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State v. Brown

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

September 23, 2015

The State, Respondent,
Lamar Sequan Brown, Appellant

Heard May 5, 2015.

Appeal From Charleston County J. C. Nicholson, Jr., Circuit Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2013-000725.

Appellate Defender David Alexander, of Columbia, for Appellant.

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson and Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Salley W. Elliott, both of Columbia; and Solicitor Scarlett Anne Wilson, of Charleston, for Respondent.

THOMAS, J. GEATHERS, J., concurs. KONDUROS, J., I respectfully dissent.



Lamar Sequan Brown appeals his conviction for first-degree burglary, arguing the trial court erred in admitting evidence obtained from a warrantless search of the contents of his code-locked cell phone. We affirm.


The two victims shared a first-floor condominium in Charleston County. Neither was home during the evening of Thursday, December 22, 2011. Sometime after 10:30 p.m. that night, one of the victims heard a phone ring after he returned to the residence. When he went to investigate, he saw an unfamiliar cell phone on the floor and noticed a window had been broken, his television was gone, and his bedroom had been ransacked. The victim claimed he " immediately knew that [the cell phone] was none of ours."

When the police arrived, the victim who discovered the burglary gave Officer Matthew Randall the unfamiliar cell phone. Officer Randall took the phone to the police station and placed it inside a secure box by the evidence desk. Fingerprints could not be obtained from the phone because the victim had handled it. Attempts to take fingerprint evidence from the crime scene were also unsuccessful.

Jordan Lester, the lead detective assigned to the case, began his investigation on December 28, 2011, and learned nobody had claimed the phone found at the crime scene. Considering the phone abandoned, Detective Lester opened the phone and noticed the background picture portrayed a black male with dreadlocks.[1] Detective Lester then searched the contacts list to look for a possible relative. He found an entry for " Grandma," took the corresponding number, entered it into a comprehensive database maintained by the Charleston Police Department, and obtained a list of relatives and their age ranges. Using this information, Detective Lester accessed records of the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), found a driver's license photograph that matched the image on the phone, and obtained a name and address for the individual in question. The individual was identified as Lamar S. Brown.

Later the same day, Officer Dustin Thompson visited Brown at the address Detective Lester obtained from the DMV records. After Officer Thompson informed Brown he was investigating a burglary, Brown agreed to speak with him privately. The two went into Officer Thompson's vehicle to discuss the matter. Although Brown was given Miranda [2] warnings, he was not handcuffed or placed under arrest.

While questioning Brown, Officer Thompson did not initially disclose that the burglary he was investigating had taken place on December 22, 2011. Brown told Officer Thompson he lost his phone on Friday, December 23, 2011. Brown claimed he had the phone with him when he drove to the store but could not find it when he returned to his vehicle. Brown stated he disconnected service to the phone when he learned from a friend that someone else had it. When Officer Thompson asked Brown whether he left his home between 6:00 p.m. and midnight on December 22, 2011, Brown answered he did not. Brown also told Officer Thompson no one else had possession of his phone during that time. When Officer Thompson showed Brown the phone found at the victims' residence on the night of the burglary, he acknowledged the phone belonged to him.

During the meeting, Brown signed a form with printed language indicating he had been advised of his Miranda rights but chose to waive them and answer questions concerning a possible burglary charge. The form also included a handwritten " witness statement" on which Officer Thompson's questions and Brown's answers were recorded. Some of the responses were written by Brown himself.

Subsequently, police obtained consent to search Brown's residence but did not recover any of the stolen items. A warrant for Brown's arrest was issued on December 29, 2011, and he was arrested a few weeks later.

On November 5, 2012, Detective Lester obtained a search warrant for records from T-Mobile, the service provider for Brown's phone. The warrant directed T-Mobile to provide its records from December 9, 2011, to January 3, 2012, for the number assigned to the phone. The information T-Mobile provided revealed the phone was deactivated on January 22, 2012, apparently later than when Brown indicated he cancelled his service.[3] T-Mobile's records also showed activity on the phone during the interval the victims were away from the residence.

On November 13, 2012, a grand jury indicted Brown for first-degree burglary, and he proceeded to trial on March 6, 2013. During a pretrial hearing, Brown moved to suppress all evidence obtained from his cell phone, arguing his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the police did not obtain a search warrant before unlocking the phone. In the jury's absence, the trial court heard testimony from Detective Lester and Officer Thompson on the motion.[4]

The trial court initially found Brown had a Fourth Amendment expectation of privacy in the phone because it was passcode-protected. However, the court denied Brown's motion to suppress, concluding that regardless of whether the phone was inadvertently dropped or deliberately discarded at the victims' residence, this expectation of privacy had been abandoned. During the State's case-in-chief, Brown made several unsuccessful motions based on his pretrial objection to suppress evidence obtained directly or indirectly from the warrantless search of his cell phone.

After the State rested, Brown declined to testify and did not call any witnesses. The jury found Brown guilty as charged, and Brown moved for a new trial based on his previous Fourth Amendment objections. The trial court denied the motion and ...

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