North Carolina Court Rules On ‘Reasonable Suspicion’ to Stop Driver

May 8, 2009

An anonymous tip and a police officer’s observation of a driver swerving in his lane were not enough to reasonably suspect drunken driving, judges on the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled this week.

The three-judge panel ordered a new trial in Martin County, ruling that a lower court should have suppressed evidence obtained against Lucian Jefferson Peele Jr. He was pulled over and arrested in April 2007, and a test determined that his blood-alcohol concentration was .08, the legal limit for driving.

A Williamston Police Department officer had observed Peele’s burgundy pickup truck swerve to one side of his lane and then to the other while driving a few hundred feet on the road. That came shortly after dispatchers reported an anonymous tip of a possibly reckless or drunken driver in the same type of vehicle.

Officers need reasonable suspicion to stop, question and detain someone. Peele had filed a motion asking the court to suppress any information gathered from the stop and subsequent arrest, saying the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop him in the first place.

“Given the totality of the circumstances, we cannot conclude that the uncorroborated anonymous tip combined with the officer’s observation of a single instance of weaving was sufficient to give rise to reasonable suspicion,” Judge Martha Geer wrote in the opinion.

If judges were to allow the evidence, they would be extending the grounds of reasonable suspicion farther than they ever have before, Geer wrote.

The judges suggested that there needed to be more factors, such as weaving along with excessive speeding, driving off the road or even driving in an area with drinking establishments.

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman with the state attorney general’s office, said prosecutors will review the decision, discuss it with the local district attorney and decide whether to seek additional review of the case. It could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Peele’s attorney did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

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