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Criminal Practice – Search & Seizure – Reasonable Suspicion – Flight – Insufficient Evidence

Criminal Practice – Search & Seizure – Reasonable Suspicion – Flight – Insufficient Evidence


State v. Goins (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-232-16, 29 pp.) (Linda McGee, C.J.) (John Tyson, J., dissenting) Appealed from Guilford County Superior Court (Richard Gottleib, J.) N.C. App.

Holding: In an apartment complex known for drug trafficking, police officers saw (1) a car drive slowly up to a person standing outside a building; (2) the person shout something, apparently to an occupant of the car; and (3) the car drive away at a higher speed, though without breaking any traffic laws. These circumstances did not give the officers a reasonable suspicion that the car’s occupant and the person outside the building were about to conduct an illegal drug transaction.

We reverse the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion to suppress the fruits of the stop of his car. Remanded.

Defendant’s mere presence in an area known for drug trafficking could not, standing alone, have provided the reasonable suspicion necessary for the officers to initiate the stop of defendant’s car. The officers could not see defendant in his vehicle, so they could not observe defendant’s actions, other than by observing the car itself.

Although the person outside the building looked towards the police car, there was no evidence that defendant personally observed the police car across the street before he left the parking lot of the apartment complex.

Officer A.T. Branson testified that defendant’s driving “raised [his] suspicion to fleeing upon police presence….” However, defendant did not break any traffic laws in his exit from the apartment complex. Instead, the traffic stop was based solely on the officers’ suspicion that defendant had been driving through the apartment complex in order to make a drug-related transaction.

The man standing near the car did not flee upon seeing the police. He simply turned around and walked into the apartment building.

Suspicion or conjecture that a defendant might have been attempting to flee police presence, absent additional suspicious circumstances, is insufficient to support a reasonable suspicion that someone leaving a known drug area was engaged in criminal activity. There must be some nexus between a suspect’s “flight” and the presence of the police, and the “flight” must reasonably demonstrate evasive action.

In the present case, the officers observed activity which made them suspect that defendant’s actions in leaving the apartment complex might constitute flight, and then this suspicion of flight was used in turn to support the suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. On these facts, the suspicion of flight from an area of known illegal narcotics activity, in the form of accelerating the car in a lawful manner and driving away from the apartment complex, without more, did not justify the stop of the car and the detention of defendant.

Reversed and remanded.


(Tyson, J.) The majority’s protestations to the contrary, their reversal of the trial court’s ruling apparently turns on a notion of, and fictional distinction between, “suspected” versus “actual” flight and not from the totality of the circumstances. No precedents lend support to this contrived distinction.

Considering the past history of drug activity and arrests at the apartment complex, the time (after midnight), place, manner, the unbroken sequence of observed events, defendant’s actions upon being warned and the totality of the circumstances, the officers’ testimonies and the trial court’s findings of fact go beyond an inchoate suspicion or hunch and provide a particularized and objective basis for suspecting defendant of involvement in criminal activity. The trial court correctly found and concluded the officers had a reasonable and articulable suspicion, based upon the totality of the circumstances, to conduct a lawful investigatory stop of defendant’s vehicle.

I would affirm.


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