SC Supreme Court Affirms Convictions in Eyewitness ID Case

State v. Shawn Wyatt (Case No. 2016-001303)

Kershaw Correctional Institute Officer Joe Schnettler was at his post in a watch tower when he observed a man run from the woods to the fence surrounding the prison. Schnettler watched the man throw eight packages over the fence, and then run back into the woods. During the incident Schnettler radioed other prison officers and announced each time the man threw another package over the fence. Schnettler described the suspect as a “white man” wearing “long jean shorts and a dark shirt.” A few minutes later, Kershaw Correctional Institute Officer Brenda Lippe was driving to work when she passed a man walking away from the prison on Highway 601. When Lippe arrived at work, she heard about the incident at the fence, and told the correctional officer in charge of contraband that she had seen a man walking away from the prison on Highway 601. She described him as “a light skinned black gentleman with a nice neat haircut, black shirt and . . . charcoal-colored shorts.” The correctional officers informed the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office that there was a “black male wearing a black shirt and jean shorts” walking on Highway 601 who may have been involved with a contraband incident at the prison. Soon after, Deputy Charles Kirkley saw Wyatt walking along Highway 601 and detained him. Schnettler left the prison and drove to the side of the road where Kirkley was holding Wyatt, and Schnettler positively ID’d him. Wyatt was then driven to the prison, where Lippe positively identified Wyatt as the man she had seen walking on Highway 601 a few minutes earlier.

Wyatt was convicted for attempting to furnish contraband to a prisoner and possession with intent to distribute cocaine, cocaine base, and marijuana. He argues on appeal that the trial court erred by not suppressing the two eyewitness identifications (Schnettler and Lippe). During the pre-trial suppression hearing, the State appeared to concede that the show-up identification procedure was suggestive. However, the Supreme Court notes that the first prong of Neil v. Biggers requires a trial court to consider whether the procedure, even if suggestive, was necessary under the circumstances. The Supreme Court states that courts in other cases have denied suppression under the first prong of Biggers because the circumstances of the case rendered suggestive police procedures necessary. In the present case, the Supreme Court holds that the show-up identification was necessary because (1) it allowed the officers to quickly determine whether Wyatt was the suspect, or whether he should be released, (2) the officer who detained Wyatt initially lacked probable cause to formally arrest him – and that probable cause was supplied by Schnettler’s identification, and (3) providing a formal lineup would not have been workable under the circumstances.

Regarding Lippe’s identification, the Court holds that any issues with the identification did not affect the outcome of trial. The Court notes that Lippe did not witness the crime, and her testimony proved only a fact already established conclusively: that Wyatt was walking away from the prison on Highway 601 just before 6:00 a.m.

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