737 S.E.2d 351 (N.C. 2012), 380PA11, State v. Heien

Docket Nº:380PA11.
Citation:737 S.E.2d 351
Opinion Judge:NEWBY, Justice.
Party Name:STATE of North Carolina v. Nicholas Brady HEIEN.
Attorney:Roy Cooper, Attorney General, by Derrick C. Mertz, Assistant Attorney General, for the State-appellant. Michele Goldman, Raleigh, for defendant-appellee. J. Allen Jernigan, Special Deputy Attorney General, for Plaintiff-Appellant.
Judge Panel:Justice HUDSON dissenting. Chief Justice PARKER and Justice TIMMONS-GOODSON join in this dissenting opinion.
Case Date:December 14, 2012
Court:Supreme Court of North Carolina

Page 351

737 S.E.2d 351 (N.C. 2012)

STATE of North Carolina


Nicholas Brady HEIEN.

No. 380PA11.

Supreme Court of North Carolina.

December 14, 2012

Heard in the Supreme Court on 7 May 2012.

Page 352

On discretionary review pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, ___N.C.App. ___, 714 S.E.2d 827 (2011), reversing an order signed on 25 March 2010 by Judge Vance Bradford Long and vacating judgments entered on 26 May 2010 by Judge A. Moses Massey, both in Superior Court, Surry County.

Roy Cooper, Attorney General, by Derrick C. Mertz, Assistant Attorney General, for the State-appellant.

Michele Goldman, Raleigh, for defendant-appellee.

J. Allen Jernigan, Special Deputy Attorney General, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

NEWBY, Justice.

In this case we must decide whether there was reasonable suspicion for the stop that led to defendant's convictions for attempting to traffic in cocaine by transportation and possession. After reviewing the totality of the circumstances, we conclude that there was an objectively reasonable basis to suspect that illegal activity was taking place. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and remand this case to that court for additional proceedings.

On the morning of 29 April 2009, Sergeant Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriffs Department performed a routine traffic stop of a vehicle in which defendant was a passenger. Sergeant Darisse was observing traffic on Interstate 77 when he noticed a Ford Escort approach a slower moving vehicle, forcing the driver of the Escort to apply the car's brakes. When the driver engaged the brakes, Sergeant Darisse saw that the right rear brake light failed to illuminate. As a result, Sergeant Darisse decided to stop the Escort. As the Escort rolled to a stop, Sergeant Darisse noticed the right rear brake light " flickered on." Sergeant Darisse informed the driver, Maynor Javier Vasquez, that he stopped the car " for a non-functioning brake light." After a few moments of conversation Sergeant Darisse informed Vasquez that he would issue a warning citation for the brake light if Vasquez's drivers' license and registration were valid. After learning that his drivers' license and registration checked out, Sergeant Darisse returned Vasquez's documents and gave him a warning ticket for the brake light.

During the stop Sergeant Darisse apparently began to suspect that the Escort might contain contraband. During conversation Vasquez informed Sergeant Darisse that defendant and he were travelling to West Virginia. Defendant, however, offered differing information regarding their ultimate destination. He stated that the duo were headed to Kentucky to pick up a friend. Based in part on this conflicting information, Sergeant Darisse decided to ask Vasquez if he could search the vehicle. Vasquez had no objection, but explained it was defendant's Escort so Sergeant Darisse should ask defendant. Sergeant Darisse then received defendant's permission to search the vehicle.

A search of the vehicle revealed, among other things, cocaine. According to Sergeant Darisse, he found " a cellophane wrapper with a white powder residue" in the door panel on the driver's side and " burnt marijuana seeds in the ashtray." Sergeant Darisse then searched a blue duffle bag in the " back hatch" area of the Escort. In " one of the side compartments" of the bag, Sergeant Darisse located " a white plastic grocery bag" containing " a sandwich bag wrapped in a paper towel." He discovered inside " the sandwich bag ... a white powder[ed] substance ... [that] appeared to be ... cocaine." A field test of the white, powdered substance indicated that it was, in fact, cocaine. Both the driver and defendant were

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then arrested and charged with trafficking in cocaine.

Defendant sought to suppress the evidence obtained during the search of the Escort, alleging that the stop was an illegal seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Sections 19 and 20 of Article I of the North Carolina Constitution. Apparently, defendant argued that our General Statutes require a vehicle neither to have all brake lights in good working order nor to be equipped with more than one brake light, and, as a result, a traffic stop for the reason asserted here should be unconstitutional.

