2/21/2014North Carolina Appeals Court Upholds Traffic Stop Without An Offense
North Carolina court adopts for the first time the right of police to pull over a car by claiming concern.
For the first time, police in North Carolina are allowed to turn on their lights and siren to pull over any motorist, even when they have done nothing wrong. In a ruling last month, the North Carolina Court of Appeals for the first time in the state created a "community caretaking" exception to the Fourth Amendment. It was used to convict Audra Lindsey Smathers.
On May 27, 2010, Smathers had been driving her red Corvette down Highway 280 when Transylvania Sheriff's Deputy Brian Kreigsman pulled in behind her. She was driving at the 45 MPH speed limit, and the deputy noted nothing suspicious or illegal. Suddenly, a large dog ran in front of the Corvette. She hit the dog, which caused the car to bounce.
The deputy turned on his blue lights to pull her over to see if she was "okay." She eventually stopped, and when the deputy came up to the window, Smathers was crying, upset that she had hit a dog. The deputy smelled alcohol, so he had Smathers perform sobriety tests, which she failed. A breath test estimated her blood alcohol concentration at 0.18, and she was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI).
Smathers challenged her conviction, arguing the initial traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment because she was seized even though the deputy had no reason to believe that she had done anything wrong. Prosecutors conceded that there was no reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity before the stop, but they insisted that seizing her was legitimate in the circumstances. The problem for the prosecution was the state has never recognized a "community caretaking" exception for anything other than the impounding of abandoned vehicles. The three-judge panel reviewed the response of other states to this issue.
"As these courts have demonstrated, there are countless situations where government intrusion into individual privacy for the purposes of rendering aid is reasonable, regardless of whether criminal activity is afoot," Judge Robert C. Hunter wrote for the court. "We find the analysis utilized by these courts persuasive, and we can identify no reason why the community caretaking exception should not apply in North Carolina... Thus, we now formally recognize the community caretaking exception as a means of establishing the reasonableness of a search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment."
The appellate judges balanced the interest in having police officers lend assistance was greater than the right of individuals to be free from government intrusion. An officer need only claim concern to effect a seizure without warrant or cause, even if that concern is merely a pretext to stop and investigate on a hunch.
"However, we agree with the proposition espoused by many courts that this exception should be applied narrowly and carefully to mitigate the risk of abuse," Judge Hunter wrote.
The appellate panel upheld the conviction. A copy of the decision is available in a PDF file at the source link below.