Stop! What’s in the cup?
The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently reviewed a driving while impaired (DWI) case arising out of Forsyth County (Winston-Salem) to primarily determine whether the trial court erred in concluding as a matter of law that the defendant was seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and if the defendant was seized, whether the seizure was supported by a reasonable suspicion. State vs. Knudsen, 747 S.E.2d 641 (2013). In simple terms, the main question was whether or not a seizure had occurred by the police and if the police had a reasonable articulable suspicion to stop the Defendant.
The basic facts of the case were as follows:
- Eric Lars Knudsen, the Defendant, was charged with driving while impaired (DWI) on July 20, 2011.
- The defendant was observed on a Wednesday night at approximately 11:10 p.m. by two Winston Salem police officers as he was walking on the sidewalk with a clear plastic cup in his hands filled with a clear liquid. The defendant was observed walking in a downtown area where there were several open bars and restaurants and he was holding a cup similar to the cups that were commonly used at the downtown bars to serve mixed drinks.
- The officers observed the defendant entered into his vehicle, start his vehicle and remain in it for a period of time, and then the defendant exited his vehicle, and began walking down the sidewalk, towards one of the officers who was on a bicycle patrol.
- The officers stopped and questioned the defendant as he approached them on the sidewalk “only because he was walking on the sidewalk with a cup in his hand with clear liquid in it” and the officers wanted to know what was in the cup.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals cited Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 497, 75 L. Ed. 2d 229, 236 (1983) and stated that a law enforcement officer does not offend the Fourth Amendment merely by approaching an individual in a public place and by putting questions to him. However, a person is seized under the Fourth Amendment when, “by means of physical force or a show of authority,” the defendant’s freedom of movement is restrained. In this case, there was no physical force to restrain the defendant, but the Court stated that a seizure occurred if, “taking into account all of the circumstances surrounding the encounter, the police conduct would have communicated to a reasonable person that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business.”
When there has been no physical force or attempt to leave, examples of circumstances that might indicate a seizure include “the threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical touching or the person of the citizen, or the use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer’s request might be compelled.” Kaupp v. Texas, 538 U.S. 626, 630, 155 L. Ed. 2d 814, 820 (2003). Several North Carolina Supreme Court opinions have also found the fact that an officer in uniform to be a significant factor to consider when determining when a seizure has occurred. In this case, both officers were in uniform. The Court also noted however, that an encounter between police and a defendant “will not trigger a Fourth Amendment scrutiny unless it loses its consensual nature.” State v. Bostic, 501 U.S. 429, 434, 115 L. Ed. 2d at 398 (1991).
The Court concluded that the officer demanding the Defendant, “what do you have in the cup,” when in context of the entire encounter constituted “police conduct [which] would have communicated to a reasonable person that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business” and that the Defendant had been seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Next, the Court considered whether or not the seizure had been supported by a reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity was being committed. A reasonable suspicion has been defined by the United States Supreme Court as “some minimal level of objectives justification.” INS v. Delgado, 466 U.S. 210, 217, 80 L. Ed. 2d 247, 255 (1984). In order to meet the reasonable suspicion threshold, “[t]he officer, of course, must be able to articulate something more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch.” United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7, 104 L. Ed. 2d 1, 10 (1989). In determining if reasonable suspicion existed, the Court must account for “the totality of the circumstances- the whole picture.” United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417, 66 L. Ed. 2d 621, 629 (1981).
The Court held that the totality of the circumstances of this case do not rise to the minimal level of objective justification required for a reasonable articulable suspicion under the Fourth Amendment. The Court found that the officer had, at most, an inchoate and unparticularized hunch that the Defendant was involved in some form of criminal activity. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling in granting the defendant’s “Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Reasonable Suspicion” and suppressed all evidence resulting from that seizure as “fruit of the poisonous tree,” effectively dismissing the DWI case against the defendant.
This ruling is important to anyone who is stopped by the police for a DWI, open container, misdemeanor, felony or some other criminal offense because it shows the scrutiny our courts places on stops and seizures. Depending on the facts of your case, evidence may be suppressed resulting in dismissal of your criminal charges.
If you have been stopped by the police and charged with a crime or DWI, don’t just plead guilty to those charges, contact the Dozier Law Firm today for a free consultation to discuss your rights and how Raleigh DWI Lawyer Chris Dozier can best represent you. As a criminal defense attorney and former Wake County Prosecutor, Chris has handled hundreds of stop and seizure motions in District and Superior Courts and knows how to argue these important issues in your case.