FLORENCE — A recent ruling by the S.C. Supreme Court more clearly defines a law enforcement officer's limits when it comes to probable cause, as well as search and seizure.
The decision stems from a case involving a Florence County man who was arrested in 2006 on drug charges.
The Florence County Sheriff's Office received a call on July 25, 2006, regarding suspected drug activity in an area well known to law enforcement for its high incidence of crime and drug traffic
Deputies responded to the call and approached the suspect, Syllester Taylor, who they observed “huddled up” with another man. Believing he had reasonable suspicion under the circumstances, an officer conducted a takedown of Taylor and patted him down for weapons.
In patting Taylor down, deputies found no weapons but they did discover a tennis ball in Taylor's pocket that had a slit in it containing crack cocaine.
Taylor was indicted for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. The deputy testified that during the patdown, he worked the tennis ball up until it dropped out on the ground beside Taylor.
Taylor was found guilty and as a third-time drug offender, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The S.C. Court of Appeals later overturned that conviction, finding the deputies did not have reasonable suspicion to stop Taylor.
The state appealed the Court of Appeals decision to the S.C. Supreme Court, which was presented with two primary issues: Whether police had reasonable suspicion to detain Taylor and conduct an investigatory search and whether police had probable cause to search the tennis ball discovered during the search.
In a very close decision earlier this month, the Supreme Court voted to reverse the Court of Appeals decision, finding that in the first matter, “under the totality of the circumstances, officers had reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop.”
In the second matter, Taylor argued that police lacked probable cause to search the tennis ball in his possession when there was “nothing inherently incriminating” about it and the officer's initial frisk removed any concern of weapons.
“We hold that the police officer's conduct did not exceed the constitutionally permissible scope of a pat-down search,” Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote in the concurring opinion.
“It is clear from the officer's statements that he had not yet determined whether the respondent had a weapon when he manipulated the tennis ball out of the respondent's pocket,” she wrote.
“The officer then noticed the drugs inside the tennis ball through a slit on its surface as he squeezed the tennis ball when he picked it up from the ground,” Toal wrote. “Thus, the incriminating nature of the contents of the tennis ball became apparent while police were still in the process of ensuring that the respondent was unarmed. The tennis ball could have easily contained a razor or other sharp object, which could be used alone or in conjunction with the tennis ball as a handle.”
Twelfth Circuit Solicitor Ed Clements, who was among the parties appealing the Court of Appeals decision, said he was pleased with the Supreme Court's decision to reverse.
“We were confident the officer was within the limits of the law from the beginning,” Clements said, “so I'm glad the Supreme Court agreed.”
But Justice Donald W. Beatty didn't agree. In fact, in his dissenting opinion, he said the majority's opinion eviscerates the constitutional protection of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, section 10 of the South Carolina Constitution.
“This record is totally devoid of any facts that would legally justify the stop, let alone the search,” Beatty wrote.
“It is significant that the policeman could not articulate any legally acceptable suspicion of criminal activity,” Beatty said. “Two black men holding a conversation in their neighborhood is insufficient to support a Terry v. Ohio stop and frisk, even if the neighborhood is branded a ‘drug area.’ United States v. Sprinkle, 106 F.3d 613 (4th Cir. 1997). Absent articulable, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, the police had no right to stop the cyclist and the cyclist had no obligation to stop when told to do so by the policeman. Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000).”
Local criminal defense attorney Kevin Etheridge of the Gardner Law Firm in Florence said after looking over the case and the opinions, he tends to agree with Beatty. He said any decision that limits an individual's personal rights needs to be viewed with a great deal of skepticism.
“This decision gives law enforcement unencumbered access to a person's space and personal belongings with little to no explanation as to why they are infringing,” Etheridge said.
“I seriously doubt that any of us want to live in a society where law enforcement has unlimited discretion as to why they search someone, what they choose to search and how those searches are conducted,” he said. “It is a very slippery slope, and I only hope that this decision does not lead to any abuse. Nobody wants to see folks being harassed and that is what will occur if the proper safeguards aren't in place. Everybody makes light of these sort of things until their rights are being infringed upon or the rights of someone dear to them.”