Rules for a Traffic Stop in North Carolina: How long can an officer detain Someone without a good reason?

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.


Wiley Nickel

Wiley Nickel lives and works in Cary, North Carolina. In 1998, he graduated from Tulane University with a major in Political Science and a minor in History. After college Wiley went to work for Al Gore and travelled with the Vice President as part of his national advance staff. Following the Gore campaign he earned his law degree from the Pepperdine University School of Law in 2005. While in law school Wiley worked as a law clerk in the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office where he gained valuable criminal trial experience before taking and passing the California bar exam. His first job out of law school was for the Merced County District Attorney’s Office where he worked as a Deputy District Attorney with a focus on prosecuting DWI offenders. Wiley later joined the Law Offices of Joseph Uremovic where he focused on civil litigation and family law. When the opportunity came to join the Obama campaign in 2008 Wiley jumped at the chance. He spent three years travelling with President Obama as a member of his national advance team. In 2011 Wiley left his work for the White House to return to the practice of law. Wiley devotes the majority of his practice to the areas of criminal law, family law, traffic tickets and DMV issues. The Law Offices of Wiley Nickel was started with the goal of providing the best representation possible for all of his clients. Experienced, Compassionate, Aggressive Criminal Defense While defense attorney Wiley Nickel works as the primary attorney for all of his cases, he does have an associate attorney, a team of investigators, forensic consultants, and support staff to call on to help achieve the best possible result in every case. He limits his case load so that he can focus on providing the best possible legal defense to all of his clients. Every case is a top priority and the goal is to have your case dismissed with a focus on being able to expunge your charges at the end of the process. When he is not working, Wiley is an avid family man, distance runner and golfer. He loves North Carolina college sports and is hoping this is the year for Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. Wiley is licensed to practice law in North Carolina and California.