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State v. Bullock

Supreme Court of North Carolina

November 3, 2017

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
MICHAEL ANTONIO BULLOCK

          Heard in the Supreme Court on 10 April 2017.

         Appeal 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.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Derrick C. Mertz, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State-appellant.

          Glenn Gerding, Appellate Defender, by Jon H. Hunt and Michele Goldman, Assistant Appellate Defenders, for defendant-appellee.

          MARTIN, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         Officer 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 reverse.

         After 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.

         The 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.

         In 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.

         The 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)).

         When 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).

         In 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 Virginia.

         Officer 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.

         While 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 ...


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