In 2012, Master Sergeant John Harris and Communications Officer Keishawn McDonald of the Madison County Sheriff’s Department were patrolling several Canton, Mississippi apartment complexes after the police department received complaints from the apartment management of loitering and possible drug deals occurring on the premises. Harris testified he pulled into Madison Heights apartment complex and noticed a car “double parked,” meaning the car was taking up two parking spaces.
Harris pulled alongside the car, and he got out of his vehicle to ask the car’s driver, Kenith Anderson, why he was improperly parked. Neither Harris nor McDonald could remember whether the patrol car’s blue lights were turned on at the time. McDonald, who was still in the patrol car, testified that as Anderson got out of his car, Anderson dropped a clear plastic bag of a green leafy substance, later determined to be marijuana, back onto the driver’s side floorboard.
McDonald exited the patrol car and relayed that information to Harris, who then walked to the passenger-side window and was able to see the bag on the floorboard. Upon seeing the marijuana, Harris forced Anderson to place his hands on the vehicle so he could search the car. McDonald testified that Anderson was not handcuffed until the initial bag of marijuana was recovered. A search of Anderson’s car resulted in the recovery of more bags of marijuana, digital scales, and a firearm.
Anderson presented a differing version of the events. Jericho Dortch, a resident of the Madison Heights apartment complex and Anderson’s childhood friend, testified that he and Anderson had been riding around together earlier that day. He had left a bag of marijuana in Anderson’s car and called Anderson on the telephone to ask him to bring it back to him.
According to Dortch, Anderson returned to Madison Heights, pulled into one parking spot, exited the car, and was standing on the sidewalk before the patrol car pulled into the parking lot. The patrol car did not have the blue lights activated. Harris proceeded to ask Anderson for his license and what he was doing. He then asked Anderson to put his hands on the hood of the car and handcuffed him.
Dortch testified that Harris then searched Anderson’s car. Anderson’s cousin, Erica Shields, testified that Anderson’s car was parked only in one space. Lastly, Anderson testified. He stated he was already standing on the sidewalk talking to Dortch when the patrol car pulled up, without its blue lights on, and Harris asked Anderson what he was doing. Harris got out of the patrol car and asked Anderson for his license and asked him to put his hands on the hood of the car.
According to Anderson, Harris then handcuffed him and sat him on the curb, and he searched Anderson’s car. Anderson stated that McDonald did not exit the patrol car until after Sergeant Harris had handcuffed him.
Anderson was convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute while in possession of a firearm and sentenced to 25 years. On appeal, he argued there was no reasonable suspicion for the stop. MCOA affirmed.
In Singletary v. State, 318 So. 2d 873 (Miss. 1975), MSC said that a police officer’s activities generally can be broken into three categories:
(1) a voluntary conversation, during which an officer is allowed to have a voluntary communication with an individual regardless of what facts are known to the officer because it involves no force and no detention of the individual interviewed;
(2) a Terry stop, which involves an investigative stop and temporary detention in order to settle an ambiguous situation without having sufficient knowledge to justify an arrest; and,
(3) an arrest based on probable cause.
Therefore, we first have to determine what type of action Sergeant Harris initially took.
Neither Harris nor McDonald could recall whether the blue lights were initiated; however, both Anderson and Dortch testified that the blue lights were not initiated when the patrol car pulled beside Anderson’s vehicle. Harris testified that he and Anderson exited their vehicles at the same time, and they began to communicate as to why Anderson was parked illegally.
Harris asked for Anderson’s driver’s license before McDonald informed him of what he had seen Anderson do while exiting his car. Harris explained: “If I wanted to stop [Anderson], I would have stopped him on Holmes Avenue by activating my blue lights instead of turning into the apartment complex.” When asked if the reason Sergeant Harris pulled in beside Anderson was to ticket him for improper parking, he responded: “The reason I pulled in beside him was to figure out why he was improperly parked . . . .”
McDonald’s testimony corroborates Harris’s testimony. McDonald stated that at the time he informed Harris of what he had seen Anderson do, Anderson was standing in front of the car. Anderson was not handcuffed nor were his hands on the hood of the car. According to McDonald, “Anderson was [not] placed into custody until [Sergeant Harris] got [the bag of marijuana] in [his] possession.”
Based on our analysis of the record, Harris’s initial contact with Anderson falls under the category of a voluntary conversation.
Harris’s initial contact was a voluntary conversation; however, Harris also had sufficient reasonable suspicion to conduct a Terry investigatory stop of Anderson based on what McDonald had seen and relayed to him. To justify a Terry stop, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity may be afoot.
In the present case, the criminal activity was Anderson’s possession of marijuana. Once Harris observed the bag of marijuana in plain view on the floorboard of Anderson’s vehicle, he handcuffed Anderson and searched the vehicle for any other evidence.
In Mosley, we said when an officer determines an illegal substance is in plain view, the officer then has probable cause to make an arrest and search the vehicle.
In summary, while patrolling an area with recent complaints of possible illegal drug activity, Harris pulled into the parking spot adjacent to Anderson’s spot, and he asked Anderson to see his driver’s license and asked why he was improperly parked. Such actions could be described as engaging in a voluntary conversation.
But after McDonald informed Harris that he saw Anderson drop a bag of what appeared to be marijuana onto the floorboard of the car, Harris developed a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity — possession of marijuana — was occurring. This justified the temporary detention of Anderson.
Harris then personally observed the bag of marijuana in plain view on the floorboard of Anderson’s car. Upon seeing the marijuana, Harris arrested Anderson for possession of marijuana based on the fact that Harris determined criminal activity was occurring and that Anderson was the perpetrator.
After finding marijuana in plain view and arresting Anderson, Harris was justified in searching the remainder of Anderson’s car where the gun, scales, and more marijuana were recovered.