Harris v. State

Decision Date13 June 2002
Docket NumberNo. 179, 1999.,179, 1999.
Citation806 A.2d 119
PartiesUriel C. HARRIS, Defendant Below, Appellant, v. STATE of Delaware, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.
CourtSupreme Court of Delaware

Charles M. Oberly, III, of Oberly & Jennings, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, for appellant.

Timothy J. Donovan, Jr., Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, for appellee.

BEFORE: VEASEY, Chief Justice, WALSH, HOLLAND, and STEELE, Justices, and HARTNETT, Justice (Retired),1 constituting the Court en Banc. VEASEY, Chief J.

This case is about constitutional protections prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures that the judicial branch of government is obligated to enforce for the protection of the rights of all citizens, including the law-abiding as well as reprehensible drug traffickers and other criminals. Thus, we consider whether the police in this case met the constitutional requirement of reasonable suspicion to stop a car and probable cause to search its contents.

Lawful and apparently innocent behavior may be "meaningless to the untrained" but still raise reasonable suspicion of drug trafficking in the eyes of a reasonable, prudent, and experienced police officer.2 Reasonable suspicion may be based on the totality of the circumstances. In some instances, therefore, lawful and apparently innocent conduct may add up to reasonable suspicion if the detaining officer articulates "concrete reasons for such an interpretation."3

In this case, however, the detaining officer did not articulate how the defendant's lawful behavior matched the police's drug courier profile characteristics. As a result, we find that the detaining officer's belief that the defendant was a drug courier "was more an `inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch' than a fair inference [and] is simply too slender a reed to support the seizure in this case."4 Therefore, under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 6 of the Delaware Constitution, the police lacked reasonable suspicion to stop and search the vehicle and its contents. Accordingly, we hold that the search and seizure in this case were unlawful, the evidence obtained from the illegal seizure should have been suppressed, and the judgment of the Superior Court must be reversed.


On April 30, 1997, Wilmington Police Detective Liam Sullivan, dressed in plain clothes, stationed himself on the Wilmington train station platform to monitor in-bound trains from New York City for drug couriers. Sullivan had received no tips regarding any person or that there would even be drugs coming into Wilmington on a train that day. But, he testified that "there's probably drugs on every train coming south from New York City."

That afternoon, Uriel Harris boarded a southbound train in Philadelphia. Harris testified5 that he planned to meet his friend Dale Green at the Wilmington train station. Green was to drive Harris back to Aberdeen, Maryland, where Green apparently originated his trip earlier that day. Harris' train arrived in Wilmington about twenty-five minutes late. After leaving the train along with about twenty other passengers, Harris, who carried a backpack, looked over his shoulder three times between the train and the platform's exit doors. Sullivan testified that he became suspicious because Harris looked over his shoulder three times. Harris testified that he had never been to the Wilmington train station before and was uncertain about where to meet Green. Harris stated he was looking for the appropriate exit and for Green.

At this point, Sullivan decided that he and his partner Sergeant Whalen would conduct a drug interdiction6 because Harris looked over his shoulder three times and fit a profile of a drug courier. Sullivan followed Harris down the platform exit steps into the station and observed Harris in the station lobby holding a green backpack, talking to another man and using a payphone. Sullivan left the train station to find Whalen and informed him that the target of an interdiction (who turned out to be the defendant, Harris) was on the phone and conversing as well with a man standing nearby, wearing a white bandanna (who turned out to be Green). Whalen responded that Green had just gotten out of a Ford Tempo with Maryland tags parked in front of Whalen's unmarked police vehicle. Whalen also told Sullivan that the car's driver was a woman, who remained in the car.

Just as Sullivan reentered the station and discovered that the two men, Harris and Green, were nowhere to be seen, Whalen radioed Sullivan to "get out here now." Sullivan testified that Whalen told him that, at first, he had not seen Harris in the vehicle but that Harris' head appeared or "popped up" in the backseat and looked toward the street corner when the car was approximately eighty feet away. Sullivan decided to pursue the Tempo and make a stop.

