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State v. Miller

Supreme Court of South Carolina

May 9, 2018

The State, Respondent,
v.
Jonathan Xavier Miller, Petitioner. Appellate Case No. 2016-000862

          Heard April 12, 2017

          Appeal from Richland County Doyet A. Early III, Trial Court Judge

         ON WRIT OF CERTIOARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

          Deputy Chief Appellate Defender Wanda H. Carter, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

          Attorney General Alan Wilson, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General J. Benjamin Aplin, Solicitor Daniel E. Johnson, of Columbia, and Brent H. Arant, of North Charleston, all for Respondent.

          FEW, JUSTICE.

         Jonathan Xavier Miller appeals his conviction for possession of crack cocaine. He argues the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress drug evidence seized during an inventory search of his vehicle after he was arrested for driving with a suspended license. We find the trial court correctly denied the motion, and affirm.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         In January 2013, Columbia Police Department Officers James Westbury and Shaun McDonald were in the Rosewood area of Columbia investigating criminal activity unrelated to this case. During their investigation, a resident of the area informed the officers that an older-model, silver and green Chevrolet with large rims had been making frequent stops at a location known for drug activity.

         Later that day, Officer Westbury and Officer McDonald-driving separately- observed a vehicle fitting that description pull into a gas station parking lot. Both officers turned their vehicles around and followed the silver and green Chevrolet as it left the gas station and traveled along several streets. The officers did not activate their blue lights or sirens. The Chevrolet came to a stop in the private driveway of an apartment complex, so the officers parked on the street and exited their vehicles.

         After Miller got out of the driver's seat, the officers approached him to ask for identification. Miller told the officers he did not have his driver's license with him, but gave them his name and date of birth. When the officers provided Miller's information to the Department of Motor Vehicles, they discovered his license was suspended, so they arrested Miller for driving with a suspended license in violation of section 56-1-460 of the South Carolina Code (2018). The officers searched Miller incident to his arrest and found an electronic scale in one of his pockets. They asked for consent to search the Chevrolet, but Miller refused.

         While the officers were arresting Miller, his girlfriend-Nikea Berry-came out of one of the apartments. She told the officers she lived there, and Miller was visiting her. The officers also learned the owner of the Chevrolet was Cassandra Jones, who did not live at the apartment complex and was not present at the scene.

         Columbia Police Department's standard procedures permit its officers to tow vehicles when the driver is arrested away from his residence and there is no responsible party present at the scene. The Department's written policy requires police officers to conduct an inventory search of the passenger compartment of a towed vehicle. Because Miller was arrested away from his residence, and because Jones was not present at the scene, the officers called a towing company to tow the Chevrolet. Before the tow truck arrived, the officers conducted an inventory search and found just under five grams of crack cocaine beneath the driver's seat.

         A grand jury indicted Miller for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. Prior to his trial, Miller moved to suppress the drug evidence arguing the officers did not have authority to tow the Chevrolet from the private driveway, they were not authorized to conduct the inventory search, and thus the seizure of the drugs violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion to suppress.

         At trial, the jury found Miller not guilty of possession with intent to distribute, but convicted him of simple possession of crack cocaine, which was his third offense. The trial court sentenced Miller to nine years in prison. See S.C. Code Ann. § 44-53-375(A) (2018) ("For a third or subsequent offense [of possession of cocaine base], the offender is guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, must be imprisoned not more than ten years . . . ."). Miller appealed to the court of appeals, which affirmed his conviction in an unpublished opinion. State v. Miller, Op. No. 2016-UP-040 (S.C. Ct. App. filed Jan. 20, 2016). Miller filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which we granted.

         II. Analysis

         The issue on appeal is whether it was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment for the officers-acting pursuant to their department policy-to seize, search, and then tow the vehicle Miller was driving when he was arrested on private property away from his residence and the owner of the vehicle was not present. The facts relevant to this appeal are not in dispute, so we address the issue as a question of law, which we review de novo. See State v. Adams, 409 S.C. 641, 647, 763 S.E.2d 341, 344 (2014) (stating "this Court reviews questions of law de novo").

         A. The Fourth Amendment and Inventory Searches

         The Fourth Amendment protects the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. "The ultimate standard set forth in the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness." Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 439, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 2527, 37 L.Ed.2d 706, 713 (1973). "Whether a search and seizure is unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment depends upon the facts and circumstances of each case." S. Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 375, 96 S.Ct. 3092, 3100, 49 L.Ed.2d 1000, 1009 (1976). In most circumstances, evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness standard must be excluded from trial. State v. Weaver, 374 S.C. 313, 319, 649 S.E.2d 479, 482 (2007).

