COLUMBIA — Police did not violate the constitutional rights of a man they stopped on suspicion of dealing drugs, South Carolina’s highest court ruled Wednesday.
A divided state Supreme Court ruled that deputies were justified in stopping Syllester Taylor in a neighborhood known for high drug activity and engaged in what they thought was a drug deal.
Taylor, 34, was arrested in 2006 and, because he is a career offender, was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison for dealing crack cocaine. According to the court, officers had gotten an anonymous tip that someone was dealing drugs in the area and saw Taylor “huddled up” with another man. Taylor fled the officers, who eventually caught up with him and patted him down.
Officers found no weapons but did discover a tennis ball in Taylor’s pocket. One of the officers testified that the ball was slit and he could see crack cocaine inside it through the cut.
Taylor’s attorneys appealed, arguing that police didn’t have reasonable suspicion to stop Taylor or probable cause to search the tennis ball after they’d ascertained that it wasn’t a weapon. The state Court of Appeals agreed, reversing Taylor’s conviction and vacating his sentence in 2010.
State prosecutors appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court. On Wednesday, Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote that evidence backed up Taylor’s conviction, also noting that the tennis ball easily could have had a razor inside instead of drugs and that police were reasonable in acting to make sure Taylor didn’t have a weapon.
“It was proper for police to conduct a pat down,” Toal wrote. “The officers in this case suspected illegal activity and established law does not require them to simply `shrug their shoulders and allow a crime to occur.”’
Two other justices agreed with Toal. But in a dissent, Justice Don Beatty said the court was wrong on both arguments.
“The majority’s opinion eviscerates the constitutional protection of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Beatty wrote. “This record is totally devoid of any facts that would legally justify the stop, let alone the search.”
Justice John Kittredge said he agreed that the police were justified in stopping Taylor but didn’t have authority to search inside the tennis ball.
Neither Taylor’s attorney nor state prosecutors immediately commented on the case. Taylor is currently serving a 30-year sentence at a state prison in McCormick.
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