CONSENSUAL ENCOUNTER DEPENDS ON WHETHER ONE IS FREE TO LEAVE?
SOUTH CAROLINA BY WAY OF THE CHINESE BUS LINES. AM I FREE TO LEAVE?
The Court of Appeals Rules in the case of State v. Eric Terrell Spears (S.C. App., 2017).
It matters whether a reasonable person believes they are free to leave in determining whether police are in a consensual encounter with suspects.
In this particular case, Mr. Spears was sentenced to 30 years from trafficking cocaine between ten and twenty-eight grams. DEA agents working with a sheriff’s office received a tip that one or two black males were traveling from NYC to South Carolina on the ‘Chinese bus lines.’ It was believed that the buses departed from Chinatown and oftentimes drug dealers used the buses. On March 29, 2012 two of the Chinese bus lines were scheduled to arrive in South Carolina. Three law enforcement officers were dispatched to one of the bus stops. Spears and a woman were getting off the bus. They retrieved four large bags and appeared to be nervous, they kept looking at the agents, and were talking amongst themselves.
Spears and the woman left the bust stop on foot. The agents followed them. Spears looked back. Williams (the woman) looked back. It appeared to law enforcement that the woman handed something to Spears. Law enforcement briskly caught up to the couple, identified themselves, and asked to speak with Spears and the woman. One of the law enforcement officers told Spears and the woman that in the past there had been wanted subjects, drugs, counterfeit merchandise on the line and asked them for an id.
An officer asked Spears if he had any illegal weapons. It was reported that Spears hesitated before saying “no”. An officer then asked about illegal items and Spears began to put his hands underneath his shirt and push the shirt away from his waistband and body. Spears did this two more times after being asked not to do it and an Officers told Spears he was going to search him for weapons. During the search, an officer felt an object consistent with the feel of crack cocaine. The officer removed the object.
Spears lawyer motioned to suppress the drugs based on the Fourth Amendment. The trial court implicitly ruled the encounter was consensual and denied Spears’ motion because Spears willingly stopped and talked with agents and the agents did not tell Spears he was not free to leave.
The Court of Appeals ruled the trial court erred by denying Spears’ motion reasoning that a person has been seized when a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave. A crucial question the Court considered was whether a person ‘would have felt free to decline the officers’ requests or otherwise terminate the encounter’. The Court ruled that under the totality of the circumstances a reasonable person would not believe he would be free to leave. Spears and Williams were approached by law enforcement officers, some of which had visible weapons. The officers followed Spears and the woman but waited to engage them until after they were alone, and the officers did not inform Spears he was free to go. The Court held that the officers lacked the reasonable suspicion necessary to stop him. Here, the Court ruled the information the officers acquired amounted to a hunch, which is not enough to rise to a level of reasonable suspicion.
Alex Kornfeld is a Criminal Defense Attorney in Greenville, SC. If you, or someone you know has been arrested, or is under suspicion of a crime, it may be in your best interest to consult with an attorney first. You may reach Alex by phone at 864-335-9990.
Source: State v. Eric Terrell Spears (S.C. App., 2017).