If you're parked legally on the side of the road, and a patrol officer stops to offer assistance, and the officer asks to see your license, and the officer then takes your license back to his cruiser...tell him to stop. He just violated your constitutional rights.
That was the lesson of a N.C. Court of Appeals opinion published today stemming from a case out of Anson County.
In a 2-1 ruling, the judges determined that when the Lilesville police chief took motorist Keith Leak's license back to his patrol car to run a background check, the chief's actions amounted to an illegal seizure.
On the evening of April 30, 2012, Chief Bobby Gallimore noticed Leak's car parted in a gravel area near Highway 74. He stopped to render assistance. Leak told Gallimore that he was fine, and that he'd simply pulled off the highway to send a text message. Gallimore then asked to see Leak's licence, which Leak produced.
Even though Gallimore had no suspicion that Leak was involved in criminal activity, Gallimore felt obligated to run a check on the license because, to him, it seemed that several people were driving with revoked licenses. "If I told him he's free to leave from there, and he's okay to drive from there, and he got in a wreck, then I'd be liable for it because he didn't have a license," Gallimore testified.
Gallimore took Leak's license to his cruiser. He discovered that Leak had an outstanding warrant from 2007. Gallimore returned to Leak's car and asked him to step out. Leak disclosed that he had a .22 pistol in his pocket.
Gallimore arrested Leak for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Leak was indicted. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that Gallimore's seizure of his license without suspicion of criminal activity violated his Fourth Amendment rights. A trial judge denied Leak's motion, and Leak was convicted and put on one year's probation.
But in its ruling today, the Court of Appeals declared that Gallimore's actions were unreasonable. After the police chief inspected Leak's license at the side of Leak's car, Leak should have been free to go, but Gallimore's actions prevented him from realizing this, the court ruled. The appellate judges vacated Leak's conviction, and suppressed the evidence of the concealed pistol.
" 'An initially consensual encounter between a police officer and a citizen can be transformed into a seizure or detention within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, if, in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave' or otherwise terminate the encounter," Judge Sanford Steelman wrote for the majority.
In a dissent, Judge Douglas McCullough opined that Gallimore's decision to take Leak's license to his cruiser was proper. He argued that a traffic stop based on suspicion of criminal activity, and a traffic encounter to render assistance, should not be split into two categories.
"I would...hold that when the traffic encounter is for the purpose of rendering assistance the officer may still verify that ...the driver has a valid license and no outstanding warrants just as was done here," McCullough wrote.