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State v. Ellis

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

August 6, 2019

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
SHAWN PATRICK ELLIS, Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 27 March 2019.

          Appeal by Defendant from judgment entered 13 March 2018 by Judge Karen Eady-Williams in Stanly County No. 17CRS700160 Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General, Kimberly N. Callahan, for the State.

          Appellate Defender Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate Defender Michele A. Goldman, for the Defendant.

          DILLON, JUDGE.

         Defendant Shawn Patrick Ellis appeals the trial court's judgment entered upon his guilty plea to resisting, delaying, and/or obstructing a public officer during a stop. Defendant contends that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence. After careful review, we find no error.

         I. Background

         This case arises from Defendant's failure to provide identification to a trooper during a traffic stop. The trooper had initiated the stop after witnessing Defendant, a passenger in a vehicle traveling on a public highway, wave and then extend his middle finger in the trooper's general direction. Defendant moved to have evidence obtained during the stop suppressed, contending that the stop was illegal or was illegally prolonged. Based on the trooper's testimony, which was the only evidence offered at the suppression hearing, the trial court orally denied Defendant's motion. Defendant then pleaded guilty to resisting, delaying, and/or obstructing a public officer during a stop. Defendant appeals.

         II. Standard of Review

         Typically, we review the denial of a motion to suppress to determine "whether competent evidence supports the trial court's findings of fact and whether the findings of fact support the conclusions of law." State v. Jackson, 368 N.C. 75, 78, 772 S.E.2d 847, 849 (2015). However, in this case, the trial court did not enter any written findings or conclusions. Rather, following testimony from the trooper and arguments from the parties, the trial court orally denied Defendant's motion to suppress, stating as follows:

Based on a review of the evidence, the Court does find reasonable suspicion for the stop. In addition, based on the totality of the evidence the Court does find probable cause for the arrest.

         Our Supreme Court has held that the lack of specific findings in an order is not fatal to our ability to conduct an appellate review if the underlying facts are not in dispute. State v. Nicholson, ___ N.C. ___, ___, 813 S.E.2d 840, 843 (2018) (stating that "when the facts are not disputed and the trial court did not make specific findings of fact either orally or in writing, we infer the findings from the trial court's decision and conduct a de novo assessment of whether those findings support the ultimate legal conclusion reached by the trial court"). And at the suppression hearing in this matter, there was no conflict in the evidence, as the only evidence was the trooper's testimony. Therefore, we infer the factual findings based on the trooper's testimony. See Nicholson, ___ N.C. at ___, 813 S.E.2d at 843 ("[W]e consider whether the inferred findings arising from the uncontested evidence presented by [the officer] at the suppression hearing support the trial court's conclusion that reasonable suspicion existed to justify defendant's seizure.").[1]

         Also, the lack of written conclusions of law is not fatal to meaningful appellate review, as we review a trial court's conclusions of law de novo anyway. See State v. McNeill, 371 N.C. 198, 220, 813 S.E.2d 797, 813 (2018) ("We review conclusions of law de novo."). That is, the lack of written conclusions does not inhibit our ability to determine whether the findings inferred from the trooper's testimony support a conclusion that the stop was illegal or was illegally prolonged.

         III. Motion to Suppress

         The trial court orally concluded that the trooper had reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop and, therefore, denied Defendant's motion.

         The trial court's inferred findings based on the trooper's testimony tend to show the following:

         The trooper was assisting a stalled motorist on the side of U.S. Highway 52 in Albemarle County. While assisting the motorist, the trooper noticed a group of passing vehicles, including an SUV. The trooper observed Defendant stick his arm out of the passenger window of the SUV and make a hand-waving gesture in the trooper's general direction. The trooper then observed Defendant change the gesture to an up-and-down pumping motion with his middle finger extended. The trooper was unsure at whom Defendant was gesturing. In any event, the trooper returned to his patrol car, pursued the SUV, and pulled the SUV over.

         The trooper approached the SUV and observed Defendant and his wife, who was in the driver's seat, take out their cell phones to record the traffic stop. The trooper knocked on Defendant's window, whereupon Defendant partially rolled it down. The trooper asked Defendant and his wife for their identification. Defendant and his wife, however, asked the trooper why they had been stopped and stated that the trooper had no right to stop them. Eventually, Defendant's wife gave the trooper her license, but Defendant refused to comply.

         The trooper requested that Defendant step out of the vehicle, and Defendant eventually stepped out onto the side of the road. The trooper then handcuffed Defendant and placed him into his patrol car. While in the patrol car, Defendant gave the officer his name. The trooper ran warrants checks and obtained no results for Defendant nor his wife. The trooper then issued Defendant a citation for resisting, delaying, and obstructing an officer and allowed Defendant and his wife to leave.

         We conclude that the trooper had reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. We note Defendant's contention that the trooper's stop was unreasonable from the outset because it is not a crime for one to raise his middle finger at a trooper, as such conduct is simply an exercise of free speech protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.[2] U.S. Const. amend. I ("[The legislature] shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech[.]"). Indeed, there are a number of decisions from courts across the country where it was held that one cannot be held criminally liable for simply raising his middle finger at an officer.[3]

         But the issue here is not whether Defendant's conduct as witnessed by the trooper - Defendant displaying a middle finger - constitutes a crime. Indeed, Defendant was not charged for any crime based on that particular conduct.

         Rather, the issue is whether the trooper had reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. See State v. Barnard, 362 N.C. 244, 246-47, 658 S.E.2d 643, 645 (2008) (stating that an officer may initiate a stop based on ...


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