State v. Reed, No. 365A16-2

CitationNo. 365A16-2
Case DateFebruary 28, 2020
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina


No. 365A16-2


February 28, 2020

Appeal pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, 257 N.C. App. 524, 810 S.E.2d 245 (2018), on remand from this Court, 370 N.C. 267, 805 S.E.2d 670 (2017), reversing a judgment entered on 21 July 2015 by Judge Thomas H. Lock in Superior Court, Johnston County, following defendant's plea of guilty after the entry of an order by Judge Gale Adams on 14 July 2015 denying defendant's motion to suppress. Heard in the Supreme Court on 9 April 2019.

Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Kathleen N. Bolton, Assistant Attorney General, and Derrick C. Mertz, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State-appellant.

Paul E. Smith for defendant-appellee.

MORGAN, Justice.

On 9 September 2014, a law enforcement officer stopped a rental car which was being driven along an interstate highway by the defendant, David Michael Reed. In the seminal case of Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court of the United States recognized that law enforcement officers need discretion in conducting their

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investigative duties. 392 U.S. 1 (1968). Since Terry, this discretion has been judicially broadened, equipping law enforcement officers with wide latitude within which to effectively fulfill their duties and responsibilities. When complex considerations and exigent circumstances combine in a fluid setting, officers may be prone to exceed their authorized discretion and to intrude upon the rights of individuals to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. This case presents such a situation, as we find here that the law enforcement officer who arrested defendant disregarded the basic tenets of the Fourth Amendment by prolonging the traffic stop at issue without defendant's voluntary consent or a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity to justify doing so. As a result, we affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals.

Factual and Procedural Background

Defendant was indicted on 6 October 2014 on two counts of trafficking in cocaine for transporting and for possessing 200 grams or more, but less than 400 grams, of the controlled substance. On 27 April 2015, defendant, through his counsel, filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained during a traffic stop of a vehicle operated by defendant, which resulted in the trafficking in cocaine charges. During a suppression hearing which was conducted on 2 June 2015 and 4 June 2015 pursuant to defendant's motion to suppress, the following evidence was adduced:

At approximately 8:18 a.m. on 9 September 2014, Trooper John W. Lamm of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol was in a stationary position in the median

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of Interstate 95 (I-95) between the towns of Benson and Four Oaks. Trooper Lamm was a member of the Criminal Interdiction Unit of the State Highway Patrol. In that capacity, he was assigned primarily to work major interstates and highways to aggressively enforce traffic laws, as well as to be on the lookout for other criminal activity including drug interdiction and drug activity. Trooper Lamm was in the median facing north in order to clock the southbound traffic, using radar for speed detection, when he determined that a gray passenger vehicle was being operated at a speed of 78 miles per hour in a 65 mile-per-hour zone.1 The driver of the vehicle appeared to Trooper Lamm to be a black male. Trooper Lamm left his stationary position to pursue the vehicle. As he caught up to the vehicle, the trooper turned on his vehicle's blue lights and siren. The operator of the car pulled over to the right shoulder of the road, and Trooper Lamm positioned his law enforcement vehicle behind the driver.

Trooper Lamm testified that he stopped the driver of the vehicle for speeding. Defendant was the operator of the vehicle, which was a Nissan Altima. Upon approaching the vehicle from its passenger side, the trooper noticed that there was a black female passenger and a female pit bull dog inside the vehicle with defendant. Trooper Lamm obtained defendant's driver's license along with a rental agreement for the vehicle. Defendant had a New York driver's license. The rental agreement

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paperwork indicated that a black Kia Rio was the vehicle which had been originally obtained, that there was a replacement vehicle, and that the renter of the vehicle was defendant's fiancée, Ms. Usha Peart. Peart was the female passenger in the vehicle with defendant. The vehicle rental agreement paperwork indicated that defendant was an additional authorized driver. The gray Nissan had not been reported to have been stolen.

