STATE v. HEIEN
714 S.E.2d 827 (2011)
Court of Appeals of North Carolina.
August 16, 2011.
Defendant first argues that the trial court erred by concluding that Sergeant Darisse's initial stop of the vehicle "was constitutional, as [Sergeant] Darisse had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the ... vehicle and the driver were violating the laws of this State by operating a motor vehicle without a properly functioning brake light."
Generally, an appellate court's review of a trial court's order on a motion to suppress "is strictly limited to a determination of whether its findings are supported by competent evidence, and in turn, whether the findings support the trial court's ultimate conclusion." Where, however, the trial court's findings of fact are not challenged on appeal, they are deemed to be supported by competent evidence and are binding on appeal.
State v. Roberson, 163 N.C. App. 129, 132, 592 S.E.2d 733, 735-36 (2004) (citations omitted). "[C]onclusions of law drawn from the findings of fact are ... reviewable de novo." Huyck Corp. v. Town of Wake Forest, 86 N.C. App. 13, 15, 356 S.E.2d 599, 601 (1987) (citations omitted). "A law enforcement officer may stop and briefly detain a vehicle and its occupants if the officer has reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity may be afoot." State v. Jackson, 199 N.C. App. 236, 241, 681 S.E.2d 492, 496 (2009) (citation omitted). However, an officer's determination
regarding potential criminal activity must be objectively reasonable, and an officer's mistaken belief that a defendant has committed a traffic violation is not an objectively reasonable justification for a traffic stop. See State v. McLamb, 186 N.C. App. 124, 127-28, 649 S.E.2d 902, 904 (2007) (holding that an officer's mistaken belief that the defendant was speeding was not an objectively reasonable purpose for a traffic stop). A passenger in a vehicle which is stopped by a law enforcement officer is seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and may accordingly challenge the constitutionality of the initial stop. See Jackson, 199 N.C.App. at 239-41, 681 S.E.2d at 495-96.
In the present case, the trial court made an unchallenged finding of fact that Sergeant Darisse's initial stop of the vehicle was based upon his observation that "the right brake light of the vehicle [did] not ... function as the left brake light of the vehicle came on as the ... vehicle slowed." Defendant argues that Sergeant Darisse did not have reasonable, articulable suspicion to stop the vehicle because the stop was based upon the mistaken belief that the malfunctioning brake light constituted a violation of N.C. Gen.Stat. § 20-129(g). The State, however, argues that Sergeant Darisse had reasonable, articulable suspicion to stop the vehicle because the malfunctioning brake light constituted a violation of N.C. Gen.Stat. § 20-129(d) and N.C. Gen.Stat. § 20-183.3. Based on the language of the statutes, we hold that the malfunction of a single brake light, where a vehicle has at least one functioning brake light, is not a violation of N.C.G.S. § 20-129(g), N.C.G.S. § 20-129(d), or N.C.G.S. § 20-183.3.
In matters of statutory construction, our primary task is to ensure that the purpose of the legislature, the legislative intent, is accomplished. Hunt v. Reinsurance Facility, 302 N.C. 274, 288, 275 S.E.2d 399, 405 (1981). Legislative purpose is first ascertained from the plain words of the statute. See Burgess v. Your House of Raleigh, 326 N.C. 205, 209, 388 S.E.2d 134, 136 (1990). Moreover, we are guided by the structure of the statute and certain canons of statutory construction. See, e.g., Media, Inc. v. McDowell County, 304 N.C. 427, 430-31, 284 S.E.2d 457, 461 (1981) ("statutes dealing with the same subject matter must be construed in pari materia"); Builders, Inc. v. City of Winston-Salem, 302 N.C. 550, 556, 276 S.E.2d 443, 447 (1981) ("It is presumed that the legislature intended each portion to be given full effect and did not intend any provision to be mere surplusage"). Electric Supply Co. v. Swain Electric [Electrical] Co., 328 N.C. 651, 656, 403 S.E.2d 291, 294 (1991).I. N.C. Gen.Stat. § 20-129(g)