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State v. Spears

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

May 31, 2017

The State, Respondent,
Eric Terrell Spears, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2015-000390

          Heard February 13, 2017

         Appeal From Richland County Robert E. Hood, Circuit Court Judge

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

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Assistant Deputy Attorney General David A. Spencer, and Solicitor Daniel Edward Johnson, all of Columbia, for Respondent.


          KONDUROS, J.

         Eric Terrell Spears appeals his conviction and sentence for trafficking crack cocaine between ten and twenty-eight grams. He argues the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress drug evidence because he was seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and law enforcement lacked a reasonable suspicion he was involved in criminal activity. We reverse.


          On March 29, 2012, agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) working with the Lexington County Sheriff's Office received a tip that one or two black males being investigated by the DEA were traveling from New York City to South Carolina on the "Chinese bus lines." These bus lines depart from Chinatown and are owned and operated by Chinese Americans and Chinese Canadians. According to the DEA agents, the buses are often patronized by wanted subjects and people trafficking in narcotics and counterfeit goods because the bus lines are inexpensive, do not require identification, and have no security measures. On that day, two of these buses were scheduled to arrive at different locations in Richland County. Agents Dennis Tracy, Briton Lorenzen, and Frank Finch were dispatched to one of the bus stops. They were dressed in plain clothes, and Lorenzen's and Finch's badges and guns were visible. The agents arrived at the bus stop as passengers were exiting the bus.

         Amongst the passengers disembarking, the agents observed Spears and Traci Williams, a female, exit the bus and retrieve four large bags. Unlike the other passengers, Spears and Williams appeared nervous and kept looking at the agents and talking amongst themselves. Spears and Williams left the bus stop on foot, and the agents followed them. As they walked, Spears and Williams continued to look back at the agents, and Williams appeared to hand something to Spears. After following Spears and Williams for several hundred feet, the agents walked at a fast pace to catch up with them. The agents identified themselves and asked to speak with Spears and Williams. Solely based on Williams and Spears's activity, not the tip, the agents made contact with Spears and Williams to identify them and ascertain whether they were involved in criminal activity. The agents asked to speak with Spears and Williams and asked them questions such as where they had traveled from and where they were going. Agent Tracy then told Spears and Williams there had been problems in the past with wanted subjects, drugs, and counterfeit merchandise on the bus line and asked them for their identification. After Spears gave Agent Tracy his identification, Agent Tracy asked Spears if he had any illegal weapons or items on him or in his property. Spears hesitated before saying "no, " making Agent Tracy suspicious because until that point, Spears had been very forthcoming.

         Around the time Agent Tracy asked Spears about illegal items, Spears began to put his hands underneath his shirt and make what Agent Tracy described as a "puffing" motion, pushing the shirt away from his waistband and body. Agent Tracy asked Spears not to do this because he needed to see Spears's hands for safety purposes. Spears stopped momentarily but then repeated the motion. After asking Spears not to do this three times, Agent Tracy told Spears he was going to search him for weapons. While patting Spears down, Agent Tracy felt a rocky, ball-like object that felt consistent with crack cocaine. After completing the search, Agent Tracy removed the object from Spears's waistband. The object was wrapped in a napkin and inside a plastic bag. Agent Tracy removed the object from the plastic bag and the napkin, saw it was consistent with crack cocaine, and arrested Spears.

         Prior to trial, Spears moved to suppress the drug evidence, arguing he was seized by the agents because a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave and the agents did not have reasonable suspicion to stop Spears and Williams.[1] The State contended the encounter between Spears, Williams, and the agents was consensual and therefore, the agents did not need reasonable suspicion.

         The trial court denied Spears's motion to suppress the drugs. The trial court concluded the agents engaged Spears in a consensual encounter, finding Spears and Williams willingly stopped and talked with the agents, the agents told Spears and Williams they were law enforcement, and the agents did not tell Spears he was not free to leave.[2] At trial, Spears was convicted of trafficking cocaine between ten and twenty-eight grams and received a thirty-year sentence.


         "On appeals from a motion to suppress based on Fourth Amendment grounds, this [c]ourt applies a deferential standard of review and will reverse if there is clear error." State v. Adams, 409 S.C. 641, 647, 763 S.E.2d 341, 344 (2014) (quoting State v. Tindall, 388 S.C. 518, 521, 698 S.E.2d 203, 205 (2010)). "The 'clear error' standard means that an appellate court will not reverse a trial court's finding of fact simply because it would have decided the case differently." State v. Pichardo, 367 S.C. 84, 96, 623 S.E.2d 840, 846 (Ct. App. 2005). "Rather, appellate courts must affirm if there is any ...

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