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Vehicle Stops in North Carolina

In 2008, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that reasonable suspicion is the appropriate standard for stops based on traffic violations.  State v. Styles, 362 N.C. 412.  In that case, the court specifically rejected the argument that full probable cause is required for stops based on readily observable traffic observations.  When an officer actually observes someone violating the law, he will always be acting lawfully in conducting a traffic stop.

This raises the issue of when a reasonable suspicion may arise if an officer does not witness a motorist breaking the law or committing a traffic violation.  A driver who is weaving in his or her own lane, driving below the speed limit, remains stopped at a traffic signal after the light turns green is not actually breaking the law and these actions alone will typically not give rise to a reasonable suspicion.  However, if the officer observes repeated actions of this sort or more than one of these actions he may be justified in conducting a stop.  The courts have held that an officer’s subjective intention is not an issue when stopping a vehicle.  Essentially, the officer may stop a vehicle without the intention of actually issuing a citation, or may stop based on specific observances that tend to give suspicion that a driver is committing or has committed one violation and then make other observances that give rise to other suspicions.  For example, an officer may stop a driver who has been observed speeding, and then upon conducting the stop, gather additional evidence that leads the officer to believe the driver is guilty of DUI.

The issue of whether an officer had reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle is important in every DUI case.  Seeking legal counsel to assist with your case is the most appropriate way to determine whether there may have been issues regarding the stop and raise defenses based on reasonable suspicion and the legality of the traffic stop.


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