In May 2020, the North Carolina Supreme Court reviewed a case involving a police officer who had parked his patrol car alongside the road and exited it to assist a stranded vehicle.  As a second vehicle passed by, the passenger put his hand out of the window, extended his middle finger, and moved his arm up and down. 

The police officer, believing the passenger was committing disorderly conduct, got back into his patrol car and pursued the second vehicle and ordered the driver to stop.   The police officer then cited the passenger for disorderly conduct. 

At trial, the passenger argued that the police officer did not have a legal basis to stop the driver.   The trial and Appeals courts disagreed and felt that the officer’s reasons met the required legal basis.  The Supreme Court, however, agreed with the passenger and reversed the Appeals court decision. 

Legal Standard

The United States’ Supreme Court considers traffic stops seizures, so they fall under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment Fourth protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The North Carolina Supreme Court, in reiterating the Fourth Amendment seizure standard, maintained that police officers may stop individuals when they have a reasonable suspicion that they are engaging in criminal activity.  The court reminded that a reasonable suspicion requires explicit and expressible facts and must be more than a simple hunch.    

If an individual wants to challenge a police officer’s reasons for stopping their vehicle, the court will consider all the facts known to the officer at the time and determine whether the police officer had a reasonable suspicion to believe the individual was engaging in the suspected criminal activity. 

Reasonable Suspicion in Current Matter

Disorderly conduct involves behavior that would provoke violent retaliation and breach the peace. 

The court did not see how the passenger’s gestures toward the police officer would incite another driver to act violently or breach the peace.   It, thus, found that the police officer did not have a reasonable suspicion to believe the passenger was engaging in disorderly conduct.  The traffic stop was, thus, invalid, and the court overturned the lower courts’ decisions. 

Application to Traffic Violation Stops

The court mentioned that, during the pursuit, the police officer did not observe the driver committing any traffic violations.   That’s because the same legal standard applies to stops involving traffic violations.

A police officer must have a reasonable suspicion that a driver committed or is currently committing a traffic violation whenever they stop a driver.   If a driver asks the court to consider whether the stop was valid, the court will consider the facts the officer knew at the time and determine if they had a reasonable suspicion to believe a traffic violation had or was occurring. 

If a Police Officer Stops You

Here are some suggestions on how to act if a police officer stops you. If you believe a police officer unreasonably stopped you, Thomas D. Bumgardner can help. He knows the applicable laws and can help you determine your best course of action.  Contact him at 704-887-4981 or email him info@ballantynelegal.com.  Learn about the legal services he provides and book an appointment.