State v. Spears, Appellate Case No. 2017-001933

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtJUSTICE JAMES
Citation839 S.E.2d 450,429 S.C. 422
Parties The STATE, Petitioner, v. Eric Terrell SPEARS, Respondent.
Docket NumberOpinion No. 27945,Appellate Case No. 2017-001933
Decision Date12 February 2020

429 S.C. 422
839 S.E.2d 450

The STATE, Petitioner,
v.
Eric Terrell SPEARS, Respondent.

Appellate Case No. 2017-001933
Opinion No. 27945

Supreme Court of South Carolina.

Heard January 30, 2019
Filed February 12, 2020
Rehearing Denied April 1, 2020


Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Senior Assistant Attorney General David A. Spencer, and Interim Solicitor Heather Savitz Weiss, all of Columbia, for Petitioner.

Appellate Defender LaNelle Cantey DuRant, of Columbia, for Respondent.

JUSTICE JAMES :

429 S.C. 427

Eric Terrell Spears was indicted for trafficking crack cocaine between ten and twenty-eight grams. Spears moved to suppress the evidence of the drugs seized from his person on the ground he was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, and Spears was convicted as charged. The trial court sentenced Spears to thirty years in prison. A divided court of appeals reversed Spears' conviction. State v. Spears , 420 S.C. 363, 802 S.E.2d 803 (Ct. App. 2017). We granted the State's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision. We now reverse the court of appeals and uphold Spears' conviction. We hold there is evidence in the record to support the trial court's finding that Spears engaged in a consensual encounter with law enforcement and that Spears' subsequent actions created a reasonable suspicion that he may have been armed and dangerous—justifying law enforcement's Terry1 frisk that led to the discovery of the offending crack cocaine in Spears' pants.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Law enforcement officers from Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and

429 S.C. 428

the Lexington and Richland County Sheriffs' Offices were investigating a tip that two black males (Tyrone Richardson and Eric Bradley) were transporting drugs into South Carolina via one of the "Chinese bus lines." These bus lines depart from the Chinatown district in New York City, dropping off passengers in major cities along the East Coast. Because of the lack of security measures and required identification, these buses are frequently exploited by wanted criminals and people trafficking in narcotics and counterfeit merchandise. There are no traditional bus stations for the "Chinese bus line"; the buses usually stop at a couple of different locations in Columbia to allow passengers to disembark.

On March 29, 2012, Agents Dennis Tracy, Briton Lorenzen, and Frank Finch were dispatched, pursuant to the tip, to conduct surveillance at one of the bus stops. As the passengers were exiting the bus, most of the passengers were being greeted by relatives

839 S.E.2d 453

or friends, being picked up by cabs, or talking on the phone (presumably making arrangements to be picked up). However, the agents observed a man and a woman with four large suitcases who "stuck out" because "they were paying an excess amount of attention" to the plain-clothed agents. A few minutes later, the man and woman began walking down the road away from the agents. The agents followed, and while walking briskly behind the man and woman to catch up with them, the agents observed the woman remove an unknown object from her purse and pass it to the man. When the agents were approximately ten feet from the couple, they asked the couple to stop and speak with them. The couple complied and engaged the agents in a conversation. The man was identified as Spears. As they spoke, Spears kept placing his hands inside his untucked shirt near his waistband. Fearing Spears might have a weapon, Agent Tracy repeatedly asked Spears to stop. Spears persisted in this movement, so Agent Tracy frisked Spears for safety reasons.

During the frisk, Agent Tracy felt a small, hard object about the size of a golf ball with jagged edges tucked into Spears' waistband. Based on his training and experience, Agent Tracy believed the object was crack cocaine, and he removed it from Spears' pants. The object field-tested positive for crack cocaine, and Spears was arrested. Spears told law enforcement he was paid to bring the crack cocaine from New York to

429 S.C. 429

South Carolina because of the drug's higher street value in South Carolina. Spears admitted he did so out of "stupidity" and because he needed the money.

Spears was indicted for trafficking crack cocaine more than ten grams and less than twenty-eight grams. Prior to trial, Spears moved to suppress the drug evidence. Spears argued he was seized by the agents in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, he contended a seizure occurred because a reasonable person would not have felt free to walk away from the initial encounter. Spears also contended the agents did not have a reasonable suspicion to stop him. The State argued the encounter between the couple and the agents was consensual and the agents therefore did not need a reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. The State contended Agent Tracy properly frisked Spears for safety reasons.

