State v. Culbreath

Decision Date01 November 1989
Docket NumberNo. 23124,23124
Citation387 S.E.2d 255,300 S.C. 232
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesThe STATE, Appellant, v. Sidney Dwight CULBREATH, Respondent. . Heard

Atty. Gen. T. Travis Medlock, Asst. Atty. Gen. Harold M. Coombs, Jr., and Staff Atty. Miller W. Shealy, Jr., Columbia, and Sol. W. Townes Jones, IV, Greenwood, for appellant.

Theo W. Mitchell, Greenville, for respondent.

HARWELL, Justice:

This is a criminal case in which the State appeals from the trial court's findings that the police officer lacked probable cause to detain respondent Sidney Dwight Culbreath (Culbreath) and that cocaine found in his automobile was inadmissible evidence because it was not in plain view.


On January 18, 1988, at approximately 1:00 a.m., Officer Kittles was patrolling alone when he observed a vehicle parked in a driveway at a residence. The vehicle's engine was running and an individual (Culbreath) was inside. Officer Kittles passed by the residence and vehicle three or four times throughout the night and each time the engine was running and someone appeared to be inside the vehicle. At about 3:00 a.m., Officer Kittles stopped and shined his automobile lights on the vehicle to see if everything was okay, but the person in the car did not move. Officer Kittles radioed his supervisor, who told Officer Kittles that because it was extremely cold, asphyxiation or carbon monoxide poisoning could be possible, and that he should check to make sure that everyone was alright.

Officer Kittles approached the vehicle. The window was rolled up and Culbreath did not respond when Officer Kittles spoke. He tapped on the window and motioned for Culbreath to roll down the window. Finally, after the second request, Culbreath rolled down the window. Officer Kittles asked Culbreath if he was alright and Culbreath became agitated and restless, telling Officer Kittles that he was on private property. Again, Officer Kittles stated that he was checking to see if Culbreath was okay because the car had been parked there for a long time. Culbreath became aggressive, said that everything was okay, and told Officer Kittles he had no right to be there and to leave.

Culbreath indicated that he did not live at the residence or know anyone living there. This, coupled with Culbreath's aggressive behavior caused Officer Kittles to believe some type of criminal activity was probably taking place. He asked to see some identification and Culbreath stated that he had a driver's license. At this time, Officers Owenby and Tolbert arrived and Officer Kittles asked them to approach the vehicle. Culbreath stated that he would show his driver's license to Officer Kittles, but that he was protesting Officer Kittles' stopping and talking to him. Officer Kittles asked to see his identification again. Culbreath did not produce any identification, but began fumbling in the center of the vehicle.

After the resident of the home told Officer Tolbert that she did not know Culbreath, Officer Tolbert approached the passenger side, shined a flashlight into the vehicle, and saw a package of cocaine in Culbreath's hand between his two fingers. Culbreath appeared to be trying to hide the package in the car console. About the same time Officer Kittles was asking Culbreath what he was doing in the console, Officer Tolbert said, "He's got cocaine, get him out of the car, he's trying to hide it." Officer Kittles asked Culbreath to exit his car, but he refused. Culbreath reached under the seat. Officer Kittles tried to open the door, but Culbreath grabbed the door handle and quickly rolled up the window. Again, Culbreath refused to exit the vehicle, so Officer Kittles grabbed his arm and forced him out of the car. Culbreath managed to shut and lock the door. Officer Kittles then looked through the window with his flashlight and clearly saw a small package containing white powder "[r]ight in plain view." Officer Kittles' testimony was unclear as to whether the cocaine was on or under the seat of the vehicle. Officer Kittles arrested Culbreath for possession of cocaine. The vehicle was towed and reopened later at which time the cocaine was removed.

At the pretrial hearing the trial judge granted Culbreath's motion to suppress the cocaine as evidence. The trial judge found that while the officer properly approached Culbreath to offer assistance there had been an unnecessary detention. He further stated that there was no probable cause to think Culbreath was engaged in any criminal activity. He also found that the cocaine was not in plain view. This appeal follows.


The State submits that the trial judge erroneously ruled that the officer lacked probable cause to detain Culbreath. The State argues that in determining that the officer lacked probable cause to detain Culbreath, the trial judge applied the incorrect standard by indicating that full probable cause was needed for the detention. We agree. The correct standard is that the police may briefly detain and question a person upon a reasonable suspicion, short of probable cause for arrest, that he is involved in criminal activity. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). In Terry, the Court recognized that law enforcement authorities may briefly stop and detain persons if the officer has a reasonable basis to believe that the individual in question has committed or is about to commit a crime. If the officer's suspicions are confirmed or are further aroused, the stop may be prolonged and the scope enlarged as required by the circumstances. Connecticut v. Watson, 165 Conn. 577, 345 A.2d 532 (1973), cert. denied, 416 U.S. 960, 94 S.Ct. 1977, 40 L.Ed.2d 311 (1974); 3 W. LaFave, Search and Seizure, § 9.2(f) (2d ed.1987).

Here, as noted by the trial judge, Officer Kittles' initial approach towards Culbreath's vehicle was permissible and reasonable. This did not amount to a detention. It was only after this initial approach when Officer Kittles asked to see Culbreath's identification, that the detention occurred. Given the tone of Culbreath's responses to Officer Kittles' questions and his statements that he did not live at the residence or know anyone living there, w...

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  • Horton v. California
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
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    ...389 Pa.Super. 166, 175, 566 A.2d 897, 901 (1989) R.I. State v. Robalewski, 418 A.2d 817, 824 (R.I.1980) S.C. State v. Culbreath, 300 S.C. 232, 237, 387 S.E.2d 255, 257 (1990) S.D. State v. Albright, 418 N.W.2d 292, 295 (S.D.1988) Tenn. State v. Byerley, 635 S.W.2d 511, 513 (Tenn.1982) Tex. ......
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