State v. Steele
|858 S.E.2d 325
|20 April 2021
|STATE of North Carolina v. Jody Raye STEELE, Defendant.
|Court of Appeal of North Carolina (US)
Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Nora F. Sullivan, for the State.
The Robinson Law Firm, P.A., Greenville, by Leslie S. Robinson, for the Defendant.
¶ 1 The issue in this case is whether a driver is "seized" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when he is tailed by a marked police cruiser down empty streets at 3 a.m., followed into an empty parking lot, and then hailed down by the officer's hand gestures. Because we conclude that no reasonable person would believe he was free to go under such circumstances, we hold that Defendant was seized for purposes of the Fourth Amendment and that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress.
¶ 2 Our only record of what occurred on the night of Defendant's arrest comes from the testimony of Officer Michael Plummer of the East Carolina University ("ECU") Police Department and a partial video of the stop. During the suppression hearing, Officer Plummer described his encounter with Defendant, which occurred in the early morning hours of 2 August 2017 while he was on patrol duty in Greenville, North Carolina. Officer Plummer was uniformed and driving in his patrol car that night, which had light strips and insignias identifying it as an ECU Police Department vehicle.
¶ 3 At 2:50 a.m., Officer Plummer received a dispatch advising that the county police were requesting assistance for a vehicle crash on Charles Boulevard, and began heading that way. As he was traveling south on Charles Boulevard, approaching the intersection of Charles and 14th Street, he noticed a yellow Camaro make a left turn from 14th Street and turn onto Charles heading south (the same direction he was heading in his cruiser). There was no other traffic on the road at that time—just the yellow Camaro, and Officer Plummer traveling behind it. He testified that he noticed that the Camaro "appeared to have its daytime running lights on" but that "no rear lights were illuminated."
¶ 4 Officer Plummer began following the Camaro as it proceeded south down Charles and made another left onto Ficklen Drive, at the same time radioing dispatch to ascertain whether or not the Camaro might have been involved in the accident. He continued following the Camaro down Ficklen Drive as it pulled into an on-campus parking lot. The parking lot was totally empty when the two vehicles arrived.
¶ 5 Once inside the parking lot, Officer Plummer observed the Camaro as it "made a u-turn" and began circling back towards the parking lot entrance. At that point, Officer Plummer approached the Camaro, driving toward it as the Camaro was headed the opposite direction out of the lot. Officer Plummer pulled up close enough that the cars were positioned "driver's door to driver's door," approximately three to four feet apart. As he was positioning his vehicle, Officer Plummer also rolled down his window and "stuck [his] hand out the car to flag [the driver of the Camaro] down." Specifically, Officer Plummer stated that he "rested [his] forearm on the door – on the window frame and waved [his] hand up and down." As he reached the driver's door of the Camaro and gestured, both vehicles "mutually came to a stop." At this point he had not activated his blue lights or siren.
¶ 6 Officer Plummer then began speaking with the driver to see "if he had possibly been through the area and seen anything in relation to the vehicle crash." After Defendant replied, Officer Plummer began to suspect that Defendant had been drinking. He then asked Defendant to get out of the vehicle, performed several field sobriety tests, and eventually arrested and cited Defendant for impaired driving.
¶ 7 On 2 March 2018, Defendant filed a motion to suppress in Pitt County District Court, challenging the stop of his vehicle as an unlawful seizure and detention. The district court ultimately denied his motion to suppress, and on 17 April 2019 he was found guilty of impaired driving and sentenced to twelve months of unsupervised probation in addition to a sixty-day suspended sentence. Defendant appealed the district court's judgment to Pitt County Superior Court on 18 April 2019. On 23 May 2019, Defendant filed a new motion to suppress in the superior court, again challenging the stop of his vehicle as an unlawful seizure and detention. The superior court heard arguments on Defendant's motion to suppress on 25 October 2019. Officer Plummer was the only witness who testified at the hearing.
¶ 8 At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court determined that the encounter between Defendant and Officer Plummer was not a traffic stop, because Officer Plummer had not indicated to Defendant that he was not free to leave. The trial court accordingly denied Defendant's motion to suppress. Defense counsel then announced Defendant's intent (which had been previously communicated to the State) to enter a guilty plea following the denial of his motion to suppress. Defendant subsequently pleaded guilty to driving while impaired. The trial court again imposed a suspended sixty-day sentence and placed Defendant on unsupervised probation for twelve months.
¶ 9 Defendant gave oral notice of appeal in open court and filed a written notice of appeal with this Court on 4 November 2019. On 10 January 2020, the trial court entered a written order denying Defendant's motion to suppress that included the following pertinent Findings of Fact:
Based on these findings, the trial court concluded as a matter of law:
¶ 10 On appeal of an order denying a motion to suppress, we conduct a two-part review: (1) to determine whether there is "competent evidence" to support the trial court's findings of fact, and (2) to determine whether "those factual findings in turn support the...
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