Heard March 3, 2015.
Appeal From Berkeley County. Stephanie P. McDonald, Circuit Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2013-001430.
Alan McCrory Wilson, Attorney General, Columbia; Mark Reynolds Farthing, Assistant Attorney General, Columbia; Scarlett A. Wilson, Solicitor, Charleston, for Appellant.
Susan Barber Hackett, Columbia, for Respondent.
[412 S.C. 423] KONDUROS, J.
The State appeals the circuit court's decision granting Walter M. Bash's motion to suppress drug evidence relating to charges against him for trafficking in cocaine greater than 400 grams and trafficking in cocaine base. We reverse and remand.
Officers in the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office received an anonymous tip that drug activity was occurring in the backyard of a particular home on Nelson Ferry Road in Moncks Corner. Narcotics officer Sergeant Lee Holbrook and his partner, Sergeant Kimberly Milks, were in the area and decided to go to the location. According to the officers' testimonies at the suppression hearing, they went to the property to speak with the owner and investigate the tip. Sergeant Milks testified she radioed to other officers in the area that she and Sergeant Holbrook were going to the location. She also testified she and Sergeant Holbrook put on their hats and vests marked " Sheriff" prior to approaching the scene.
Sergeant Holbrook testified he and Sergeant Milks drove to the property and observed the home was surrounded by a chain link fence. They turned onto Shine Bash Road, a public [412 S.C. 424] road beside the house that provided a view into the backyard. Sergeant Holbrook testified they observed several people along with an old shed in a grassy area immediately outside the fence. A black truck, owned by Bash, was parked there as well.
Sergeant Holbrook pulled his vehicle, an unmarked brown Ford Expedition, off the road into the grassy area behind Bash's truck. As he and Sergeant Milks exited their vehicle, he observed one of the men drop a baggie containing a white powdery substance. He testified another man exited the passenger side of Bash's truck and fled toward the adjacent wooded area. That individual was chased by the other officers present while Sergeant Holbrook remained at the scene with the other individuals. Bash exited the driver's side of his truck, and Sergeant Holbrook asked him to step to the tailgate area of the vehicle where the others were gathered. Sergeant Holbrook stated that upon the return of the other officers, law enforcement proceeded to arrest the man observed dropping the powdery substance. Sergeant Holbrook testified he looked in the window of Bash's truck to ensure no other occupants were hiding. When he looked through the window, he saw scales of the type typically used in weighing drugs and a large plastic baggie containing a white powdery substance.
At trial, Bash moved to suppress the drug evidence found in his vehicle, arguing officers entered and searched the curtilage of the property without a warrant and without meeting any of the exceptions to the warrant requirement. The State contended the grassy area outside the fence was not within the curtilage of the property but was an open field, thereby falling without the protection of the Fourth Amendment. The State further argued even if the grassy area beyond the fence was within the curtilage of the property, police had the right to enter to conduct a " knock and talk"  and their further actions were justified once they observed [412 S.C. 425] one of the men drop what appeared to be drugs and another fled the scene.
The circuit court granted Bash's motion to suppress the drug evidence seized from his truck. The circuit court concluded " the tip was not enough to roll up in the backyard solely to search for drugs. And there's no reasonable interpretation of the officers' testimony ...