         "Generally, a warrantless search is per se unreasonable and violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures." Id. However, a warrantless search can be reasonable if it falls under one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement. Id. One of those exceptions is an inventory search conducted according to standard police procedures. Robinson v. State, 407 S.C. 169, 185, 754 S.E.2d 862, 870 (2014) (stating "if police officers are following their standard procedures, they may inventory impounded property without obtaining a warrant" (citing Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 374, 107 S.Ct. 738, 742, 93 L.Ed.2d 739, 747 (1987))).

         "For an inventory search to be valid, the vehicle searched should first be in the valid custody of the law enforcement officers conducting the inventory." United States v. Brown, 787 F.2d 929, 931-32 (4th Cir. 1986) (citing Opperman, 428 U.S. at 374, 96 S.Ct. at 3099, 49 L.Ed.2d at 1008). "The question . . . is . . . whether the police officer's decision to impound was reasonable under the circumstances." Brown, 787 F.2d at 932; see also United States v. Bullette, 854 F.3d 261, 265 (4th Cir. 2017) ("An inventory search of an automobile is lawful (1) where the circumstances reasonably justified seizure or impoundment, and (2) law enforcement conducts the inventory search according to routine and standard procedures designed to secure the vehicle or its contents.") (citing Bertine, 479 U.S. at 371-76, 107 S.Ct. at 741-43, 93 L.Ed.2d. at 745-48).

         B. Reasonableness of the Impoundment

         The first step in our analysis is to determine whether Officers Westbury and McDonald's decision to seize Miller's vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment. We find the decision was reasonable under the circumstances, and thus there was no violation.

         We begin our explanation with the fact the officers seized and towed the vehicle pursuant to lawful authority. They acted in accordance with the requirements set forth in a written police department policy, which was adopted pursuant to a City of Columbia ordinance, which was passed under authority of a state statute, which the General Assembly enacted pursuant to the Home Rule provisions of the Constitution of South Carolina.

         Article VIII, section 9 of our Constitution provides, "The structure and organization, powers, duties, functions, and responsibilities of the municipalities shall be established by general law, " and article VIII, section 17 provides, "The provisions of this Constitution and all laws concerning local government shall be liberally construed in their favor. Powers, duties, and responsibilities granted local government subdivisions by this Constitution and by law shall include those fairly implied and not prohibited by this Constitution." Pursuant to the authority granted it in article VIII, section 9, our General Assembly enacted section 5-7-30 of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2017), which provides,

Each municipality of the State . . . may enact regulations, resolutions, and ordinances, not inconsistent with the Constitution and general law of this State, including the exercise of powers in relation to roads, . . . law enforcement, . . . and order in the municipality or respecting any subject which appears to it necessary and proper for the security, general welfare, and convenience of the municipality or for preserving . . . peace, order, and good government in it . . . .

         Pursuant to section 5-7-30, the City of Columbia enacted section 10-31 of its Code of Ordinances granting the chief of police broad powers over law enforcement in the City. Section 10-31 provides,

The chief of police, subject to the city manager, shall have administrative supervision over the police department. He shall be responsible for the enforcement of state laws and city ordinances, . . . establish training programs, . . . [and] establish departmental rules and regulations . . . .

         In turn, the chief of the Columbia Police Department adopted the Columbia Police Department's Policy Manual, which provides in section 7.2 of the Auxiliary Traffic Services chapter, Departmental personnel may also tow the following vehicles:

. Any vehicle from which an officer makes an arrest and there is no responsible party to whom the arrestee can turn over the possession of the vehicle.

         During a hearing on the motion to suppress, the State presented the testimony of the arresting officers to further explain the department policy and their decision to seize and tow the vehicle. Officer McDonald testified, "The vehicle needs to be towed . . . to make sure that nothing happens to the vehicle to cover our end." The trial court asked Officer McDonald, "What authority did you . . . rely upon in removing [the Chevrolet] from the private driveway?" McDonald replied, "Like I said, sir, to my knowledge, it wasn't his residence, and I was trained from day one that if the person gets arrested and it's not their residence that the vehicle gets towed." The solicitor asked Officer Westbury, "When discerning the responsible party to . . . possibly leave the car with, what factors do you look at?" Westbury replied, "It's . . . going to come up to the actual vehicle owner where the vehicle owner is on the scene or whether it's something to where I'm given information as far as where they want it left." When the trial court asked Officer Westbury why the Chevrolet was towed, he said, "Due to the fact that he wasn't the vehicle owner, and the owner wasn't on the scene." Officer Westbury also testified, "It's per the policy."

         We read the towing provision of the policy to include three requirements that must be met before the vehicle may be towed: (1) the officer makes the arrest from the vehicle, (2) the arrest occurs away from the arrestee's residence, and (3) the owner is not present at the scene and no other person is present who is authorized to take responsibility for the vehicle. Because all three of these requirements were met in this ...


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