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State v. Alston

Supreme Court of South Carolina

March 7, 2018

The State, Respondent,
Stepheno Jemain Alston, Petitioner. Appellate Case No. 2015-002134

          Heard December 14, 2016


         Appeal from Spartanburg County J. Derham Cole, Circuit Court Judge

          Appellate Defender Lara Mary Caudy, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson and Assistant Attorney General Mark Reynolds Farthing, both of Columbia; and Solicitor Barry Joe Barnette, of Spartanburg, all for Respondent.


         Stepheno Jemain Alston was tried in absentia and convicted by a jury of trafficking in cocaine. The trial judge sentenced Alston to twenty-five years' imprisonment. On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed Alston's conviction and sentence. State v. Alston, Op. No. 2015-UP-381 (S.C. Ct. App. filed July 29, 2015). In so ruling, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial judge's denial of Alston's motion to suppress evidence found in his vehicle following a traffic stop. Specifically, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge that: (1) the arresting officer had (a) probable cause to stop Alston's vehicle for a violation of South Carolina's failure to maintain a lane statute[1] and (b) reasonable suspicion to support a brief investigatory detention; (2) the officer had reasonable suspicion that illegal activity was occurring to justify extending the duration of the traffic stop; and (3) Alston voluntarily gave his consent to the officer to search his vehicle. This Court granted Alston's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the Court of Appeals. We affirm as modified.

         I. Factual / Procedural History

         On March 28, 2011, Deputy Donnie Gilbert, employed with the Interstate Criminal Enforcement Team of the Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office, was monitoring traffic on northbound Interstate 85. At approximately 1:00 p.m., Deputy Gilbert observed a green Hyundai Santa Fe pass him while continuing to strike the dotted lines of its lane of travel. According to Deputy Gilbert, the vehicle was traveling in the middle lane of the three-lane interstate. He further explained that:

[the vehicle's] left side tire struck the dotted line that divides the middle lane, which [the vehicle] was traveling in, and the fast lane, which would've been to [the vehicle's] left. Then [the vehicle] drifted back into the middle of that middle lane. And [the vehicle] did that several times in the time that it took me to catch up to the vehicle.

         Based on this observation, Deputy Gilbert pursued the vehicle and initiated a traffic stop. At this time, Deputy Gilbert activated his in-dash video camera and called in the license plate number of the vehicle to the Sheriff's Office.

         Deputy Gilbert testified that, as he approached the vehicle, he noticed what appeared to be luggage covered by a blanket in the rear cargo area of the small SUV. Deputy Gilbert further stated that when he approached the passenger side window, the driver immediately asked him why he was being stopped. Deputy Gilbert then requested the driver's license, which identified the driver as Alston who resided in Rome, Georgia. In the audio recording, Deputy Gilbert can be heard explaining to Alston that he observed Alston's vehicle drift "several times" and then asking Alston whether he was under the influence of any drugs or alcohol or was too tired to drive. Deputy Gilbert explained that it was his responsibility to ensure that Alston was not under the influence of anything.

         When Deputy Gilbert requested the vehicle's paperwork, Alston produced a rental agreement in the name of Tamisha Harris, Alston's girlfriend. The agreement indicated that Harris had rented the vehicle in Cartersville, Georgia, an area outside of Atlanta, on March 26, 2011, and was required to return it on April 2, 2011. According to the terms of the agreement, the vehicle was authorized to be operated only in Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.[2]

         Approximately two minutes later, Deputy Gilbert asked Alston to exit the vehicle. As Alston complied, Deputy Gilbert noticed a "household air freshener" in the driver's door pocket. When Deputy Gilbert questioned Alston about his travel plans, Alston relayed that he was on his way to New Jersey to visit his mother and bring her back to Georgia for Mother's Day. Alston also told Deputy Gilbert he was concerned for his mother's health and wanted to check on her, and planned to stay in New Jersey for about a week. Deputy Gilbert testified he specifically asked Alston if he planned to stay in New Jersey until the following Monday, April 2, 2011, the date the vehicle was to be returned, and Alston replied in the affirmative.

         Deputy Gilbert continued to question Alston while he contacted the Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office to run a check on Alston's license. Approximately six and a half minutes after the traffic stop, Deputy Gilbert entered his patrol car and placed a call to request that the K-9 unit be brought to the site of the traffic stop. Shortly thereafter, Deputy Gilbert exited the patrol car and began writing a warning citation.

         While writing the warning and waiting for a response on the license check, Deputy Gilbert questioned Alston further about his family and employment. Alston told Deputy Gilbert that he owned a clothing store in Rome, Georgia, and he had six children. Deputy Gilbert testified that, when asked how old his children were, Alston recited seven numbers.[3] Deputy Gilbert further stated Alston initially claimed his license had never been suspended, however, after dispatch indicated to the contrary, Alston admitted it had previously been suspended. Approximately fourteen minutes into the traffic stop, Deputy Gilbert was able to confirm that Alston's license was valid and there were no issues with the vehicle's paperwork or tag.

