I'm often asked about the rules for traffic stops in North Carolina. What is someone required to say and what are they not required to say and do.
Essentially if you are pulled over for speeding, tail lights, running a stop sign or some other violation of the vehicle code you are not required to answer unrelated questions. As a matter of common sense you should be polite to the officer who pulled you over but you are not required to answer questions unrelated to your car (i.e. 'were you drinking tonight,' 'where have you been' etc.). You are required to give the officer your license, registration and insurance card.
You are not required to give the officer consent to search your vehicle nor are you required to talk with him if you don't want to.
A good rule of thumb in terms of talking to officers is that as soon as they give you back your license, insurance and registration the matter is over. You do not need to say a single word to the officer after you receive your license and other documents back. Any conversation after that point is consensual on your part. Should you decide you no longer want to speak with the officer you are allowed to politely tell him/her that you need to go and do not wish to speak any longer.
A new court case from the North Carolina Court of Appeals further limits the scope of traffic stops in North Carolina. The case is State v. Cottrell. The court limits officers to pursuing the original justification for a traffic stop, and prohibits them from extending the stop even briefly for most other investigative activity.
In this case the defendant was pulled over for having his headlights out. The officer asked the defendant for his license and registration, and the defendant provided them. The officer did not notice anything else in terms of suspicious activity. The officer ran a computer check and determined that the defendant’s license and registration were valid, but that he had a history of drug related charges.
After running the driver’s record he found that his license was valid and there were no warrants issued for his arrest. When he came back to the car he detected what he thought was a “cover scent” to mask the smell of marijuana. The officer asked the defendant for consent to search his car. The defendant initially said no but when the officer threatened to call a drug dog to the scene the defendant gave his consent to search the car. The officer then found a gun and drugs in the car.
At the trial court the judge denied the motion to suppress the evidence. The Court of appeals reversed the decision saying that “[o]nce the original purpose of the stop has been addressed, in order to justify further delay, there must be grounds which provide the detaining officer with additional reasonable and articulable suspicion or the encounter must have become consensual.” The court determined that once the officer had told the driver to turn on his lights and had determined that no warrants were outstanding and his license was valid the original purpose of the stop was over and the officer could no longer detain the defendant.
If you are charged with a drug related charge in Wake County contact The Law Offices of Wiley Nickel for a free consultation. Our office is centrally located in Cary and we can be reached at 919-585-1486.