State v. Alston, 2015-UP-381

Decision Date29 July 2015
Docket Number2015-UP-381
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals
PartiesThe State, Respondent, v. Stepheno Jemain Alston, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2013-002089


Heard May 6, 2015.

Appeal From Spartanburg County J. Derham Cole, Circuit Court Judge.

Appellate Defender Lara Mary Caudy, of Columbia, for Appellant.

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson and Assistant Attorney General Christina Catoe Bigelow, both of Columbia; and Solicitor Barry Joe Barnette, of Spartanburg, for Respondent.


Stepheno Jemain Alston appeals his conviction for trafficking in cocaine. He argues the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence found in his vehicle because (1) the officer did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop Alston's car for a traffic violation, (2) the officer's continued detention of Alston exceeded the scope of the traffic stop and constituted a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, and (3) Alston's consent to search was not freely and voluntarily given and was an exploitation of an unlawful detention. We affirm.

1. Alston first contends the trial court erred when it denied his motion to suppress because Deputy Donnie Gilbert did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop Alston's car for a traffic violation. We disagree.

"Temporary detention of an individual in the course of a routine traffic stop constitutes a Fourth Amendment seizure, but where probable cause exists to believe that a traffic violation has occurred, such a seizure is reasonable per se." State v. Tindall, 388 S.C. 518, 521, 698 S.E.2d 203 205 (2010). "Probable cause is defined as a good faith belief that a person is guilty of a crime when this belief rests upon such grounds as would induce an ordinarily prudent and cautious person, under the circumstances, to believe likewise." State v. Gamble, 405 S.C. 409, 416 747 S.E.2d 784, 787 (2013) (internal quotation marks omitted).

"[A] policeman who lacks probable cause but whose observations lead him reasonably to suspect that a particular person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime, may detain that person briefly in order to investigate the circumstances that provoke that suspicion." State v Nelson, 336 S.C. 186, 192, 519 S.E.2d 786, 789 (1999) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Reasonable suspicion requires a particularized and objective basis that would lead one to suspect another of criminal activity." State v. Khingratsaiphon, 352 S.C. 62, 69, 572 S.E.2d 456, 459 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Pursuant to section 56-5-1900 of the South Carolina Code (2006), an officer may stop a driver for failing to maintain a lane. The statute states, in pertinent part:

Whenever any roadway has been divided into two or more clearly marked lanes for traffic . . . [a] vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from the lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.

Id. The South Carolina Code also defines a "highway" as "[t]he entire width between boundary lines of every way publicly maintained when any part thereof is open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel." S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-430 (2006) (emphasis added). Applying this definition, we find a lane of travel constitutes the area between the boundary lines. See United States v. Williams, 945 F.Supp.2d 665, 672 (E.D. Va. 2013) (applying a similar definition of "highway" and finding that "a driver who drives his vehicle on the boundary lines violates [Virginia's failure to maintain a lane statute], regardless of whether the driver actually crosses over the boundary lines").

We also find persuasive a line of cases that have found driving on a lane line to be a sufficient basis for a stop. See id. (discussing the mandate that a "vehicle shall be driven as nearly as is practicable entirely within a single lane" and finding "[t]he word 'within' necessarily implies boundaries, which could only refer to fog lines, and, therefore, proper driving must occur 'within' those lines-not on the lines" (internal quotation marks omitted)); United States v. Bassols, 775 F.Supp.2d 1293, 1300-01 (D.N.M. 2011) (rejecting the argument that a vehicle making contact with a lane marker is "entirely within a single lane" under a statute similar to section 56-5-1900, as such an interpretation would lead to the absurd result that "two vehicles could legally occupy the same physical space at the same time despite the fact that the vehicles would collide"); State v. McBroom, 39 P.3d 226, 227-28 (Or. Ct. App. 2002) (applying a substantially similar statute to address a situation in which a vehicle's "tires drifted onto the closer of the double yellow dividing lines and stayed on top of that line for 300 feet or more" and finding "the phrase 'within a single lane' does not mean 'on' the lines that mark or divide the lanes").

