When an officer pulls over a driver with reasonable suspicion that they have committed a crime or an infraction, the officer has a certain amount of time in which they can prolong the traffic stop. In a 2014 court case named Rodriguez v. United States, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation, nothing more, and that authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the traffic stop are or reasonably should have been completed.

A simplification of the Supreme Court’s finding would seem to indicate that if someone is pulled over for something as unassuming as a malfunctioning break light, the officer cannot proceed to investigate other matters associated with the driver or vehicle afterwards. Once the officer has completed their ordinary inquiries, including checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants, and inspecting vehicle registration and proof of insurance, the traffic stop must end. The officer cannot begin investigating the driver for a DWI or other crimes. This simplification, while correct, does not fully reflect the reality of a traffic stop when the driver or vehicle presents other matters to the officer warranting probable cause for investigation.

Policeman checking woman’s luggage during vehicle search

In a 2018 North Carolina court case named State v. McNeil, officers ran a vehicles tag and learned that the registered owner was a male with a suspended license. The officers stopped the vehicle under the suspicion that the vehicle was being operated without a valid license. One of the officers approached the vehicle and saw that the defendant, a female, was driving the vehicle. Although the officer determined that the owner was not driving the vehicle, the defendant ended up being charged with a DWI. On appeal, the defendant argued that the stop became unlawful when the officer verified that the driver was not the male owner. The reasoning of the defense being, that if the officer knew a male was the owner of the car and thus the reason for the traffic stop, and the officer saw a female driving, the stop should have ended upon sight of the female driver. The appellate court disagreed, stating that a police officer cannot discern the gender of a driver based on outward appearance. The appellate court stated:

Not all men wear stereotypical “male” hairstyles nor do they all wear “male” clothing. The driver’s license includes a physical description of the driver, including “sex.” Until [the] Officer . . . had seen Defendant’s driver’s license, he had not confirmed that the person driving the car was female and not its owner. While he was waiting for her to find her license, he noticed her difficulty with her wallet, the odor of alcohol, and her slurred speech.

https://law.justia.com/cases/north-carolina/court-of-appeals/2018/18-175.html

As we mentioned earlier in our simplification of a traffic stop, an officer cannot pursue the investigation of a crime after the original mission for the traffic stop has been completed. The reason that the appellate court affirmed the trial courts finding in State v. McNeil, was that the officer established probable cause for a DWI while conducting the original mission of the traffic stop (while determining the driver’s gender). In State v. McNeil, the court affirmed that an officer should be given a period of time in which to ascertain the gender of a driver, regardless of outward appearance. This period of time can be used by officers to further investigate drivers of criminal activity that would otherwise not be pertinent to the original mission of their traffic stop. Consequently, it is feasible that this newly established precedent will open the door to more police intrusion during traffic stops in North Carolina.