NC appeals court permits unreasonable search by private police officer

Many people in Lincoln County, North Carolina, have heard stories of people being arrested for driving under the influence and later getting the charges dropped because of mistakes made during the arrest. In many cases, DUI charges are dismissed on the grounds of violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

A North Carolina appeals court recently found, however, that private police officers are not bound by the same search and seizure standards as their state counterparts. If this decision becomes a precedent, it could have a significant impact on many North Carolina drivers.

Details of the arrest

In the case in question, a security officer employed by a private company pulled over a man driving in a townhome community. The security officer, who wore a uniform, carried a firearm and had colored strobe lights installed on his vehicle, had the right to issue fines and citations to people who committed traffic violations or broke community rules. The officer suspected that the driver was drunk because the vehicle had repeatedly crossed the center line and appeared to be traveling above the speed limit.

The security officer identified himself as an officer and provided the name of his company. When the driver admitted to consuming alcohol, the security officer asked the driver to wait on the sidewalk. The officer then called the police, issued a citation and waited for authorities to arrive. The officer who arrived 45 minutes later conducted field sobriety tests and then arrested the driver for DUI. The driver later filed a motion to suppress evidence that the arresting officer obtained, providing the following grounds:

  • The security guard was acting as an agent of the State.
  • Since the security guard was not trained in judging speed or detecting intoxication, there was not reasonable suspicion to support the stop.
  • An agent of the State violated the driver's Fourth Amendment rights.
  • Evidence obtained because of such a violation is inadmissible.

The trial court granted the driver's motion, but that decision was later challenged in an appeals court. In December 2013, this court found that the security guard was not acting as an agent of the State, so the traffic stop was not subject to the usual standard of reasonable suspicion. Even if the security guard had lacked reasonable suspicion - and the appeals court ruled that he did not - evidence obtained by his search would be admissible.

Driver options during DUI arrests

In light of these findings, it is important for North Carolina drivers to understand what their rights are during a DUI arrest. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, drivers must submit to a blood or breath test or face an automatic one-year license revocation. Drivers do have the option of politely refusing field sobriety tests without being penalized.

In the recent case, the driver was not physically detained or ordered to wait; the security guard merely asked him to wait, wrote a citation and then stopped talking to him. The driver may have been able to leave at that point. Anyone facing a similar situation in the future could benefit from calling a lawyer to discuss legal options under the circumstances.

Anyone who has been arrested for DUI should make sure to contact an attorney as soon as possible. An attorney can determine whether a driver's rights were violated during the arrest and help the driver identify the best means of fighting the charges.