State v. Frasier

Decision Date28 September 2022
Docket NumberAppellate Case No. 2020-001405,Opinion No. 28117
Citation437 S.C. 625,879 S.E.2d 762
Parties The STATE, Respondent, v. Michael N. FRASIER, Jr., Petitioner.
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court

Appellate Defender Kathrine Hudgins, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson and Assistant Attorney General Mark Reynolds Farthing, both of Columbia, and Solicitor Scarlett Anne Wilson, of Charleston, all for Respondent.

JUSTICE HEARN :

Petitioner Michael Frasier was convicted of trafficking cocaine in excess of 100 grams after police discovered cocaine during a traffic stop for an inoperable brake light. The questions before the Court concern whether police had reasonable suspicion to prolong the traffic encounter and whether Frasier consented to the search. The trial court concluded the officer had reasonable suspicion and Frasier consented, and the court of appeals affirmed. In deciding these two issues, we clarify the scope of this Court's standard of review in the Fourth Amendment context. Ultimately, we reverse the court of appeals because law enforcement lacked reasonable suspicion to prolong the traffic stop and Frasier did not consent to the search.

FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

During the morning of August 14, 2013, two plainclothes officers with the North Charleston Police Department sat in an unmarked car outside a bus station conducting a routine drug interdiction as part of the department's narcotics division. On this particular morning, Frasier had traveled from New York to North Charleston on a commercial bus. The two officers were approximately 75 to 100 yards away from the bus station's exit when they observed Frasier leave the station. According to the officers, Frasier immediately stopped after exiting the station and looked left and right before walking about ten yards to a vehicle driven by Cheryl Jones. Frasier entered the vehicle, and the two left the station. Officers characterized Frasier's conduct as clearing the area for threats, including law enforcement, which they deemed suspicious. As the vehicle left the station, the officers discovered that it had an inoperable third brake light. Accordingly, one of the officers called Steven Hall, a patrol officer who previously had worked in the narcotics department, to perform a traffic stop. Although the legal basis for the traffic stop stemmed from the broken brake light, the officers informed Hall that Frasier seemed suspicious. However, the officers never informed Hall of the specific conduct that raised their suspicion, such as Frasier's scanning the parking lot.

Hall subsequently caught up to the vehicle on the North Bridge over the Ashley River after reaching a speed of 87 miles per hour. Jones used her turn signal to get into the left lane and out of the officer's way. Apparently upon realizing that she was being pulled over, she then turned on her flashers and moved into the right lane before pulling off the road. Hall testified that Jones took longer than usual to pull over although the dashcam video indicated it took less than a minute. Hall exited his patrol car and approached Jones's vehicle. He informed Jones that her brake light was out, and while talking with her, Hall noticed the zipper was down on her pants. He testified that, from his experience, this suggested she was potentially hiding contraband in her pants. Hall testified that Frasier "just appeared to be nervous. He was sweating profusely. Did not want to really interact with me a whole lot as far as eye contact, something like that." Hall asked them where they were traveling from, and after repeating the question several times, Jones answered that she picked up Frasier from the bus stop. Hall requested Jones's driver's license, but she did not have it on her; instead, she gave him her personal information, and dispatch indicated that she did not have any outstanding warrants. Hall can be heard on the dashcam video telling dispatch that he is going to issue a warning ticket and try to obtain consent to search the car. Hall subsequently exited his patrol car, walked over to Jones and asked her to step out of her vehicle. Jones complied and consented for Hall to search the vehicle. Another patrol officer arrived on scene during the traffic stop, and both officers walked over to the passenger side door and asked Frasier to step out of the vehicle. Frasier complied, and placed his hands in his pockets. Hall immediately told Frasier to remove his hands from his pockets and asked Frasier if he would mind if he searched him. Frasier raised his hands in the air and said, "I do, but ...." Frasier subsequently placed his hands on the hood of the car at the direction of Hall. Ultimately, Hall found a white powdery substance later identified as cocaine on Frasier and a larger quantity in Frasier's jacket in the back seat of the vehicle. Frasier was arrested and charged with trafficking in cocaine in excess of 100 grams.

