12/26/2012North Carolina: Driving While Nervous is Not a Crime
North Carolina Court of Appeals does not believe cops can detect nervousness in a car passing by at 65 MPH.
The second-highest court in North Carolina last week ruled police had no business stopping a car because its occupants appeared to be driving while nervous. On April 15, 2011, a pair of Sampson County sheriff's deputies were running a speed trap on Interstate 40 when they noticed a green minivan. Corporal Bass and Pope each testified the vehicle slowed from 73 MPH to 65 MPH in the 70 MPH zone and that the driver and passenger stared straight ahead and "appeared nervous" as they passed.
The officers pulled out and caught up to the minivan. When the patrol car pulled along side, the minivan occupants did not make eye contact. The deputies claimed they saw the vehicle cross the fog line and was driving slowly, so they pulled it over for "unsafe movement." A dashcam video of the incident shows no crossing of the fog line or other evidence of unsafe driving.
Gina Canty, the driver, was given a warning. She also consented to a search that uncovered a revolver and a rifle in a suitcase belonging to the passenger, her ex-husband Nathaniel Canty. A Sampson County Superior Court judge found Nathaniel Canty guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm. On appeal, a three-judge panel began poking holes in the police account of events.
"We find it hard to believe that these officers could tell Ms. Canty and defendant were 'nervous' as they passed by the officers on the highway and as the officers momentarily rode alongside them," Judge Cheri Beasley wrote for the court.
The judges also dismissed the idea that the minivan's slowing after seeing a patrol car running a speed trap.
"The reduction in speed standing alone could be explained a number of different ways, including normal apprehension many people feel when approaching a law enforcement officer," Judge Beasley wrote. "Nervousness, failure to make eye contact with law enforcement, and a relatively small reduction in speed is 'conduct falling within the broad range of what can be described as normal driving behavior... Based on the totality of the circumstances, these officers lacked reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop that resulted in the search and seizure of the weapons in this case."
The judges declared the lawyer in this case should have filed a motion to suppress the evidence gathered during the traffic stop. Because the defense counsel was "ineffective," the three-judge panel ordered a new trial in which the motion to suppress would likely succeed.
A copy of the decision is available in a 75k PDF file at the source link below.