Officer's fears warranted traffic stop, COA rules.


Byline: Bill Cresenzo

A man's hand gestures, demeanor, violent criminal history, and other factors were enough for a police officer to search his vehicle during a late-night traffic stop in a high-crime area because the officer feared he was armed and dangerous, a divided panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled.

Bryan Johnson was driving through east Charlotte in January 2017, and the officer, Elliot Whitley, pulled him over after learning that the license plate on Johnson's car was registered to another vehicle. As Whitley approached the vehicle, Johnson held his hands in the air and out the window. A background check revealed that Johnson had been charged with several violent crimes.

Whitley conducted a consensual frisk on Johnson. He then searched the "lungeable areas" of the vehicle, over Johnson's objections. Whitley did not find a gun, but did find cocaine in the vehicle's console.

Johnson was charged with possession of cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized as a result of the search, arguing that Whitley lacked the authority to search his vehicle. The trial court denied the motion, and Johnson pleaded guilty to the charges.

Johnson appealed the denial of his motion to suppress, but in a Dec. 17 opinion authored by Judge Lucy Inman, a majority of a panel of the Court of Appeals disagreed, deferring to the officer's assessment of the situation.

"Officer Whitley testified that, in his experience, when people raise their hands in the manner defendant did, there is the possibility of a firearm being present," Inman wrote. "Courts are encouraged to credit the practical experience of officers who observe on a daily basis what transpires on the street."

Inman said that, besides raising his hands, Johnson appeared to be very nervous and contorted his body in his car so that it looked as if he might have been trying to hide something, and it wasn't until Whitley learned of Johnson's violent criminal history that he opted to search the vehicle. A police...

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