Today, the South Carolina Supreme Court published a decision in State v. Bruce.
In State v. Bruce, Roger Bruce was convicted of the murder of his girlfriend, Laura Creel. Creel had disappeared and left behind her cellphone, car, and pet at Bruce’s home. Creel’s son, Ritch contacted the police out of concern since Creel never went anywhere without her dog, phone, or car. The police arrived to Bruce’s home to perform a welfare check on Creel. After Bruce permitted the officers to enter the apartment, they retrieved Creel’s car keys and entered the trunk of Creel’s vehicle, discovering Creel’s body. Bruce was subsequently arrested and tried for the murder of Creel.
At trial, Bruce objected to the discovery of the body on the basis that there was no consent and no search warrant obtained. The solicitor argued that Bruce had no expectation of privacy because it was Creel’s car. Ultimately, the court denied the motion to suppress, finding that the discovery of Creel’s body was inevitable. Bruce was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
On appeal, Bruce argued that the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress because Bruce never consent to the officers removing the keys from his home. The court of appeals reversed finding the record was insufficient for appellate review and remanded with instructions to consider whether Bruce had an expectation of privacy in the trunk of Creel’s car and to apply the harmless error analysis if the trial court found that the evidence was admitted in error.
This Court reverses the court of appeals’ opinion in State v. Bruce, 402 S.C. 621, 741 S.E.2d 590 (Ct. App. 2013), finding the trial court did not err in denying Bruce’s motion to suppress because there was no violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. This Court found that the officers’ seizure of Creel’s car keys from inside Bruce’s home was reasonably encompassed within his consent to enter the home and search for Creel. “Bruce was aware that the officers were seeking to determine Creel’s whereabouts when they requested entry to his home. It is undisputed that Bruce then allowed them in his home. A reasonable person would have understood that this search may extend to looking in her car, which was parked outside, for any additional insight into where she may have gone or what could have happened to her.” The Court also stated that it was improper for the court of appeals to instruct the lower court to perform a harmless error analysis on its own evidentiary rulings. This Court notes that the harmless error analysis is an appellate doctrine and a responsibility of the appellate court. Accordingly, the Court reverses the court of appeals’ decision and affirms Bruce’s conviction.
Justice Pleicones concurred in part and dissented in part in a separate opinion.