Agent Tracy, a nineteen-year law enforcement veteran with ten years' experience in narcotics and certified in the field of narcotics interdiction, testified during the suppression hearing. Agent Tracy testified that on the day of the incident, he and Agents Lorenzen and Finch were dressed in plain clothes and were observing passengers disembarking a bus in a parking lot near I-20. Agent Tracy testified he was carrying a concealed handgun.2 He testified most of the passengers did not appear suspicious; however, he noted Spears and a woman appeared nervous and "kept looking at us and talking amongst themselves." Agent Tracy testified as to why the agents wanted to make contact with the couple:

The reason ... was to first of all identify them, and second of all to ascertain if they were involved in any criminal activity, specifically under our ICE authority it would be trafficking counterfeit goods. They have four large bags coming out of a known source area for counterfeit goods, we thought that might be something we wanted to take a look at.

Agent Tracy conceded the agents wanted to make contact with the couple solely based on their activity and not based on the original narcotics tip. Agent Tracy testified Spears and the

429 S.C. 430

woman began walking down the street towards the post office and that the woman appeared to reach into her bag and pass an unknown item to Spears. Agent Tracy testified that because Spears never lifted his hands above his waist, the agents believed the object would be in Spears' hands, waistband, or pockets.

Agent Tracy testified Spears and the woman continued to look back at the agents as they were walking away and that when the agents got close enough to Spears and the woman, he requested to speak with the couple. Agent Tracy testified he said something

839 S.E.2d 454

"nonthreatening" such as, "Excuse us, do you mind if we have a word with you?" Agent Tracy testified the couple complied. Agent Tracy described how the agents caught up with the couple: "They're walking, we're walking behind them, we didn't run. However, [ ] we [did] walk a little faster than they did to make contact with them." Agent Tracy testified Spears and the woman were not handcuffed and would have been free to walk away if they had initially refused to speak to the agents. Agent Tracy testified:

We identified ourselves, made small talk with them about their travel itinerary, asked them how the bus ride was, if they got any bad weather[.] ... We then asked them if they had -- or we told them the bus lines, that we had problems in the past with drugs and wanted subjects and counterfeit merchandise, and we asked them for ID.

Spears handed the agents his ID. However, the record does not reflect whether the agents retained his ID or gave it back to him. Agent Tracy testified Spears' answers about the trip were "very forthcoming"; however, when he asked Spears whether he had any illegal weapons, Spears hesitated before answering "no." Agent Tracy testified that based on his training in narcotics interdiction, people traditionally hesitate when they are confronted with a question they do not want to answer truthfully.

Agent Tracy testified about Spears' subsequent behavior, which is of particular importance to the issues on appeal:

I noted that while I was speaking with [Spears,] he continued to put his hands underneath his shirt and I guess the motion would be like puff his shirt away from his waistband. ... I asked him to keep his hands where I could see them
429 S.C. 431
... because I didn't know what if he was reaching in his pockets. He did it a couple more times, and I kept reminding him to cease putting his hands in his pockets ... for officer safety regards[.] ... So he continued to get frustrated, or he continued to put his hands in his pockets or pulled his shirt out, and I told him I was going to conduct a pat down of him so I could be sure he didn't have any weapons on him or anything
...

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2 practice notes
  • State v. Sum, 99730-6
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • June 9, 2022
    ...race is irrelevant to our seizure analysis because there is no similar evidence in the record here. See id. at 23 (citing State v. Spears, 429 S.C. 422, 444, 839 S.E.2d 450, cert. denied, 141 S.Ct. 859 (2020)). We decline the State's invitation to presume that race and ethnicity are irrelev......
  • Aiken v. S.C. Dep't of Revenue, Appellate Case No. 2017-001790
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
    • February 12, 2020
    ...III, section 17 provides, "Every Act or resolution having the force of law shall relate to but one subject, and that shall be expressed 429 S.C. 422 in the title." Even if we were to agree that the inclusion of subsection (C) multiplied the number of subjects in Act No. 69, the one-subject ......
2 cases
  • State v. Sum, 99730-6
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • June 9, 2022
    ...race is irrelevant to our seizure analysis because there is no similar evidence in the record here. See id. at 23 (citing State v. Spears, 429 S.C. 422, 444, 839 S.E.2d 450, cert. denied, 141 S.Ct. 859 (2020)). We decline the State's invitation to presume that race and ethnicity are irrelev......
  • Aiken v. S.C. Dep't of Revenue, Appellate Case No. 2017-001790
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
    • February 12, 2020
    ...III, section 17 provides, "Every Act or resolution having the force of law shall relate to but one subject, and that shall be expressed 429 S.C. 422 in the title." Even if we were to agree that the inclusion of subsection (C) multiplied the number of subjects in Act No. 69, the one-subject ......

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