After examining the rental agreement, Trooper Lamm requested that defendant come back to the law enforcement vehicle. The trooper inspected defendant for weapons and found a pocketknife, but in the trooper's view it was "no big deal." Trooper Lamm opened the door for defendant to enter the vehicle in order for defendant to sit in the front seat. Defendant left the front right passenger door open where he was seated, leaving his right leg outside the vehicle so that he was not seated completely inside the patrol car. Trooper Lamm asked defendant to get into the vehicle and told defendant to close the door. Defendant hesitated and stated that he was "scared to do that." He explained to the trooper that he had previously been stopped in North Carolina, but that he had never been required to sit in a patrol car with the door closed during a traffic stop. Trooper Lamm ordered defendant to close the door and stated, "[s]hut the door. I'm not asking you, I'm telling you to shut the door . . . Last time I checked we were the good guys." Defendant complied with Trooper Lamm's order and closed the front passenger door of the patrol car. It was at this point in the traffic stop that Trooper Lamm did not consider defendant to be free

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to leave.

The trooper began to pose questions to defendant. Defendant told him that Peart and defendant were going to Fayetteville to visit family and to attend a party before school sessions officially resumed. Defendant was further questioned about his living arrangements with Peart, and whether he or Peart owned the dog in the car. When the trooper asked Peart about their destinations while she was still in the gray Nissan and defendant was in the patrol car, Peart confirmed that family members were in the area, and that she and defendant were going to Fayetteville, and also mentioned Tennessee and Georgia. Although the rental agreement paperwork only authorized the rental vehicle to be in the states of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut and it was not supposed to be in North Carolina, the trooper determined that the vehicle was properly in the possession of Peart upon actually calling the rental vehicle company in New York.

Trooper Lamm characterized the rental vehicle as being "very dirty inside." It had a "lived-in look," according to the trooper, with "signs of like hard driving, continuous driving—coffee cups, empty energy drinks." There was a large can of dog food, a jar of dog food, and dog food scattered along the floorboard. There were also pillows, blankets, and similar items inside the vehicle.

After receiving confirmation from the rental vehicle company that all was sufficiently in order with the gray Nissan, Trooper Lamm completed the traffic stop by issuing a warning ticket to defendant. The trooper handed all of the paperwork

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back to defendant—including defendant's driver's license, the vehicle rental agreement, and the warning ticket—and told defendant that the traffic stop was concluded. The traffic stop had already lasted for a duration of fourteen minutes and twelve seconds through the point in time that Trooper Lamm told Peart that "I just have to write Mr. Reed a warning, he just has to slow down, his license is good and then you'll be on your way." After this, the stop was lengthened for an additional five minutes during which Trooper Lamm communicated with the rental vehicle company. While the trooper did not know the time that the traffic stop concluded, he acknowledged that "it did take a little bit longer than some stops." Trooper Lamm testified that defendant was free to leave upon the completion of these actions; nonetheless, the trooper did not inform defendant that defendant was free to leave. Instead, the trooper said to defendant, "[t]his ends the traffic stop and I'm going to ask you a few more questions if it is okay with you." Trooper Lamm construed defendant's continued presence in the front passenger seat of the law enforcement officer's vehicle to be voluntary, testifying: "[h]e complied . . . [h]e stayed there." Trooper Lamm later said in his testimony that although he informed defendant that the traffic stop was completed, defendant would still have been detained and required to stay seated, even if defendant denied consent to search the rental vehicle and wanted to leave, based upon Trooper Lamm's observations. The trooper went on to testify that at the point that he went to get consent to search the vehicle from Peart, defendant was detained.

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When defendant was asked by Trooper Lamm if there was anything illegal inside the vehicle and for permission to search it, the trooper testified that defendant responded, "you could break the car down," and did not give a response to the trooper's inquiry regarding permission to search the vehicle. Defendant instead directed Trooper Lamm to Peart on the matter of searching the vehicle, because she was the individual who had rented it. Trooper Lamm then told defendant to remain seated in the patrol car by instructing defendant to "sit tight." At this point, for safety reasons, the trooper once again would not have allowed defendant to leave the patrol car.

Trooper Kenneth Ellerbe of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, like Trooper Lamm, was also a member of the...

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