Reasonable suspicion to follow car after call that large amounts of ephedrine purchased


In 2001, an employee of Sam’s Club in Southaven called the Southaven Police Department, reporting that a white male had bought large amounts of ephedrine. As the police arrived, a GMC pickup truck occupied by two white males was leaving the parking lot. The driver of the truck matched the description (white male, mid-30s, wearing a pullover shirt with three large stripes) given by the employee.

The police proceeded to follow the truck and then noticed that the truck had no brake lights. They stopped the truck and informed the occupants, James Allen Walker and William Stanley Miller, that they had received a report about someone buying large quantities of ephedrine.

The occupants verbally consented to a search of the truck. The police recovered several boxes of ephedrine and several packs of lithium batteries. Walker was found guilty of possession of two precursor chemicals (pseudoephedrine and lithium), knowing that the precursor chemicals would be used to unlawfully manufacture a controlled substance (methamphetamine) and sentenced to 20 years.

On appeal, he argued there was no reasonable suspicion or probable cause for the stop and thus his consent was invalid. MSC affirmed.


A. Stop of the vehicle

Walker claims that Officer Greg Smorowski began following Walker’s truck before Smorowski was able to determine that Walker’s appearance matched that of the description given. Dispatch put out a call that there was a white male subject inside Sam’s attempting to purchase a large amount of ephedrine. Smorowski was in the area, and pulled into the parking lot trying to locate the subjects or the vehicle.

At that time, they didn’t have a vehicle description. A blue pickup truck was leaving the parking lot as Smorowski was pulling up on the parking lot. It was occupied by two white males. Smorowski noticed the car didn’t have any brake lights. As he followed the car, he was able to observe the driver of the vehicle, who matched the clothing description given by dispatch.

Walker is mistaken that probable cause was needed to (1) watch the truck because of the defective brake lights; (2) follow the vehicle after matching Walker’s description with that given by the Sam’s employee; and (3) make an investigatory stop. All that is needed for these activities is reasonable suspicion.

The constitutional requirements for an investigative stop and detention are less stringent than those for an arrest. We said in Floyd that an investigative stop of a suspect may be made so long as an officer has a reasonable suspicion, grounded in specific and articulable facts, that a person he encounters was involved in or is wanted in connection with a felony.

Smorowski did have a reasonable suspicion to pick out Walker, to begin to follow him, and to make an investigatory stop. The officer knew that a white male had bought a large quantity of ephedrine. The Sam’s employee could not have called the police department until the person checked out because there was no way to determine what the person was purchasing until check out. Therefore, the officer reasonably opined that the person would be in the parking lot by the time the officer arrived.

He saw Walker’s truck with two white male passengers. At that point, it was reasonable to suspect that the white male who purchased the ephedrine could be one of the occupants of the truck. He noticed that the truck did not have brake lights, so, he followed.

The officer was then able to see that the driver (Walker) of the truck had on a pullover shirt with three wide stripes, matching the description given by the Sam’s employee. The officer began to follow the truck and then made an investigatory stop.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Whren v. U.S., 517 U.S. 806 (1996), stated that, as a general rule, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.

Therefore, because Walker’s truck violated § 63-7-13(3), and a traffic violation had occurred, stopping the truck was reasonable. This issue is without merit.

B. Consent

Walker contends that his consent to the search of his truck was tainted by the unlawful detention during which it was elicited, and that his detention became unreasonable and unduly excessive in scope at the point when the officers shifted the focus of their investigation from the improper equipment to the possibility of locating contraband within the vehicle. He further argues that the police officers could not have seen any contraband in plain view.

In Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973), the U.S. Supreme Court said that when a driver voluntarily consents to a search of his or her vehicle, there is no need for a search warrant.

In Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993), the U.S. Supreme Court said that if police are lawfully in a position from which they view an object, if its incriminating character is immediately apparent, and if the officers have a lawful right of access to the object, they may seize it without a warrant under plain view.

MCOA has recently addressed this exact factual situation*. In Burchfield, an employee at Walgreens called the police to advise that two white men had just purchased a large quantity of over-the- counter cold medications containing ephedrine/pseudoephedrine. The employee said that the men were driving a silverish Cadillac, that it had an Arkansas license tag, and that they had left the store traveling westbound on a specific road.

After an investigatory stop, the police officer observed a shopping bag containing ephedrine on the back seat. The driver consented to a search of the car and 864 dosages of ephedrine were found.

In this case, Sergeant Steve Stewart of the Southaven Police Department testified that he pulled in after Smorowski had stopped Walker’s vehicle. Stewart observed a Wal-Mart bag on the front passenger floorboard which contained several boxes of antihistamine tablets or ephedrine and possibly some batteries in that pack. It seemed like multiple boxes.

Stewart explained to Walker why they were there and asked him if he had any Sudafed in the truck, and he advised that he had purchased several boxes for his store. Stewart then asked would he mind if he looked and Walker said “Yeah, sure. Go ahead. That’s all I have in there.”

Walker testified that when he got out of his vehicle after Smorowski pulled him over, he left the driver’s side door open. This testimony undermines Walker’s claim that Stewart could not have seen anything inside the vehicle in plain view.

Because we find that the investigatory stop was based on a reasonable suspicion, we also find that, after the ephedrine was seen in plain view, the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle.

If police are lawfully in a position from which they view an object, if its incriminating character is immediately apparent, and if the officers have a lawful right of access to the object, they may seize it without a warrant. See SCOTUS Minnesota v Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993).

* Burchfield was ultimately reviewed by MSC so the hyperlink above will now take you to the MSC ruling.