State v. Morris, 27488.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtJustice HEARN.
Citation769 S.E.2d 854,411 S.C. 571
PartiesThe STATE, Respondent, v. Kenneth Darrell MORRIS, II, Petitioner. Appellate Case No. 2011–203786.
Docket NumberNo. 27488.,27488.
Decision Date28 January 2015

Johnny Gardner, of Johnny Gardner Law Group, P.A., of Conway, for petitioner.

Attorney General Alan M. Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Salley W. Elliott, Assistant Attorney General Mark R. Farthing, all of Columbia, and Kevin S. Brackett, of York, for respondent.


Justice HEARN.

Kenneth Darrell Morris, II challenges the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress ecstasy and marijuana discovered during a traffic stop, arguing they were obtained as the fruits of an illegal search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. We disagree, finding the officers had both reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of the entire vehicle. Accordingly, we affirm.


Morris was driving on Interstate 77 through York County with Brandon Nichols in a rental vehicle. Officer L.T. Vinesett, Jr. and Constable W.E. Scott observed Morris commit a traffic violation by following a truck too closely. The officers followed Morris as he exited the interstate and initiated a traffic stop as he pulled into a gas station.

Vinesett approached the passenger side of the vehicle and requested that Morris produce his driver's license and registration. Vinesett then asked Morris to exit the vehicle and accompany him to the police cruiser. As Vinesett ran Morris's license, he asked Morris several questions about where the two men were traveling from and what they did there. Morris told Vinesett they went “to see some girls” in Atlanta and were on their way back to North Carolina. Vinesett returned to the rental vehicle and spoke briefly with Nichols, who stated he and Morris were returning from Atlanta after going to see a cousin play basketball.

Vinesett radioed Officer Gibson of the York County Police Department for a K–9 unit. While waiting for the K–9 unit to arrive, Scott conducted a consensual search of Morris, which yielded no contraband. After stating repeatedly that he had to use the restroom, Morris was escorted to the restroom by Scott.

Nichols also asked to use the restroom. He exited the vehicle and consented to a search of his person by Vinesett, which yielded no contraband. Vinesett told Nichols he would have to wait to use the restroom until Morris returned. Vinesett asked Nichols if he smoked marijuana earlier in the day and said he swore he smelled marijuana when Nichols exited the vehicle. Nichols stated the smell was from a Black & Mild cigar and that he did not smoke marijuana. A few minutes later, Gibson arrived to perform a K–9 search of the vehicle with Justice, a trained drug detection dog.

Vinesett and Gibson asked Nichols for his consent to search the vehicle, which Nichols refused, stating there was no contraband. Gibson then escorted Justice around the exterior of the vehicle twice; however, Justice did not alert at any point. Vinesett then conducted a search of the vehicle, beginning with the interior and proceeding to the trunk. Although he did not find any contraband in the passenger compartment, Vinesett discovered a plastic bag in the trunk containing 393 ecstasy pills concealed within a small gift bag. Following the discovery of ecstasy, Morris and Nichols were placed under arrest. During a more thorough search after the arrests, officers discovered a plastic bag containing a half a pound of marijuana underneath the spare tire.

Morris was indicted on charges of trafficking ecstasy and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Prior to trial, Morris moved to suppress the drugs as the fruit of an illegal search and seizure. At the hearing, Vinesett testified he is a member of the York County Highway Interdiction Team (HIT Team). He stated that as part of his HIT training, he has attended several national training sessions on highway interdiction and drug enforcement. When questioned about the stop, Vinesett noted he smelled an odor of marijuana when he first approached the vehicle and spoke to Morris and Nichols. He stated he also observed several hollowed out Phillies Blunt1 cigars in the center console of the vehicle, and loose blunt tobacco scattered over the frontal interior of the vehicle. He testified that although the smell of marijuana was the biggest indicator of criminal activity, other indicators of drug trafficking were present, including the inconsistent stories about traveling to Atlanta, the fact the vehicle was rented, and the presence of several consumed cans of Red Bull. When asked about the K–9 search, Vinesett conceded this was a fair indicator that no drugs were present, but stated Justice failed to keep his nose on the vehicle as he usually did during a search and instead frequently stopped to shake the water off, explaining he assumed Justice did not like being out in the rain.

