A North Carolina state trooper who stopped a man two years ago in Johnston County for speeding went too far when he searched the car for drugs, a state Court of Appeals panel ruled Tuesday.
In a 2-1 decision, the three-judge panel found that Trooper John W. Lamm of the State Highway Patrol did not have cause to go through the rental car that he pulled over on Sept. 9, 2014. Lamm said he had clocked the car going 13 miles per hour over the posted speed limit of 65 mph.
The traffic stop of David Michael Reed, a man traveling through North Carolina with his fiancee, led to the confiscation of cocaine from under the seat of a Nissan Altima and charges against the driver and his girlfriend.
The appeal turned on what constitutes “reasonable suspicion” to search a driver pulled over for a routine traffic violation. The case also highlights details that law enforcement officers and those pulled over can glean from dashboard recorders.
Lamm, the patrol officer, was parked in the median on Interstate 95 in Johnston County at 8:18 a.m. when he pointed his radar at the Altima whizzing past him and got a reading of 78 mph, according to court documents.
Lamm’s patrol car had a camera that faced toward the hood of his car and recorded audio inside and outside the car.
Reed stopped on the interstate shoulder, and Lamm approached the car on the passenger side. Reed’s fiancee was holding a pit bull in the front seat, according to the court document. Energy drinks, trash, air fresheners and dog food were scattered on the floor of the car.
Lamm asked if the dog was friendly, and the couple said it was.
Lamm stuck his arm inside the car to pet the dog and asked Reed for his driver’s license and the rental agreement. Reed provided a New York license, a registration card and an Enterprise rental car agreement that listed the woman as the renter and Reed as an authorized driver.
Lamm then instructed Reed to “come on back here with me” as he motioned toward the patrol car. Reed got out of the car, and the trooper asked him whether he had any guns or knives on him.
Reed asked why he needed to be frisked, and Lamm responded: “I’m just going to pat you down for weapons because you’re going to have a seat with me in the car.”
Lamm found a pocket knife, said it was “no big deal,” and put it on the hood of the Nissan, according to the court documents.
Reed sat in the passenger seat of the patrol car but left the door open and kept one leg outside the car. Lamm told Reed to close the door, but Reed hesitated, saying he was “scared” to do so.
“Shut the door,” Lamm replied. “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you to shut the door. I mean you’re not trapped, the door [is] unlocked. Last time I checked we were the good guys.”
“I’m not saying you’re not,” Reed responded.
“You don’t know me,” Lamm added. “Don’t judge me.”
From questions to search
Reed, seemingly becoming more and more uncomfortable, told the trooper he had been stopped in North Carolina before, but never had been taken into the front passenger seat of a patrol car during a stop.
“Where y’all heading to,” Lamm asked Reed as he ran a records check on Reed’s license through the patrol car’s mobile computer.
Reed told the trooper he was en route to visit family in Fayetteville. Lamm then noted that the rental car agreement restricted travel to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut but could probably be broadened by a call to the rental car company. Lamm then asked about Reed’s criminal history, which included an arrest for robbery in the past, and delved deeper about the driver’s relationship to the woman in the car with him and more about the rental car agreement that listed a different kind of car than the one the couple was traveling in.
Reed explained that the car on the agreement had been wrecked and the company provided a different car for them.
Lamm then got out of the car to ask the female passenger about the rental car agreement and told Reed to “sit tight.” Lamm talked with the woman briefly and returned to the patrol car after telling her he was going to write a speeding ticket and the two could “be on [their] way.”
But the questions did not stop when Lamm returned to his patrol car or after calls to the rental car company or the issuing of a warning ticket.
Lamm told Reed he was “completely done with the traffic stop,” but said he wanted to ask additional questions. Lamm did not tell Reed he was free to go, according to court documents, but asked whether he was carrying guns, illegal cigarettes or any of a number of controlled substances.
“No liquor, no nothing,” Reed told Lamm. “You can break the car down.”
Then Lamm said: “I want to search your car, is that OK with you?”
Reed hesitated, mumbled and told Lamm to ask his fiancee. “I’m just saying, I’ve got to go to the bathroom, I want to smoke a cigarette, we’re real close to getting to the hotel so that we can see our family, like, I don’t, I don’t see a reason why,” Reed told the trooper.
“Well let me go talk to her then, sit tight,” Lamm responded before walking to the front passenger side of the Nissan Altima. By then, two additional officers had arrived. Lamm told the female passenger that everything was fine with the rental agreement and asked her the same series of questions he had asked Reed, including a request to search the car.
“No. There’s nothing in my car, I mean ...” she responded.
A different take
Lamm continued to ask for consent until she acquiesced, according to the court document, and agreed to sign a written consent form.
The cocaine was found under the back passenger seat, according to the court records.
At the trial, Reed tried to suppress evidence of the cocaine that led to charges against him for trafficking and possession of between 200 and 400 grams of the controlled substance.
Judge Gale Adams denied that request in Johnston County Superior Court. A subsequent plea agreement resulted in Reed getting a prison sentence of at least six years and a fine of $100,000 as well as court costs of $3,494.
Reed appealed the judge’s decision.
He argued on appeal that Lamm “seized him without consent or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity” when the trooper told him to “sit tight in the patrol car.”
“After carefully reviewing the record and video footage of the traffic stop, we agree,” Judges Robert N. Hunter Jr. and Linda M. McGee stated in their ruling.
Judge Chris Dillon dissented, saying it was his opinion that consent had been given to search the vehicle. Furthermore, Dillon stated in his dissent, that he thought Lamm had reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop.