State v. Williams

Decision Date09 September 2002
Docket NumberNo. 3550.,3550.
Citation351 S.C. 591,571 S.E.2d 703
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals
PartiesThe STATE, Appellant, v. Donovan WILLIAMS, Respondent.

Attorney General Charles M. Condon, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Robert E. Bogan and W. Rutledge Martin, all of Columbia; and Solicitor Ralph E. Hoisington, of N. Charleston, for appellant.

Peter David Brown, of Mount Pleasant, for respondent.


The State appeals the trial court's ruling suppressing twenty-five pounds of marijuana found in Donovan Williams' possession as the product of an illegal search. We affirm.


On Sunday April 4, 1999, Officer Robert Blajszczak of the Moncks Corner Police Department was conducting stationary radar on Highway 52 in Berkeley County. Around 9:00 a.m. he received a "be on the lookout" dispatch involving a "green on tan" Ford Explorer allegedly being operated without the owner's consent. Soon afterward Blajszczak spotted a similar Explorer and followed it.

Because Blajszczak did not know the tag number of the suspect Explorer, he ran a license plate check. The check revealed the vehicle was registered to Dwayne Anthony Barbour and that it was not the vehicle in question. It did, however, disclose that the vehicle's license tag had been suspended for lack of insurance. As a result, Blajszczak stopped the Explorer for a possible insurance violation.

Blajszczak approached and asked the driver, Dwayne Barbour, for his driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance. As part of his standard procedure, Blajszczak ran a driver's license check and discovered that although Barbour's recent driving record was clean, his license previously had been suspended in 1995 for a controlled substance violation. Blajszczak returned and asked Barbour to step outside the vehicle while he issued a citation for the tag violation. Barbour's passenger remained seated in the vehicle.

At the rear of the vehicle, Blajszczak wrote and explained the ticket to Barbour. He then returned Barbour's license and registration and stated: "[B]efore you leave, let me ask you a few questions." Blajszczak proceeded to ask Barbour a series of questions, such as where he was coming from and where he was headed. He also asked Barbour the name of his passenger and what their relationship was.

As Blajszczak was speaking with Barbour, a K-9 officer in a marked patrol unit whom Blajszczak had radioed arrived as backup. Blajszczak directed this officer to stand with Barbour while he questioned Barbour's passenger, Donovan Williams. According to Blajszczak, he became suspicious when Barbour and Williams gave inconsistent answers to his questions. These inconsistencies, combined with Barbour's previous license suspension, led Blajszczak to request consent to search the vehicle.

Barbour consented to the search and Blajszczak discovered an open bottle of cognac behind the driver's seat. In the Explorer's cargo area, he found a black suitcase; Williams acknowledged ownership and consented to a search of its contents. He gave Blajszczak the key, and when Blajszczak had trouble opening the case, Williams opened it for him. Inside, Blajszczak found miscellaneous clothes and a large white block of an unknown substance. Williams admitted it was marijuana. Following verification by the canine at the scene, Blajszczak seized the item and immediately arrested Barbour and Williams. He also cited both men for the open container violation. Subsequent analysis revealed the substance to be twenty-five pounds of marijuana.

On June 30, 1999, a Berkeley County grand jury indicted Williams for trafficking more than ten pounds of marijuana. Williams moved to suppress the drug evidence, arguing it was obtained as the result of an illegal search. The trial court held a suppression hearing on July 18, 2000.

At the hearing, Blajszczak testified his normal procedure when issuing a traffic citation is to return the driver's license, explain the ticket, ask the driver if he has any questions, and then advise him to have a good or a safe day and allow him to leave. Blajszczak, however, admitted he did not follow his normal procedure in this case. In addition, Blajszczak agreed his only basis for questioning Barbour further was Barbour's prior license suspension for a drug violation. According to Blajszczak, that was a "warning sign . . . or a flag."

The trial court granted Williams' motion to suppress, finding the search illegal because Blajszczak lacked reasonable suspicion to question Barbour and Williams beyond the scope of the traffic stop. The court specifically found they were not free to leave under the totality of the circumstances, because "once they get past the ticket . . . anything from that point forward is an investigation and is custodial." The State appeals this ruling.

