A North Carolina woman who was convicted of drunken driving after her blood alcohol content tested at twice the legal limit had her conviction overturned Tuesday by the N.C. Court of Appeals.
The opinion in the case focused on police accountability, and specifically people’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Tanya Cabbagestalk was pulled over in 2017 in Rowland, a small Robeson County town of about 1,000 people that’s a couple miles away from the South Of The Border tourist attraction on Interstate 95.
The former Rowland Police Department officer who pulled her over, Perry Thompson, previously testified that he smelled alcohol on her breath, according to the ruling issued Tuesday. He then gave her four blood alcohol content tests — two on the side of the road and two more after taking her to the county jail — and testified that her lowest score was 0.16, which is twice the legal limit of 0.08 in North Carolina.
Cabbagestalk was convicted of DWI by a Robeson County judge in 2017. She appealed, seeking a jury trial. A jury also convicted her, in 2018. But the Court of Appeals ruled that Thompson violated her Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.
A key part of the case was that Cabbagestalk was apparently driving just fine — not seeming impaired, even to the officer who pulled her over.
“Officer Thompson admitted that (Cabbagestalk) drove ‘normal[ly]’; that is, she was not speeding, going too slowly, weaving, or swerving,” the court wrote. “(Cabbagestalk) also appeared to be wearing her seatbelt, and her lights were working. Officer Thompson did not observe (Cabbagestalk) drinking the beer she had purchased or violate any traffic laws, nor did he run her plates before stopping her.”
The opinion was the first that’s been written by Judge Chris Brook, who joined the court last month after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper appointed him to fill a vacant seat. Before he joined the Court of Appeals, Brook was the top lawyer for the ACLU’s North Carolina chapter.
The other two judges on the case, Lucy Inman and John Arrowood, are also Democrats. They unanimously joined Brooks’ opinion.
Thompson had previously testified that he saw Cabbagestalk drinking on a porch earlier in the day. After she bought beer at a local gas station and then drove away, he followed her and then pulled her over. But since she was not breaking any traffic laws, the judges ruled, he had no probable cause to pull her over.
The judges wrote that “when the basis for an officer’s suspicion connects only tenuously with the criminal behavior suspected, if at all, courts have not found the requisite reasonable suspicion.”
The court also noted at least one instance in which Thompson appeared to exaggerate during trial to make the driver’s behavior seem worse.
He originally testified at her trial that he saw Cabbagestalk drinking a beer on a porch “approximately 30 minutes to an hour” before he saw her driving and pulled her over, but “he clarified on cross-examination that the timeframe was in fact approximately two hours,” the judges wrote.
The state could appeal the case further, or accept the court’s decision.