In the instant case, Deputy Gilbert stopped Alston's vehicle after he observed the vehicle strike the dotted white lane line several times. During the suppression hearing, he provided the following testimony:

[A]fter [Alston's vehicle] passed me[, ] its left side tire struck the dotted line that divides the middle lane, which it was traveling in, and the fast lane, which would've been to its left. Then it drifted back into the middle of that middle lane. And it did that several times in the time that it took me to catch up to the vehicle.

Deputy Gilbert explained he used the word "struck" because the "tire could have covered that whole line, but it didn't go all the way across it." Because the tire of Alston's vehicle struck the lane line several times, we find Deputy Gilbert had probable cause to stop Alston's vehicle for a violation of South Carolina's failure to maintain a lane statute.

Alston argues he did not violate section 56-5-1900 because he "could have legally and safely changed lanes at the time he allegedly struck the white dotted line." This argument lacks merit, however, because Alston did not actually change lanes after passing Deputy Gilbert. In light of this fact, we find Deputy Gilbert's determination that Alston failed to maintain a lane to be reasonable.

Additionally, we find Deputy Gilbert had reasonable suspicion to support a brief investigatory detention. See State v. Butler, 353 S.C. 383, 389, 577 S.E.2d 498, 501 (Ct. App. 2003) (stating an officer may stop and briefly detain the occupants of a vehicle without treading on Fourth Amendment rights, even without probable cause to arrest, provided the officer has a reasonable suspicion the occupants of the vehicle are involved in criminal activity); see also United States v. Fernandez-Castillo, 324 F.3d 1114, 1120 (9th Cir. 2003) ("It is perfectly understandable that swerving within one's own lane of traffic . . . would support [an officer's] reasonable suspicion that [the driver] was operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol."); State v. Taylor, 388 S.C. 101, 116, 694 S.E.2d 60, 68 (Ct. App. 2010) ("An additional factor to consider when determining whether reasonable suspicion exists is the officer's experience and intuition."), rev'd on other grounds, 401 S.C. 104, 736 S.E.2d 663 (2013).

When Deputy Gilbert approached Alston's vehicle, he asked Alston whether he was under the influence of any drugs or alcohol or was too tired to drive. He then explained it was his responsibility to ensure Alston was not under the influence of anything. Deputy Gilbert also testified Alston was "drifting" and stated that drifting could be a sign drivers are tired or "they could be having a medical condition, they could be under the influence of any alcohol or drugs, [or] they could be on the phone." We find Deputy Gilbert's statements to Alston at the scene and his testimony regarding Alston's "drifting, " coupled with Deputy Gilbert's significant experience and training, support a finding that Deputy Gilbert had reasonable suspicion to warrant a traffic stop. Thus, we affirm the trial court's determination that Deputy Gilbert lawfully stopped Alston.

2. Alston next asserts the trial court erred when it denied Alston's motion to suppress because Deputy Gilbert exceeded the scope of the traffic stop without either (1) a reasonable and articulable suspicion of illegal activity to warrant detention or (2) Alston's consent. We disagree.

"A traffic stop supported by reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation remains valid until the purpose of the traffic stop has been completed." State v. Hewins, 409 S.C. 93, 114, 760 S.E.2d 814, 825 (2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Notwithstanding that an officer may not lawfully extend the duration of a traffic stop in order to engage in off-topic questioning, this rule does not limit the scope of the officer's questions to the motorist during the traffic stop." Id. at 115, 760 S.E.2d at 825 (internal quotation marks omitted). "Lengthening the detention for further questioning beyond that related to the initial stop is acceptable in two situations: (1) the officer has an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion illegal activity has occurred or is occurring; or (2) the initial detention has become a consensual encounter." State v. Provet, 391 S.C. 494, 500, 706 S.E.2d 513, 516 (Ct. App. 2011), aff'd, 405 S.C. 101, 747 S.E.2d 453 (2013).

"Reasonable suspicion requires a particularized and objective basis that would lead one to suspect another of criminal activity." Khingratsaiphon, 352 S.C. at 69, 572 S.E.2d at 459 (internal quotation marks omitted). "Reasonable suspicion is not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules, but, rather, entails common sense nontechnical conceptions that deal with...

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