The South Dakota Supreme Court threw out a drug-and-alcohol conviction this week on an interesting search-and-seizure point. On the evening of October 1, 2013, an unnamed individual reported to Rapid City police that someone was panhandling in Roosevelt Park. Officer Dale Ackland went to the ice arena and found David A. Walter standing on the sidewalk. Walter matched the description provided by the complainant. Ackland saw a bulge in Walter’s front left pocket and decided that was sufficient reason to frisk Walter. Ackland found an open bottle of liquor and a couple syringes of meth. Ackland arrested Walter for public consumption of alcohol and possession of a controlled substance.
Walter argued to the circuit court that Ackland’s search was illegal, because the officer “did not have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to warrant the investigatory stop and frisk.” Panhandling is not illegal under state law or Rapid City ordinance, and the complainant did not cite any other activity that might have warranted police attention. The circuit court didn’t buy that, but the Supreme Court did:
In essence, the State asks us to uphold the seizure and search of an individual based only on an accurate description of the “suspect’s” appearance and the statement that he is engaged in activity that might be criminal under certain conditions, but without any claim that those conditions are actually present or any other statement of alleged fact enabling the detaining officer to infer that those conditions might be present [Chief Justice David Gilbertson, State of South Dakota v. David A. Walter (2015 S.D. 37), South Dakota Supreme Court, 2015.05.27].
At peril of likening referendum petitioners to panhandling meth addicts, I see a parallel between the Walter case and the Memorial Day incident in which a veteran was kicked out of Wylie Park after a park visitor grumbled about his circulating a referendum petition. We can’t allow city officials to search, detain, or otherwise harass citizens in public places just because one person disapproves of those citizens’ activities. In the Wylie Park case, our commitment to Constitutional rights (in this case, the First Amendment) means park visitors have to put up with some civil political speech with which they may disagree. In Walter’s case, our commitment to basic Constitutional rights (in this case, the Fourth Amendment) means we miss out on the opportunity to prosecute an individual who really was breaking the law, but that’s the price we pay for obeying the rule of law rather than the rule of gripers.
Police, city officials, take note: State v. Walter emphasizes that if you’re going to accost a citizen on the streetbased on another citizen’s complaint, you’d better make sure that complaint is rooted in statute or ordinance, and not just one griper’s displeasure.