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State v. Cobb: The NC Supreme Court Eases the Requirements for Establishing the Reasonableness of Traffic Checkpoints.

A few days ago, the Supreme Court of North Carolina published their opinion easing the required showing to establish the reasonableness of a DWI/Traffic Checkpoint in State v. Cobb. This opinion reverses a decision by the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which in turn had previously vacated a ruling by a Harnett County trial court denying Defendant’s motion to suppress evidence in their DWI trial.

At issue was whether the trial court sufficiently analyzed the reasonableness of a traffic checkpoint to level required by the Constitution of the United States, and as laid out in the United State Supreme Court case Brown v. Texas.

The Brown test

In Brown, the United States Supreme Court held that in order for a traffic checkpoint to conform to the protection against unreasonable search and seizure guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, a court must (1) weigh the gravity of the public concerns served by the stop (traffic stops and checkpoints are seizures under the Fourth Amendment); (2) the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest; and (3) the severity of the interference with individual liberty.

Since traffic checkpoints implicate the protections of United States Constitution, the Supreme Court’s decision is binding on state courts. As such, when North Carolina courts determine the reasonableness of a traffic checkpoints in our state they must make sure the checkpoints pass the three-part Brown balancing test.

Cobb revisited

Moving back to the Cobb Case, at issue was whether the trial court sufficiently weighed all the factors to determine the reasonableness of the traffic checkpoint as required by Brown. The Court of Appeals held that they did not. They reasoned that while the trial court did indeed make a sufficient finding to establish the third prong of Brown (the severity of the interference with individual liberty), it failed to fully consider all of the factors necessary to establish the other two (gravity of the public concern and the degree the checkpoints advanced a public interest).

Put another way, the Court of Appeals said that in order for a court to establish that a checkpoint is reasonable, it must make sure that it is doing a full enough analysis of the facts and circumstances to make sure the checkpoint passes a bare minimum constitutional requirements. If they do not, as a matter of law, the checkpoint is not reasonable and evidence gathered from the stop must be suppressed.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of North Carolina disagreed. Specifically, the Supreme Court examined the record of the case, and determined that based on the undisputed findings of fact, that all of the necessary points were established, and the traffic checkpoint was reasonable, regardless of whether or not the trial court actually took the time to sufficiently identify them when making its ruling.

What does this mean?

It may not seem like a big shift, but the practical result of this decision is a further tipping of the scales of justice in favor of the state. Moreover, this ruling also may disincentivize judges from engaging in a full and thorough analysis of the facts and law at hand; for even if they may fail to conduct a thorough analysis of the facts, the state can just argue the necessary facts were established by the record anyway.  

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Robert C. DiDomenico III

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