When the traffic stop at issue in this case occurred, Chapter 20 of our General Statutes, which addresses motor vehicles, contained several sections regulating vehicle brake lights. First, section 20-129 required that " [e]very motor vehicle ... have all originally equipped rear lamps or the equivalent in good working order, which lamps shall exhibit a red light plainly visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of 500 feet to the rear of such vehicle." N.C.G.S. § 20-129(d) (2009). That section also mandated, in language perhaps familiar when the provision was first enacted more than a half century ago, that " [n]o person shall sell or operate on the highways of the State any motor vehicle ... unless it shall be equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle. The stop lamp ... shall be actuated upon application of the service (foot) brake. The stop lamp may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps." Id. § 20-129(g) (2009). Second, section 20-129.1 provided that " [b]rake lights (and/or brake reflectors) on the rear of a motor vehicle shall have red lenses so that the light displayed is red." Id. § 20-129.1(9) (2009). Finally, section 20-183.3 also dictated that a motor vehicle safety inspection include a determination that the lights required by sections 20-129 or 20-129.1 are present and in a safe operating condition. Id. § 20-183.3(a)(2) (2009).

The trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress. The trial court found, among other things, that

Darisse observed the right brake light of the vehicle not to function as the left brake light of the vehicle came on as the subject vehicle slowed. Darisse upon making this observation, activated his blue light and instigated a stop of the subject vehicle. The subject vehicle's right brake light was not functioning at the time of the instigation of the stop by observation of the video, taken from Darisse's patrol car, which began at the time of the instigation of the stop.

Immediately prior to the vehicle coming to a complete stop on the shoulder the right brake light flickered on.

Based on its findings the trial court concluded, inter alia, that Sergeant Darisse had a " reasonable and articulable suspicion that the subject vehicle and the driver were violating the laws of this State by operating a motor vehicle without a properly functioning brake light" and " that the seizure ... was constitutionally valid."

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court's determination that all vehicular brake lights must function properly. State v. Heien, __N.C.App. __, __, 714 S.E.2d 827, 829-31 (2011). The Court of Appeals, addressing a novel issue of statutory interpretation, employed a long statutory analysis and then held that Chapter 20 requires a motor vehicle to have only one brake light. Id. at __, 714 S.E.2d at 829-31. That court explained that section 20-129 requires only " ‘ a’ " brake light. Id. at __, 714 S.E.2d at 829 (quoting N.C.G.S. § 20-129(g) (emphasis added)). The court observed that the brake light " ‘ may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps.’ " Id. at __, 714 S.E.2d at 829 (quoting N.C.G.S. § 20-129(g) (emphasis added)). Given the " use of the articles ‘ a’ and ‘ the’ before the singular" term " stop lamp," which is used to describe a brake light throughout the statutes, the Court of Appeals reasoned that subsection 20-129(g) requires only one brake light. Id. at __, 714 S.E.2d at 829. Further, the court determined that the mandate of section 20-129 that vehicles " ‘ have all originally equipped rear lamps or the equivalent in good working order’ " does not apply to brake lights because brake lights are distinct

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from rear lamps. Id. at __, 714 S.E.2d at 830 (quoting N.C.G.S. § 20-129(d)). Finally, the Court of Appeals explained that the vehicle inspection statute does not alter the number of brake lights required by section 20-129. Id. at __, 714 S.E.2d at 831.

Then, relying on its decision in State v. McLamb, 186 N.C.App. 124, 649 S.E.2d 902 (2007), disc. rev. denied, 362 N.C. 368, 663 S.E.2d 433 (2008), the Court of Appeals held that the traffic stop was unconstitutional. Heien, __N.C.App. at __, 714 S.E.2d at 829-31. The court explained that at the time of the stop " there was no violation of N.C.G.S. § 20-129(g), N.C.G.S. § 20-129(d), or N.C.G.S. § 20-183.3." Id. at __, 714 S.E.2d at 831. As a result, the court reasoned that " [b]ecause the initial stop was based upon Sergeant Darisse's observation that the right brake light of the vehicle malfunctioned, the justification for the stop was objectively unreasonable, and the stop violated [d]efendant's Fourth Amendment rights." Id. at __, 714 S.E.2d at 831 (citing McLamb, 186 N.C.App. at 127-28, 649 S.E.2d at 904). Essentially, the court held that a police officer's mistaken belief about the requirements of the substantive traffic law is per se objectively unreasonable. And, when the factual circumstances fail to indicate a violation of the substantive law as interpreted by a reviewing court, the stop of an individual is unconstitutional.

We allowed the State of North Carolina's Petition for Discretionary Review. State v. Heien, __ N.C. __, 720 S.E.2d 389 (2012). It is important to note at the outset that the State of North Carolina has chosen not to seek review of the Court of Appeals' statutory interpretation...

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