The Tempo entered Interstate 95 and headed south. Sullivan called for Wilmington and state police assistance in making the stop.7 The Tempo left the interstate to head west, but two marked state police cruisers had blocked the bottom of the exit ramp by placing their vehicles in a "V" position. Sullivan and Whalen stopped their vehicle directly behind the Tempo. Sullivan drew his gun to his side and approached the vehicle as two state troopers stood in front of the Tempo with guns drawn and shouted, "State Police, put your hands up."

Sullivan looked in the back window and noticed that Harris did not have his hands in the air and that he was holding one strap of the green backpack. Sullivan opened the door, pointed the gun at Harris and said, "Police officer, put your hands up." Harris complied by raising his hands and releasing the backpack strap. Sullivan asked Harris whether the backpack belonged to him. Harris replied, "No, that's not my bag. I don't know whose it is." Green and the woman driver also denied ownership of the bag. Sullivan ordered everyone out of the car to be frisked for weapons and declared the bag to be abandoned property. Sullivan then searched the bag and found three clear plastic bags that contained over 200 grams of crack cocaine.

Harris was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to deliver and trafficking in more than 100 grams of cocaine. Harris moved to suppress the cocaine found in the backpack. After the suppression hearing, the Superior Court denied that motion. Harris was tried three times. The first two trials in March 1998 and September 1998, ended in mistrials. The last trial ended March 11, 1999 and resulted in a conviction of Harris on both counts. The Superior Court sentenced Harris to ten years in prison for possession of cocaine with intent to deliver and 15 years in prison for trafficking in more than 100 grams of cocaine. This is Harris' direct appeal.

Issue on Appeal

Harris contends that Sullivan and the other police officers lacked the requisite justification to stop the vehicle in which he was riding and to search its occupants and contents. It is his position that the stop was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and under Article I, Section 6 of the Delaware Constitution. Harris argues that the stop constituted a full-blown search and seizure requiring probable cause and that the police did not have probable cause or even reasonable suspicion to stop him. If Harris is successful on this claim, all of the evidence against him obtained from the search would be inadmissible, requiring reversal of the Superior Court's judgment.8

A trial court's determination of whether the State's warrantless search and seizure passes constitutional muster is an issue of both law and fact.9 In this case, the facts are undisputed. Therefore, we review de novo the Superior Court's denial of Harris' motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the search and seizure of the Tempo in which Harris was a passenger.10 "No right is to be held more sacred, or is more carefully guarded, by the common law, than the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person, free from all restraint or interference of others, unless by clear and unquestionable authority of law."11 Therefore, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution12 and Article I, Section 6 of the Delaware Constitution13 prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures by the State.14

The Government seizes a person within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when an officer restrains the person through physical force or, in the absence of such force, the person submits to the officer's assertion of authority.15 This Court has held that the Government seizes a person within the meaning of Article I, § 6 of the Delaware Constitution "when a reasonable person would have believed he or she was not free to ignore the police presence."16 The police officers and state troopers forced the Tempo, in which Harris was a passenger, to halt. The state troopers blocked the interstate exit ramp with their vehicles and stood with guns drawn in front of the Tempo while shouting "State Police, put your hands up." Meanwhile, the police officers boxed in the Tempo by blocking the rear of the car with their vehicle. Officer Sullivan immediately approached the Tempo from behind with his gun drawn and, because Harris' hands were not raised, he opened the rear door of the Tempo next to Harris, pointed his gun at him, and said, "Police officer, put your hands up." By forcing the Tempo to halt, blocking it in with their vehicles, and surrounding it with their guns drawn, the police restrained Harris through physical force and consequently seized his person under the Fourth Amendment.17 These actions by police also would have led a reasonable person to believe that he was not at liberty to ignore police presence and go about his business and thus the police had also seized Harris under Article I, § 6 of the Delaware Constitution.18


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