able to point to specific and articulable
facts, " and to "rational inferences from those
facts, " that justify the search or seizure.
Id. at 21. "To determine whether reasonable
suspicion exists, courts must look at 'the totality of
the circumstances' as 'viewed from the standpoint of
an objectively reasonable police officer.' "
State v. Johnson, ___ N.C. ___, ___, 803 S.E.2d 137,
139 (2017) (citations omitted) (quoting United States v.
Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417 (1981), and Ornelas v.
United States, 517 U.S. 690, 696 (1996)).
reviewing a ruling on a motion to suppress, we analyze
whether the trial court's "underlying findings of
fact are supported by competent evidence . . . and whether
those factual findings in turn support the [trial
court's] ultimate conclusions of law." State v.
Cooke, 306 N.C. 132, 134, 291 S.E.2d 618, 619 (1982).
summary, the trial court found the facts as follows. Officer
McDonough is an experienced police officer, having served
with the Durham Police Department since 2000 and specifically
on the drug interdiction team within the special operations
division of the department since 2006. On 27 November 2012,
while monitoring I-85 South in Durham, Officer McDonough
observed a white Chrysler speeding, following a truck too
closely, and weaving briefly over the white line marking the
edge of the road. Officer McDonough pulled the Chrysler over,
then walked up to the passenger-side window and spoke to
defendant, who was the car's driver and sole occupant.
Officer McDonough asked to see defendant's driver's
license and vehicle registration. Defendant's hand
trembled when he handed his license to Officer McDonough. The
car was a rental, but defendant was not listed as an
authorized driver on the rental agreement. Officer McDonough
saw that defendant had two cell phones in the rental car,
and, in Officer McDonough's experience, people who
transport illegal drugs have multiple phones. I-85 is a major
thoroughfare for drug trafficking between Atlanta and
McDonough asked defendant where he was going. Defendant said
that he was going to his girlfriend's house on Century
Oaks Drive in Durham, and that he had missed his exit.
Officer McDonough knew that defendant was well past his exit
if defendant was going to Century Oaks Drive. Specifically,
defendant had gone past at least three exits that would have
taken him where he said he was going. Defendant said that he
had recently moved from Washington, D.C., to Henderson, North
Carolina. Officer McDonough asked defendant to step out of
the Chrysler and sit in the patrol car, and told defendant
that he would be receiving a warning, not a ticket. Behind
the Chrysler, Officer McDonough frisked defendant. The frisk
revealed a wad of cash totaling $372 in defendant's
pocket. After the frisk, defendant sat in Officer
McDonough's patrol car.
running defendant's information through various law
enforcement databases, Officer McDonough and defendant
continued to talk. Defendant gave contradictory statements
about his girlfriend, saying at one point that his girlfriend
usually visited him in Henderson but later saying that the
two of them had never met face-to-face. While talking with
Officer McDonough in the patrol car, defendant made eye
contact with the officer when answering certain questions but
looked away when asked specifically about his girlfriend and
about where he was travelling. The database checks, moreover,
revealed that defendant had been issued a North Carolina
driver's license in ...