Court clarifies DWI suspicions

Jun. 17, 2013 @ 06:09 PM

The N.C. Supreme Court has issued an opinion that one justice hopes will provide clarity to law enforcement officers and the public about some driving behaviors that could indicate someone is driving while impaired.

It appears that weaving within one’s lane at 1 p.m. might not be probable cause for a trooper to stop a driver on suspicion of drunk driving, but weaving within one’s lane at 1 a.m. is.

The case involved a driver, James R. Kochuk, who was stopped by a N.C. Highway Patrol trooper just after 1 a.m. July 3, 2010, on Interstate 40 in Durham County.

The trooper began following Kochuk’s vehicle as it traveled in the middle lane, and the trooper observed the vehicle cross over the dotted white line causing both wheels on the passenger side of the vehicle to cross into the right lane for about three to four seconds, then move back into the middle lane.

The driver then legally merged into the right hand lane, but the trooper then saw the vehicle twice drift to the right so that both wheels rode on top of the white fog line for three to four seconds each time.

The trooper stopped the driver, cited him for driving while impaired, and on Jan. 25, 2011, Kochuk was convicted of driving while impaired in district court. He appealed to superior court, and on Sept. 19, 2011, his attorney, Russell Hollers III, filed a motion to suppress all the evidence gathered as a result of the stop.

Superior Court Judge Carl Fox granted the motion to suppress, saying that when all the facts and factors in the case were taken into account they did not amount to reasonable suspicion of driving while impaired, since the driver did not exhibit any other suspicious driving behaviors. Fox ruled the stop was invalid and illegal.

The N.C. Court of Appeals affirmed Fox’s decision in a two-to-one decision with Judge Cheri Beasley writing a dissenting opinion.

Beasley cited a previous case, State v. Otto, which focused on the totality of the circumstances.

“Prior to the case reaching our Supreme Court, this Court focused on its precedent requiring weaving in one’s own lane plus one additional factor to constitute reasonable suspicion,” she wrote.

Beasley noted that in previous case, the Court ruled that 1:43 a.m. is an unusual hour and in another previous case, the Court held that crossing the center line and fog lines twice amounts to probable cause to conduct a traffic stop.

Beasley said the facts showed that Kochuk was weaving within his own lane and that the trial court found that the trooper stopped the defendant at 1:10 a.m.

“These two facts coupled together … constitute reasonable suspicion for the stop,” Beasley wrote.

“Our courts must provide clarity in this area so that law enforcement officers can effectively carry out their responsibilities for the public’s safety, and motorists need some reasonable consistency for how their driving might be critiqued in driving while impaired investigations, as well as other traffic-related investigations,” Beasley wrote in her opinion.

In reviewing the two opinions from the N.C. Court of Appeals, the N.C. Supreme Court said that it was reversing the decision by the Court of Appeals for the reasons stated in Beasley’s opinion.

Beasley left the N.C. Court of Appeals late last year to join the N.C. Supreme Court, and did not participate in the consideration of the case as a member of the Supreme Court.