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Police search that found cocaine, sent man to prison ruled illegal by SC Supreme court

Tracy Glantz/tglantz@thestate.com

Michael Frasier has so far spent six years in state prison because North Charleston police conducted an illegal search that turned up cocaine.

That was the upshot of a S.C. Supreme Court unanimous decision this week that held that North Charleston police came up with flimsy reasons to prolong an ordinary traffic stop for a broken brake light and ultimately use it to search the car Frasier was riding in in 2013.

“The discovery of the cocaine was the result of an illegal seizure,” the 11-page opinion said.

Police didn’t meet the legal standard of having a “reasonable suspicion” that Frasier was carrying drugs and that additional drugs were in the car in which he was a passenger, the high court ruled.

“Reasonable suspicion” must be more than a hunch, and that’s all that police had, justices wrote.

Instead, police relied on reasons susceptible to multiple interpretations, such as Frasier looked around to “clear the area” when he came out of a bus station before getting into a car that was picking him up, the opinion said. Police at his trial testified that by looking around, Frasier was possibly a drug criminal scouting for police.

But during a March Supreme Court oral arguments on the case, that kind of logic didn’t impress the justices.

“’Clearing the area.’ I’m not sure what that means,” said Associate Justice John Kittredge. “I teach my children to ‘clear the area’ every time they approach a parking lot, every time they get ready to park, get out of a car, go in a restaurant, go out of a restaurant. Clear the area’ — (that means) know your surroundings. Why does ‘clearing the area’ give rise to reasonable suspicion of drug activity?”

State appellate defender Kathrine Hudgins, who defended Fraiser, responded, “I’m afraid I cannot answer that question, Justice Kittredge.”

How soon Frasier gets out of prison depends on whether S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office decides to petition the high court for a rehearing.

If the petition is turned down, the attorney general could still petition the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the matter, Hudgins said in an interview.

The Attorney General’s office had no immediate response about what its next step might be.

Meanwhile, Frasier, 51, is serving a 25-year, no-parole prison sentence for drug trafficking and is not scheduled to be released until 2037.

Justices outline why they overturned stop

In its decision, the high court said that North Charleston plainclothes police detectives said they initially became suspicious when, while monitoring people at a North Charleston bus station, they saw Frasier exit the station and look “left and right” before getting into a car driven by a friend.

The bus station was in an area frequented by drug traffickers, police said, and the bus had come in from New York.

Officers characterized Frasier’s looking left and right “as clearing the area for threats, including law enforcement, which they deemed suspicious,” the high court wrote.

Due to that behavior, and the fact that they noted the vehicle had a non-working brake light, the detectives asked a uniformed patrol unit to pull the car over.

It was a legal stop because the brake light was in fact out, and the detectives also told the officer who pulled Frasier’s car over that the passenger’s conduct was “suspicious.”

“However, the officers never informed (the patrolman) of the specific conduct that raised their suspicion, such as Frasier’s scanning the parking lot,” the Supreme Court wrote.

The case was also noteworthy because justices wrote they were adopting a more strict standard of “reasonable suspicion” for police searches and seizures, a standard set down by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1996 case.

“We take this opportunity to refine our standard of review to better align with the federal standard, which has been adopted in nearly every state,” justices wrote.

In the past, justices noted, they had been bound by prior South Carolina Supreme Court rulings that gave great weight to police using “any evidence” to justify a search and seizure.

But “with the dawn of the technological age, appellate courts are no longer dependent on the trial court ... the most obvious example is the advent of body and dashcam footage,” wrote the justices.

They said they reviewed the North Charleston police dashcam footage of the Frasier traffic stop, and the tapes did not support officers’ claims that they had “reasonable suspicion” to do the search.

“There (must) be an objective, specific basis for suspecting the person stopped of criminal activity,” justices wrote.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives people the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The state’s case was argued by assistant attorney general Mark Farthing.