Standard of Review

In State v. Brockman, 339 S.C. 57, 528 S.E.2d 661 (2000), our supreme court articulated the standard of review to apply to a trial court's determination that a search was private such that it did not fall within the parameters of the Fourth Amendment. In so doing, the court specifically rejected the de novo standard set forth in Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 116 S.Ct. 1657, 134 L.Ed.2d 911 (1996) for reviewing determinations of reasonable suspicion and probable cause in the context of warrantless searches and seizures. Instead, the court stated it would "review the trial court's ruling like any other factual finding and reverse if there is clear error," and would therefore "affirm if there is any evidence to support the ruling." Brockman, 339 S.C. at 66, 528 S.E.2d at 666.

Subsequently, in State v. Green, 341 S.C. 214, 532 S.E.2d 896 (Ct.App.2000), this Court declared that Brockman "determined the appellate standard of review in Fourth Amendment search and seizure cases is limited to determining whether any evidence supports the trial court's finding and the appellate court may only reverse where there is clear error." Green, 341 S.C. at 219 n. 3, 532 S.E.2d at 898 n. 3. Accordingly, we will apply an "any evidence" standard to the ruling below.


The State argues the trial court erred in suppressing the marijuana because Blajszczak "was not required to have reasonable suspicion to question" Barbour and Williams. According to the State, Blajszczak merely engaged the men in a consensual encounter and thus properly obtained consent to search. We disagree.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees "[t]he right of the people to be secure . . . [from] unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend IV; see State v. Butler, 343 S.C. 198, 539 S.E.2d 414 (Ct.App.2000). "Temporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a `seizure' of `persons' within the meaning of [the Fourth Amendment]." Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996). Thus, an automobile stop is "subject to the constitutional imperative that it not be `unreasonable' under the circumstances." Id. at 810, 116 S.Ct. 1769. Where probable cause exists to believe that a traffic violation has occurred, the decision to stop the automobile is reasonable per se. Id.

Williams concedes Blajszczak had probable cause to stop the Explorer. He contends, however, that once the traffic stop was concluded, Blajszczak needed a reasonable suspicion that some further criminal activity was afoot in order to begin questioning Barbour.

Once a motor vehicle is detained lawfully for a traffic violation, the police may order the driver to exit the vehicle without violating Fourth Amendment proscriptions on unreasonable searches and seizures. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 111 n. 6, 98 S.Ct. 330, 54 L.Ed.2d 331 (1977). In carrying out the stop, an officer "`may request a driver's license and vehicle registration, run a computer check, and issue a citation.'" United States v. Sullivan, 138 F.3d 126, 131 (4th Cir.1998) (citation omitted). However, "[a]ny further detention for questioning is beyond the scope of the [ ] stop and therefore illegal unless the officer has a reasonable suspicion of a serious crime." Id. (emphasis added); see Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 500, 103 S.Ct. 1319, 75 L.Ed.2d 229 (1983) (plurality opinion) ("[A]n investigative detention must be temporary and last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop."); Ferris v. State, 355 Md. 356, 735 A.2d 491, 499 (1999) ("Once the purpose of [the] stop has been fulfilled, the continued detention of the car and the occupants amounts to a second detention.").1 The question, then, is whether Blajszczak detained, i.e. "seized" Williams anew, thereby triggering the Fourth Amendment and possibly rendering his consent invalid, or simply initiated a consensual encounter invoking no constitutional scrutiny. See Ferris, 735 A.2d at 500 (stating the difficult question was whether the trooper's questioning of Ferris after he issued a citation and returned his driver's license and registration "constituted a detention, and hence raise[d] any Fourth Amendment concerns, or was merely a `consensual encounter[ . . . implicating no constitutional overview").2

It is well settled that "mere police questioning does not constitute a seizure" for Fourth Amendment purposes. Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434, 111 S.Ct. 2382, 115 L.Ed.2d 389 (1991); see State v. Culbreath, 300 S.C. 232, 237, 387 S.E.2d 255, 257 (1990) ("Not all personal encounters between policemen and citizens involve `seizures' of persons thereby bringing the Fourth Amendment into play.") (citations omitted), abrogated on other grounds by Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 110 S.Ct. 2301, 110 L.Ed.2d 112 (1990). To the contrary, "[o]nly when the officer, by means of physical force...

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