State v. Alphonso Thompson (App. No. 27706), SC Supreme Court win on Search Warrant Issue!

This is a very important case for all criminal defense practitioners handling drug cases.  Essentially, the Court holds here that it is willing to kick convictions of massive quantities of drugs if law enforcement cannot meet the (really, quite low) standards of showing probable cause in the search warrants it obtains from judges.  From the opinion, it appears that Thompson had been on law enforcement’s radar for awhile, because the warrant references events that occurred years before the warrant was actually obtained from the judge.  But, despite that, the warrant itself was not particular enough to justify the search of the residence on that particular date. That’s a problem.   The Court articulates the law:

In determining whether a search warrant is supported by probable cause, the crucial element is not whether the target of the search is suspected of a crime, but whether it is reasonable to believe that the items to be seized will be found in the place to be searched.  Zurcher v. Stanford Daily, 436 U.S. 547, 556 (1978) (emphasis in opinion).  In South Carolina, the judicial officer asked to issue a search warrant must make a practical, common sense decision concerning whether, under the totality of the circumstances set forth in the affidavit, there is a fair probability that evidence of a crime will be found in the particular place to be searchedState v. Tench, 353 S.C. 531, 534, 579 S.e.2d 314, 316 (2003) (emphasis in the opinion).

Here, the Court found that only two pieces of information in the affidavit tied drug activity to the address listed in the affidavit:  1) a 2009 hearsay statement that cocaine was delivered there “on several different occasions” and 2) the assertion that “in the six months preceding the affidavit, investigators ‘witnessed Thompson visit this 120 River Street address just before making cocaine deliveries throughout Spartanburg.'” Neither statement, the Court concluded, either independently or read together, demonstrates a sufficiently specific indication that the drugs Thompson was allegedly selling were being accessed at that address on or near May 2010 (when the warrant was executed).  In fact, the Court notes, assertions in the affidavit contained no specific facts showing any connection between drug-related activity and the searched address after February 2009.

Based on all this, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision finding the search warrant was sufficient.  Excellent advocacy by both trial counsel and appellate counsel, Michael Patrick Scott of Nexsen Pruet in Columbia, South Carolina.