STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
No. 05 CRS 54781
YIETAQUENA T. JOHNSON
Attorney General Roy Cooper, by Assistant Attorney General
William B. Crumpler, for the State.
Adrian M. Lapas, for defendant.
Yietaquena Johnson (defendant) appeals an order denying a motion to suppress evidence of marijuana discovered in his vehicle during a traffic stop. We affirm.
At a suppression hearing conducted on 17 and 18 July 2006, the State offered the testimony of Sergeant Chris Worth, a deputy with the Wayne County Sheriff's Office and supervisor of a special unit called the Aggressive Criminal Enforcement Team. This team is involved with traffic and criminal interdiction. Sergeant Worth testified that he had been to various interdiction schools dealing with vehicle violations and the characteristics of persons who are stopped for violations who may be engaged in criminal activity. Sergeant Worth testified that on 4 June 2005 around 11:00 a.m., he was on duty in an unmarked red Chevrolet Camaro on Highway 70 west of Goldsboro. This highway has four lanes, two going west and two going east separated by a median. As Sergeant Worth was turning around in a median crossover to change his direction to eastbound, he observed a gray Honda SUV proceeding in his direction. As the vehicle approached, it became apparent that it did not display a North Carolina inspection sticker in the lower left hand corner of the windshield. Instead, the vehicle displayed a sticker in the upper center of the windshield. Sergeant Worth testified that he was aware that some states north of North Carolina, including Virginia, require inspection stickers to be located on the windshield where the sticker was affixed on the Honda. Accordingly, as Sergeant Worth knew the vehicle might be from a state other than North Carolina, he looked for a front license plate, which is required under some other states' laws. The Honda did not have a front license plate.
When the Honda went past the police vehicle, Sergeant Worth observed a Virginia license plate on the rear. In one of the interdiction schools he had attended, Sergeant Worth learned that Virginia had a requirement for both front and back license plates for vehicles registered in Virginia. Sergeant Worth's training and experience also taught him that a vehicle not properly licensed with vehicle tags could also indicate a stolen vehicle.
Sergeant Worth then pulled up behind the Honda, which was driven by defendant in the left hand lane. He testified thatdefendant pulled into the right lane between two cars. There were about four car lengths between the other two vehicles, so defendant had to squeeze in between them and there was not ample room for him to get in between the cars. When defendant finally executed the lane change, there was only one car length between his car and the car in front. Sergeant Worth testified that defendant's action resulted in an unsafe following distance. Consequently, Sergeant Worth pulled defendant over, exited his unmarked vehicle and approached the Honda on the passenger side. The passenger side window was partially down. Through the window the sergeant observed green vegetable matter which he believed to be marijuana, around the center console area. Sergeant Worth could not hear what defendant was saying, so he reached in and started rolling the window down. While he was doing so, the door opened. As defendant was getting out of the Honda, Sergeant Worth examined the vegetable material and was certain the material was marijuana. A subsequent search of defendant's vehicle revealed ten ounces of marijuana in defendant's car and a small hand-held metal scale, which is commonly used to weigh illegal narcotics, in defendant's pocket.
On cross-examination when asked by defense counsel what his purpose was in stopping defendant, Sergeant Worth testified that it was to let him know he was following too close to the car in front of him, and to determine whether the vehicle was stolen. Defendant did not offer any evidence at the suppression hearing. The trial court ruled on defendant's motion to suppress from the bench as follows: Well, I think it's close, but I think, based on what the officer observed, he observed an automobile that he had a reasonable idea may have been improperly registered. He stopped it for the purpose of determining that. When he did stop it he saw, in open view, the contraband material, so, yeah, I think he had a reasonable basis for making the stop. I do think that the reasonable basis was most anything, but I think that falls within the rules. So I'm going to deny your motion to [suppress] the evidence.
Defendant plead no contest to the charge of Maintaining a Motor Vehicle for Use of a Controlled Substance in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-108(a)(7) (2005) in exchange for the State dismissing Count I of the indictment charging defendant with Possession With Intent to Sell and Deliver a Controlled Substance in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat § 90-95(a)(1) (2005). The trial court suspended the active sentence of 4-5 months imprisonment and sentenced defendant to 24 months supervised probation and ordered him to pay a $250.00 fine. Defendant filed timely notice of appeal.
In defendant's sole argument on appeal, he contends the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress evidence of the marijuana because Sergeant Worth lacked the probable cause required to stop defendant's vehicle, in contravention of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article I § 20 of the North Carolina Constitution. We disagree.
When the competency of evidence is challenged and the trial judge conducts a voir dire to determine admissibility, the general rule is that the judge should make findings of fact to show the basis of the ruling. If there is a material conflict in the evidence on voir dire, he must do so in order to resolve anyconflict. If there is no material conflict in the evidence on voir dire, it is not error to admit the challenged evidence without making specific findings of fact, although it is always the better practice to find all facts upon which the admissibility of the evidence depends. In that event, the necessary findings are implied from the admission of the challenged evidence. State v. Vick, 341 N.C. 569, 580, 461 S.E.2d 655, 661 (1995) (citations omitted). In the instant case, there was no material conflict in the evidence and hence it was not prejudicial error for the court to fail to enter an order making findings of fact and conclusions of law. We must therefore determine only whether the trial court's legal conclusion was correct.
This Court has held that '[w]here an officer makes a traffic stop based on a readily observed traffic violation, such as speeding or running a red light, such a stop will be valid if it was supported by probable cause.' State v. Baublitz, Jr., 172 N.C. App. 801, 806 616 S.E.2d 615, 619 (2005) (quoting State v. Barnhill, 166 N.C. App. 228, 231, 601 S.E.2d 215, 217 (2004)). In the case sub judice, Sergeant Worth observed defendant's vehicle following too closely to the vehicle in front of it in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-152(a) (2005). Hence, as defendant's traffic violation was readily observable, the probable cause standard applies.
In examining the legality of a traffic stop, the proper inquiry is not the subjective reasoning of the officer, but whether the objective facts support a finding that probable cause existed to stop the defendant. Probable cause exists when there is a fairprobability or substantial chance a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it. Thus, the United States and North Carolina Constitutions require an officer who makes a seizure on the basis of a perceived traffic violation to have probable cause to believe the driver's actions violated a motor vehicle law.
State v. Ivey, 360 N.C. 562, 564, 633 S.E.2d 459, 460-461 (2006) (internal citations omitted).
In the case at bar, notwithstanding Sergeant Worth's testimony regarding his knowledge of Virginia traffic law and his assertion that defendant violated the same, there was probable cause with which to justify the stop of defendant's vehicle. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-152(a) provides that [t]he driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of such vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway.
Sergeant Worth's testimony described his objective observation that when defendant changed lanes he only left one car length between his car and the car in front of him. We therefore conclude that Sergeant Worth's personal observation of defendant following too closely on Highway 70 constituted the probable cause necessary with which to effectuate a traffic stop. See State v. Wilson, 155 N.C. App. 89, 95, 574 S.E.2d 93, 98 (2002)(state trooper's observation of the vehicles speed and its following distance to another vehicle of one car length established probable cause to believe that defendants were in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-152(a)). As Sergeant Worth had the necessary probable cause to stop the defendant's vehicle, we affirm the trial court.
Judges MCGEE and STEPHEN concur.
Report per Rule 30(e).
*** Converted from WordPerfect ***