Could the Very Presence of a Marked Patrol Car Create Probable Cause to Stop?

As you are driving down the road a police car pulls behind you, you instantaneously glance down at your speedometer to make sure you are abiding by the speed limit.  Immediately you become paranoid and clinch the steering wheel tighter; every three seconds you look up at your rear-view mirror watching ever so closely the police car trailing behind you.  Does this feeling of apprehension and fear aid in your ability to drive?  For some motorists probably not, especially when the marked patrol car continues to follow.  The motorist becomes more focused on the officer in the patrol car than what is happening on the road.  Each time the driver glances in his side-view or rear-view mirror his car may veer to the left or right.  Once the driver realizes the lateral movement of his car, he jerks it back into the middle of the lane.  These movements may become more exaggerated when the driver has consumed an impairing substance, but does swerving inside of the lane lead to reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop?

Until recently, the answer was found in the 2009 decision of State v. Fields where the court stated weaving within a single lane is not, by itself, an infraction or crime.  The court added weaving could be an additional factor in the totality of the circumstances when an officer is analyzing whether or not he has reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity has or is about to occur.  These factors can include: time of day, location, speed, and duration of the officer’s observations of the vehicle.  As the court stated in State v. Watkins, reasonable suspicion will not be found when the officer made his stop based on a hunch that the driver is violating the law.

However, in 2012, the NC Court of Appeals in State v. Fields held that the officer did not need any additional factors to his observation of a car weaving within the lane for the stop to be held valid; the 2012 driver’s behavior was so erratic that additional factors did not need to be met.  The court distinguished the 2012 case from the 2009 case in that the conduct of the 2012 driver “was sufficiently frequent and erratic to prompt evasive maneuvers from other drivers [during heavy traffic].”

The language in Judge Geer’s decision combined with the facts in the 2012 Fields case can lead one to become perplexed in what is really required for a valid stop for weaving within the lane.  To some readers it seems that the evasive maneuvers taken by other drivers was an additional factor to the erratic driving, however, the 2012 Fields holding is treated as not requiring additional factors.

How is the 2012 State v. Fields Decision Being Treated in Practice?

Possibly to one’s surprise, my discussion with prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and police officers regarding the 2012 Fields decision has led to a consensus that additional factors are relied upon to uphold a stop for weaving within the lane.  The totality of the circumstances test should be the standard used when police officers are making judgment calls on a stop, is the standard prosecutors and defense attorneys use when arguing a case as well as is the standard judge’s use when making a decision about a case.

Jesse Scharff, an attorney from the Roberts Law Group, states, “in my experience, weaving inside a lane alone has to be fairly egregious to rise to the level of reasonable suspicion despite the 2012 Fields decision.  In addition, there is the reliance on State v. Otto, which states that weaving alone is not enough to make a stop.”  Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Cameron agrees with Scharff stating, “weaving within one’s lane can give rise to reasonable suspicion depending on the severity of the weaving.”  Cameron stated that he has been successful arguing the 2012 Fields decision, relying on the weaving alone.

Officers from the Wake County Sheriff’s Office are familiar with the 2012 Fields decision, yet they continue to look for additional factors when determining whether or not to stop a vehicle for weaving within the lane.  A huge factor for one officer was the time of day in which the weaving occurred, “if someone weaves within the lane in the afternoon around the time when school gets out, I typically won’t stop.  However, if someone is weaving within the lane at two in the morning on Hillsborough Street, that is when I will definitely make a stop.”

Does the Presence of a Marked Patrol Car Hinder One’s Ability to Drive?

When officers were asked if a person’s driving became more or less erratic when they were unintentionally following someone they replied that it typically became less so.  The officers informed that most of the time the presence of a police officer in a marked car increased proficient driving.  However, officers remarked that in their experience there were instances when their presence decreased a driver’s ability to maintain control within the lane.  “Historically, these are instances when the driver has consumed an impairing substance or is up to no good.  Otherwise, citizens seem indifferent to the presence of a patrol car on the road.”

Interestingly, several officers stated that they were able to decipher the cause of a variety of “weavings.”  For example, officers can tell weaving as a result of texting and driving and mere inattention to the road versus weaving within the lane as a result of intoxication.  In the end, officers rely on their training, experience, and the totality of the circumstances when deciding to make a stop for weaving within the lane.

After speaking to a dozen licensed drivers regarding their reaction to the presence of a marked patrol car, there was a consensus of the propensity to ensure that they were abiding by the rules of the road.  This increased awareness and desire to abide by the law was as a result of nervousness and fear of getting pulled over by the policeman.  Driver’s reactions when in the presence of a marked patrol car included: slowing down to travel at or below the speed limit, ensuring the use of their turn signal, and making sure not to roll through a stop sign.  Ultimately, there was unanimous consent that their nervousness as a result of the presence of a marked patrol car increased their proficiency at driving.

It seems to be inherent in human nature to tense up at the sight of a patrol car when driving and to make sure one is abiding by traffic laws, thus, seemingly increasing the driver’s ability to maintain control of the car.  Through the interviews conducted with licensed drivers and officers from the Wake County Sheriff’s Department there seems to be a lack of a correlation between increased erratic driving and the presence of patrol cars, although there are exceptions to every scenario.

Eleanor Redhage is a second-year student and the Editor-in-Chief of the Campbell Law Observer. Eleanor may be contacted at em***********@em***.edu.

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About Eleanor Redhage, Former Senior Staff Writer (2 Articles)
Eleanor Redhage graduated from Campbell Law School in 2013. Eleanor completed her undergraduate degree in 2009 at NC State University. Her legal experience includes working as an extern in the Legal Compliance Division at SAS Institute, Wake County District Attorney's Office, and the Wake County Public Defender's Office.
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