Thereafter, Frasier filed two motions to suppress, one contending Hall lacked reasonable suspicion to prolong the traffic stop and the second asserting he never consented to the search. Following the testimony of the officers, which was consistent with the account relayed above, Frasier argued all the drugs should be suppressed. The solicitor contended the following established reasonable suspicion to prolong the traffic stop in order to obtain consent: 1) Frasier's behavior at the bus stop, specifically traveling on a commercial bus which law enforcement knew was frequented by drug traffickers and his "scanning" the parking lot upon exiting the bus station; 2) Jones's purportedly "evasive driving" and the delay in pulling over; 3) the zipper down on her pants; 4) "evasively not answering very simple direct questions" such as where they were coming from; 5) the sense of nervousness Frasier displayed; and 6) "his sweating profusely."

Frasier contended once Hall wrote the warning ticket, the legal justification for the stop ended, and nothing the officer relied on established reasonable suspicion to prolong the encounter. The trial court stated that this issue "is at best a 50/50 call." Ultimately, the court denied Frasier's motion to suppress, concluding the facts above supported a finding of reasonable suspicion, with the exception of Jones's alleged "evasive driving" and taking too long to pull over. The court found Jones's driving reasonable, and thus, it did not take that fact into consideration.

As to Frasier's second argument—that he did not give Hall consent to search him—defense counsel noted that Frasier responded, "I do, but ..." in response to Hall asking whether he minded being searched. The solicitor contended that, "it was the officer's belief, as he testified earlier, that his words and actions together was [sic] consent." The trial court concluded the dashcam video unambiguously showed that Frasier consented to the search by virtue of his words and conduct, and it denied the second motion to suppress as well.

Ultimately, the jury found Frasier guilty, and the trial court sentenced him to the mandatory minimum sentence of twenty-five years imprisonment. Frasier appealed to the court of appeals which affirmed, citing our deferential standard of review and concluding evidence supported the trial court's decision. Frasier subsequently filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which the Court granted in part.1

ISSUES
I. Did the court of appeals err in affirming the trial court's decision that Officer Hall had reasonable suspicion to prolong the traffic stop in order to subsequently ask for consent to search?
II. Did the court of appeals err in affirming the trial court's determination that Frasier gave Officer Hall consent to search him?
STANDARD OF REVIEW

Before reaching the merits, we take this opportunity to clarify our standard of review when reviewing an appeal from a motion to suppress based on Fourth Amendment grounds. Historically, we have repeatedly noted that appellate courts review an appeal from a motion to suppress based on a violation of the Fourth Amendment under the deferential "any evidence" standard. See, e.g. , State v. Morris , 411 S.C. 571, 578, 769 S.E.2d 854, 858 (2015). Pursuant to this standard, our appellate courts "will not reverse a trial court's finding of fact simply because it would have decided the case differently." State v. Spears , 429 S.C. 422, 433, 839 S.E.2d 450, 455 (2020) (quoting State v. Pichardo , 367 S.C. 84, 96, 623 S.E.2d 840, 846 (Ct. App. 2005) ).

In State v. Brockman , 339 S.C. 57, 528 S.E.2d 661 (2000), this Court declined to follow the United States Supreme Court's decision in Ornelas v. United States , 517 U.S. 690, 116 S.Ct. 1657, 134 L.Ed.2d 911 (1996) requiring federal courts to employ a more rigorous two-part analysis where courts defer to the trial court's factual findings but review the ultimate legal conclusion de novo. Brockman concluded that Ornelas was an advisory opinion, and thus, the Court declined to implement de novo review. Id. at 64-65, 528 S.E.2d at 664-65. At the time this Court issued Brockman , appellate courts routinely reviewed cold records and depended on trial courts to review credibility and weigh conflicting evidence in reaching its decision. However, with the dawn of the technological age, appellate courts are no longer dependent on the trial court in our review of evidence. The most obvious example is the advent of body and dashcam footage, whereby this Court reviews the same video as the trial court. Accordingly, while the need for deference remains, particularly in determining issues of credibility, it is no longer necessary for us to defer to the trial court's overall ruling in every case. Instead, we take this opportunity to refine our standard of review to better align with the federal standard, which has been adopted in nearly every state.2 Accordingly, appellate review of a motion to suppress based on the ...

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1 cases
  • State v. Jones
    • United States
    • South Carolina Supreme Court
    • March 29, 2023
    ...for any evidentiary support, but the ultimate legal conclusion . . . is a question of law subject to de novo review." State v. Frasier, 437 S.C. 625, 63334, 879 S.E.2d 762, 766 (2022). The United States Supreme Court has considered the constitutionality of checkpoints on several occasions. ......

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