SC Supreme Court OK’s Prolonged Traffic Stop & Search

State v. Stepheno Jemain Alston (No. 2015-002134)

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. Deputy Gilbert pursued the vehicle and initiated a traffic stop.

Approximately fifteen minutes after the traffic stop commenced, Deputy Gilbert completed the warning and pulled the paper off of a pad. 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.

Subsequently, a Spartanburg County grand jury indicted Alston for trafficking in cocaine. 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 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. The trial judge denied Alston’s motion to suppress.

On certiorari, Alston contends Deputy Gilbert did not have probable cause to stop Alston’s vehicle for a traffic violation, nor did he have reasonable suspicion to support a brief investigatory stop solely based on his observation that Alston was drifting within his own lane of travel. Alternatively, even if the initial stop was proper, Alston maintains that Deputy Gilbert impermissibly exceeded the scope of the traffic stop as he had neither (1) a reasonable and articulable suspicion of illegal activity to warrant the continued detention nor (2) Alston’s consent.

Regarding the propriety of the initial traffic stop, the Court holds that, “depending on the totality of the circumstances, a motorist who is observed repeatedly weaving within the lane of travel and striking the dotted lines marking this lane may be subject to a traffic stop.”

Having determined that the initial stop was valid, the Court turns its attention to Alston’s second argument, and analyzes whether: (1) Deputy Gilbert had an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion illegal activity had occurred or was occurring to extend the duration of the stop; or (2) the detention became a consensual encounter.

The court finds that the following facts gave rise to reasonable suspicion on behalf of Gilbert: (1) inconsistencies in Alston’s stated travel plans and the terms of the rental agreement, (2) Alston’s statement that he intended to stay in New Jersey for “about a week,” until Monday, April 2, 2011, the date the vehicle was to be returned to a location outside of Atlanta, and (3) Alston’s claim that he intended to bring his mother back with him for Mother’s Day, which was a month and a half away. The court simultaneously questions the significance of the remaining factors the Gilbert identified, but nevertheless finds that there were sufficient facts for the trial judge to find reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

Regarding the question of whether Alston consented to Gilbert’s search, the Court notes the following testimony that took place during the suppression hearing: Deputy Gilbert expressly testified that Alston gave him consent to search the vehicle. Deputy Gilbert stated that, after he told Alston that he could refuse to give consent, Alston responded “then go ahead” and pointed to the car. Deputy Gilbert further testified that, in an effort to get a “yes” or “no” answer from Alston, he explained this right. According to Deputy Gilbert, Alston responded “yes” after receiving this explanation. Deputy Gilbert denied coercing Alston or producing his weapon during the encounter. Deputy Gilbert also maintained that Alston never withdrew his consent. The Supreme Court holds that “because Alston’s statements conflicted with Deputy Gilbert’s testimony, it was within the province of the trial judge, as the trier of fact, to determine this issue of credibility.”

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