police vehicle

State v. Steele: What Is a Law Enforcement Show of Authority?

The case of State v. Steele centered on the Fourth Amendment implications involved in the determination of whether a driver is “seized” when an officer in a marked police cruiser tails the driver’s car at 3 a.m., follows the car into an empty parking lot and hails the driver down by using hand gestures. The Fourth Amendment provides certain protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

If the described actions constitute a law enforcement show of authority, then the driver was “seized” and fell under the protection of the Fourth Amendment. Civil rights attorneys can explain State v. Steele and answer your questions about what is a law enforcement show of authority.

What Happened on the Night of the Arrest?

An East Carolina University Police Department officer, Officer Michael Plummer, was on patrol around 3 a.m. in August of 2017 when he learned through dispatch that the county police had requested assistance for a motor vehicle crash. Office Plummer was in uniform and driving a marked police car. Plummer headed to the area and saw only one vehicle on the street, traveling ahead of the police car. 

Officer Plummer followed the car as it pulled into a campus parking lot and pulled up to within three or four feet of the car, positioned with the driver’s doors adjacent to each other. The officer opened his window and waved his hand up and down to flag down the driver. 

When asking the driver if he had seen the crash, the officer suspected the driver had been drinking. The officer asked the driver to get out of the car, which he did. After failing several field sobriety tests, the driver got arrested and charged with impaired driving.

How Did the Lower Court Rule on the Issue of a Law Enforcement Show of Authority?

The defendant driver filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the stop of his vehicle was an unlawful seizure and detention. The trial court denied the motion to suppress. The court found the defendant guilty of impaired driving and sentenced him to 12 months of unsupervised probation plus a suspended sentence of 60 days of jail time.

The defendant appealed the conviction and filed a new motion to suppress. The trial court held a hearing on the new motion to suppress and denied the motion. The court ruled that the incident was not a traffic stop because the officer had not told the defendant that he was not free to leave.

What Did the North Carolina Court of Appeals Decide?

The defendant appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, who ruled that the trial court erred when denying the motion to suppress. The Court of Appeals concluded that “no reasonable person would believe that he was free to go” under the circumstances of the police car following the defendant’s car down empty streets and into an empty parking lot, then hailing the car down with hand gestures.

The Court of Appeals said that the primary issue of contention was whether the encounter of the police officer with the defendant was a traffic stop or a “voluntary consensual conversation.” A traffic stop is a “seizure” for purposes of constitutional protection. 

Because the officer’s conduct was a show of authority, the incident was a traffic stop, not a consensual conversation. A show of authority qualifies as a seizure when a reasonable person would not believe that he was free to terminate the encounter or decline the officer’s request.Chicago civil rights attorneys can fight to protect your constitutional rights and seek justice if your rights have been violated. Get in touch with our office today.