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Criminal Practice – Collateral Estoppel – Constitutional – Search & Seizure – Traffic Stop – Open Container & Crack Cocaine

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//July 18, 2014

Criminal Practice – Collateral Estoppel – Constitutional – Search & Seizure – Traffic Stop – Open Container & Crack Cocaine

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//July 18, 2014

State v. Hewins (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-074-14, 20 pp.) (Donald Beatty, J.) (Costa Pleicones, J., concurring in part & dissenting in part) Appealed from Greenville County Circuit Court (D. Garrison Hill, J.) S.C. S. Ct.

Holding: During an extension of a traffic stop, a search of defendant’s car revealed both an open container of alcohol and a bottle containing crack cocaine. Although defendant did not contest the search at his municipal-court trial on the open container charge, he should not have been collaterally estopped from contesting the search in his circuit-court trial on the crack possession charge. Moreover, the extension of the traffic stop was unjustified.

We reverse defendant’s conviction for possession of crack cocaine.

Collateral Estoppel

First, State v. Snowdon, 371 S.C. 331, 638 S.E.2d 91 (Ct. App. 2006), cert. dismissed as improvidently granted, 381 S.C. 171, 672 S.E.2d 108 (2009), is factually distinguishable from this case. In Snowdon, the defendant was arrested for breach of the peace, and a search incident to arrest revealed marijuana in the defendant’s wallet. Once Snowdon pled guilty to breach of the peace, he waived any objection to the constitutionality of his arrest and the legal consequences flowing therefrom (i.e., the search incident to arrest).

Here, the record does not indicate that defendant pled guilty to the open container charge. Furthermore, the open container charge was completely unrelated to the drug possession charge as the discovery of the vodka bottle did not precipitate the discovery of the cocaine. The circuit court erred in relying on Snowdon.

After a review of case law from this and other jurisdictions, we decline to adopt a blanket prohibition of the state’s use of collateral estoppel against a criminal defendant. However, instances for which the doctrine’s application would be permissible will be extremely rare.

In this case, defendant should not have been precluded from litigating his motion to suppress in circuit court.

The state failed to establish the elements of collateral estoppel: there is no indication that the constitutionality of the search was actually litigated or directly determined in municipal court; the suppression issue in the drug case was not necessary to support a conviction in the open-container case; and defendant had little incentive to pursue a suppression motion, given the minimal penalty for an open container violation (he was sentenced to time served and ordered to pay a fine).

Motion to Suppress

In the interest of judicial economy, we address the merits of defendant’s motion to suppress.

Defendant contends that Officer Cothran exceeded the scope of a valid traffic stop.

Officer Cothran stopped defendant for making an improper turn. Once Officer Cothran completed a warning citation, the purpose of the traffic stop was fulfilled except for presenting the warning citation to defendant.

However, Officer Cothran ordered defendant out of his vehicle and conducted a pat-down search. Officer Cothran then questioned defendant as to whether he had any guns, drugs, or explosives. When defendant denied the presence of any drugs and refused to consent to a search, Officer Cothran asked Officer Loftis to walk his drug-detection dog around the vehicle. After the dog alerted to the driver’s side, Officer Cothran searched the vehicle and found the open container and the cocaine.

Officer Cothran’s continued detention of defendant exceeded the scope of the traffic stop and constituted an additional seizure for purposes of the Fourth Amendment.

The circumstances of this case did not create an objective basis for extending the scope of the traffic stop. Officer Cothran’s observation that defendant was nervous, had driven through a known drug area, and quickly denied possessing drugs cannot justify Officer Cothran’s decision to detain defendant.

The continued detention of defendant, which included the deployment of the drug-detection dog, was illegal, and the drugs discovered during the search of the vehicle should have been suppressed.



(Pleicones, J.) I agree with the majority that the circuit court erred in ruling that defendant was collaterally estopped from arguing his motion to suppress. However, I would not have reached the merits of the suppression motion because it was not ruled on by the lower court.

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