WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A Winston-Salem man’s constitutional rights were violated when a police officer stopped him for a minor traffic infraction and then searched his vehicle for drugs and weapons without a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
In its decision, the appeals court said that Officer Jordan Payne of the Winston-Salem Police Department had no right to search Anthony Cottrell’s car once he had cleared Cottrell for the reasons of the traffic stop — driving at night with his headlights off and possibly violating the city’s noise ordinance. Payne seized a handgun, a plastic bag containing cocaine and another containing marijuana.
Cottrell, 37, pleaded guilty Feb. 11, 2013, in Forsyth Superior Court to possession of a firearm by a felon, possession of a schedule II controlled substance and possession of up to ½-ounce of marijuana. He also pleaded guilty to being a habitual felon. Judge Susan Bray consolidated the charges and sentenced Cottrell to about six to eight years in prison.
But the appeals court ruled that Bray shouldn’t have denied Cottrell’s motion to suppress, which was heard before Cottrell entered his guilty pleas. The court sent the case back to Forsyth Superior Court for an order vacating Cottrell’s guilty pleas.
“Accordingly, the officer’s continued detention of defendant violated defendant’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures and defendant’s subsequent consent to a search of his car was involuntary as a matter of law,” the court ruled.
Chief Barry Rountree of the Winston-Salem Police Department did not respond to a message seeking comment. Katherine Jane Allen, the attorney who represented Cottrell in his appeal, could not be reached for comment.
Al Andrews, deputy city attorney, said city officials are reviewing the opinion and will determine whether there are any procedural or training impacts from the opinion.
“We are unable to comment any further on the same day as the opinion is issued, but as always, we respect the opinions by the N.C. Courts of Appeal and will govern ourselves accordingly,” he said.
This is what happened, according to the appeals court ruling:
Payne stopped Cottrell at 11:37 p.m. on Trade Street on May 28, 2012. Cottrell pulled into a nearby parking lot. Payne took Cottrell’s license and registration and told Cottrell that he had stopped him because his headlights were off. Payne told Cottrell that if everything checked out with his license and registration, Cottrell would be free to go, according to the court’s ruling.
However, that didn’t happen. Payne found that Cottrell’s license and registration were valid and that he didn’t have any outstanding warrants. But Cottrell did have a history of drug charges and other felonies. When Payne returned to Cottrell’s car, he reported smelling a strong cologne-type fragrance that he believed was a cover scent used to mask the odor of drugs, according to the ruling.
Payne told Cottrell his suspicions, which Cottrell denied, and Payne asked to search Cottrell’s car. Cottrell refused but Payne said he would call for a police dog to sniff for drugs. Cottrell said he wanted to just go home, but Payne insisted, according to the ruling.
Cottrell then consented to the search. Payne frisked Cottrell and found no weapons. When Payne searched the vehicle, he found a handgun and a plastic bag containing cocaine in the glove box. Payne arrested Cottrell, and Cottrell admitted to having a plastic bag containing marijuana in his sock.
The appeals court said that Payne detained Cottrell beyond the scope of the traffic stop without getting Cottrell’s valid consent and without a reasonable suspicion of a crime.
The appeals court said in its decision that Payne did not report any evidence that Cottrell was impaired, including red or glassy eyes, and had essentially completed the reasons for why he had stopped Cottrell.
The cologne-like odor and Cottrell’s previous criminal history, the court ruled, were not enough to establish reasonable suspicion that Cottrell had committed a crime.