In order to stop a vehicle a police officer in North Carolina need only have reasonable suspicion as established in State v. Styles, 362 N.C. 412 (2008). A police officer who makes a visual estimate of speed and believes a vehicle is speeding may be able to articulate he had reasonable suspicion to make the stop, however new case law that has been decided by the Fourth Circuit clarifies may change this. Admittedly it is a federal case so state courts do not have to follow it, however state courts are often persuaded by the reasoning in federal cases. The case is United States v. Sowards and involves a traffic stop made on I-77 near Charlotte. A police officer pulled over a vehicle after visually estimating the vehicle was traveling 75 MPH in a 70 MPH zone. The officer found narcotics in the vehicle as a result of the traffic stop and stop was challenged in court.
The Fourth Circuit ultimately came down and said that the officer did not have probable cause to stop because the visual estimate involved speeding that was “slight”. However the opinion does say if the speed is “great” then a trained law enforcement officer may have probable cause to stop based on a visual estimate. The opinion however does not give us any bright line rules as to what the difference between “slight” and “great” is.
This case does deal with the standard of probable cause to stop and since North Carolina only requires a reasonable suspicion standard this may not have any effect on law enforcement in NC. This case is interesting because it does begin to lay some groundwork as to what type of visual speeding estimate may be enough for law enforcement to stop a vehicle. Only time will tell in the state courts begin to follow the reasoning in this case.
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