Ultimately, the trial court denied Morris' motion, finding the officers had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity based on Vinesett's testimony that he smelled marijuana and the presence of hollowed out blunts.2 In addition, the court stated there was no requirement that a stop cease because the police dog failed to alert, and at a length of roughly thirteen minutes, the traffic stop was not excessively long, nor unreasonably extended. Finally, the trial court found the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle, but did not articulate the specific reasoning for this finding.

Morris was convicted of trafficking ecstasy and simple possession of marijuana. The court sentenced Morris to thirty years' imprisonment and fined him $50,000.00 for the ecstasy charge. It additionally sentenced him to a year imprisonment for the marijuana charge, to run concurrently. Morris appealed his conviction to the court of appeals which affirmed in State v. Morris, 395 S.C. 600, 720 S.E.2d 468 (Ct.App.2011). We granted certiorari.

I. Did the court of appeals err in affirming the trial court's finding that the officers had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to extend the length of the traffic stop?
II. Did the court of appeals err in affirming the trial court's finding that the officers had probable cause to conduct a full search of the entire vehicle?

“In criminal cases, the appellate court sits to review errors of law only.”

State v. Wilson, 345 S.C. 1, 5, 545 S.E.2d 827, 829 (2001).

“When reviewing a Fourth Amendment search and seizure case, an appellate court must affirm if there is any evidence to support the ruling.” State v. Wright, 391 S.C. 436, 442, 706 S.E.2d 324, 326 (2011). “The appellate court will reverse only when there is clear error.” State v. Missouri, 361 S.C. 107, 111, 603 S.E.2d 594, 596 (2004).


The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. A traffic stop and the detention of persons during such a stop constitutes a seizure. State v. Maybank, 352 S.C. 310, 315, 573 S.E.2d 851, 854 (Ct.App.2002).


Morris argues the trial court erred in finding the officers had reasonable suspicion to extend the scope of the traffic stop in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. In addition, he argues the officers illegally prolonged the duration of the traffic stop. We disagree.

In carrying out a routine traffic stop, law enforcement may request a driver's license and vehicle registration, run a computer check, and issue a citation; however, any further detention for questioning is beyond the scope of the stop and therefore illegal unless the officer has reasonable suspicion of a serious crime. State v. Tindall, 388 S.C. 518, 521, 698 S.E.2d 203, 205 (2010). To determine whether reasonable suspicion exists, an officer, by a totality of the circumstances, must have a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417–18, 101 S.Ct. 690, 66 L.Ed.2d 621 (1981). Reasonable suspicion does not entail a set of legal rules, but “entails common sense, nontechnical conceptions that deal with factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent persons, not legal technicians, act.” United States v. Foreman, 369 F.3d 776, 781 (4th Cir.2004).

Vinesett testified to the presence of several facts which from his experience and training, indicated drug trafficking. Vinesett stated that when he approached the passenger side of the vehicle, he detected the odor of marijuana3 and observed several hollowed out Phillies Blunt cigars in a cup in the center console. Vinesett stated that in his experience, individuals unroll Phillies Blunt cigars, discard the tobacco, and then reroll them with marijuana to appear as if the individual is smoking a normal cigar. Additionally, he testified that Morris and Nichols gave different stories of their purpose in traveling to Atlanta. He noted there were several empty Red Bull cans, indicative of a need to stay awake for long periods of time while driving. Vinesett also noted that Morris drove a rented vehicle, which is an indicator of drug trafficking. Looking at the totality of the circumstances from the point of view of the reasonably prudent police officer, we find there is evidence in the record to support the trial court's conclusion that a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity existed.

Furthermore, we believe Morris's claim that the length of the stop was unduly prolonged is without merit. In total, Morris's traffic stop lasted roughly thirteen minutes. Recently, we held ten minutes was a reasonable amount of time for an initial traffic stop, and...

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