         During the course of the stop, Deputy Gilbert managed to call for a backup officer; however, dispatch informed him that the officer "wasn't necessarily in the same area as [Deputy Gilbert]." Deputy Gilbert testified he intended to ask Alston for consent to search the vehicle but waited, for safety reasons, until another officer arrived at the scene. Approximately fifteen minutes after the traffic stop, the video recording shows that Deputy Gilbert completed the warning and pulled the paper off of a pad.[4]

         Shortly thereafter, Deputy Gilbert asked Alston for consent to search the vehicle. Alston replied, "I'm just trying to figure all - - what all this is about." In response, Deputy Gilbert advised he was simply asking a question, at which point Alston said "I mean, yeah, you can search it." Deputy Gilbert further testified that he advised Alston of his right to refuse consent, but Alston had "already told [him] 'yes'." The search of the vehicle yielded 434 grams of cocaine hidden in the steering column.[5]

          Subsequently, a Spartanburg County grand jury indicted Alston for trafficking in cocaine. A jury tried Alston in absentia. At the beginning of the trial, Alston's counsel moved to suppress the evidence.

         During the pre-trial hearing, Deputy Gilbert recounted the details of the traffic stop and explained that, based on his more than eleven years' experience, the following factors provided him with reasonable suspicion that Alston was involved in criminal activity: (1) Alston's luggage was covered by a blanket, which suggested an intent to divert attention to the luggage and away from the steering column; (2) Alston, unlike ninety-nine percent of other drivers who are pulled over, immediately asked why he was being stopped rather than wait for the officer's explanation; (3) Alston was from outside of Atlanta, a "major hub for criminal activity in the southeast"; (4) Alston was driving on Interstate 85, which is "a major criminal activity corridor connecting Atlanta to many routes to the south and to the north"; (5) the vehicle was rented to a third party who was not present; (6) the vehicle was rented to a female, which is common for "drug trafficking organizations" because they do not think that law enforcement "recognize[s] criminal activity with a female"; (7) the vehicle was being driven in South Carolina and Alston stated he was driving to New Jersey, yet neither were identified as authorized states on the rental agreement; (8) Alston had a "household air freshener" in the vehicle, which can be "used as a masking agent to hide odors of other things, which could be drugs"; (9) house keys were placed on the rental key ring, which may have been an attempt to "personalize the vehicle"; (10) Alston's stated travel plans did not comport with the terms of the rental agreement as he would be arriving in Georgia after the vehicle was due; (11) Alston stated he intended to pick up his mother for Mother's Day, but Mother's Day, was a month and a half away; and (12) Alston stated he had six children but gave the ages for seven children when asked.

         After Deputy Gilbert's testimony, Alston's counsel moved to suppress the evidence. As a threshold matter, counsel argued the initial stop was invalid because Alston was merely trying to allow maximum distance between himself and the officer's parked vehicle on the side of the road. Counsel then asserted that Deputy Gilbert lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop beyond the time necessary to write the warning citation and, as a result, the vehicle and Alston were illegally seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Counsel also noted that Deputy Gilbert "was unable to articulate any specific crime or any specific criminal activity that [Alston] was involved in." Further, counsel maintained that "there was no valid consent" and even if there was consent, "it was obtained by prolonged detention."

          The trial judge took the motion under advisement to review the recording of the traffic stop. The next day, the judge denied Alston's motion to suppress, ruling:

I find that the stop made by the officer was pursuant to a valid traffic stop, that it was based on probable cause, that the detention resulting from that stop was based upon the totality of the circumstances as presented by the evidence in this case, was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and that the search made of the vehicle which resulted in the seizure of evidence to be used in the trial against him was based upon consent and in this case with actual knowledge of his right to refuse consent.

         Ultimately, the jury convicted Alston of trafficking in cocaine. Six months later, the trial judge opened the sealed sentence and sentenced Alston to twenty-five years' imprisonment.

         Alston appealed his conviction and sentence to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that: (1) Deputy Gilbert had probable cause to stop Alston's vehicle for a violation of South Carolina's failure to maintain a lane statute, reasoning that "a lane of travel constitutes the area between the boundary lines" and, thus, driving on a lane line is a sufficient basis for a traffic stop; (2) Deputy Gilbert had reasonable suspicion to warrant a traffic stop based on his testimony that he observed Alston's vehicle "drifting" and his inquiry at the scene of whether Alston was driving under the influence; (3) Deputy Gilbert's continued questioning of Alston exceeded the scope of the initial traffic stop, however, the extended duration was permissible because Deputy Gilbert had an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion that illegal activity was occurring; and (4) Alston freely and voluntarily consented to the search. State v. Alston, Op. No. 2015-UP-381 (S.C. Ct. App. filed July 29, 2015).

         After the Court of Appeals denied Alston's petition for rehearing, this Court granted Alston's petition for a writ of certiorari to ...

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