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People v. Sorenson

June 21, 2001


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Thomas

Docket No. 89262-Agenda 5-January 2001.

The defendant, Brian K. Sorenson, was charged with one count of unlawful possession of a controlled substance (720 ILCS 570/402(c) (West 1996)), after police discovered cocaine in one of his unlaced hiking boots during a pat-down search following a traffic stop. The circuit court of Sangamon County denied the defendant's motion to suppress the evidence seized from the boot, finding that the search was valid because, under the totality of the circumstances, the officer had a reasonable belief that the search was necessary to protect himself from harm. Following a stipulated bench trial, the defendant was convicted of the charged offense and sentenced to two years of probation. The defendant appealed to the appellate court, and the appellate court affirmed the circuit court's denial of the motion to suppress, along with the defendant's conviction and sentence. No. 4-98-0684 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the appellate court.


At the suppression hearing, Springfield police officer Jim Cordery testified that on the evening of September 16, 1997, around 9:10 p.m., he was conducting a surveillance from his police vehicle of a "known drug house" located at 1524 E. Moffat Street, in Springfield, Illinois. Cordery explained that he lived in the area and that he had been told by numerous neighbors and other sources that the occupants of the house were dealing drugs at the location. He also had been informed that there was an extremely high amount of foot, bicycle and car traffic coming to the house, which involved the visitors staying for two or three minutes and then leaving. Cordery noted that the police had previously arrested the occupants of the house for dealing narcotics.

Officer Cordery stated that while he was parked outside the house, a vehicle pulled up with three persons inside. The defendant, a white male with red hair, was the sole backseat passenger. Cordery watched the defendant exit the vehicle and go inside the house. The defendant remained inside the house for about three or four minutes before returning to the same vehicle. Cordery suspected that a drug transaction had taken place in the house so he decided to follow the vehicle when it pulled away. After the driver failed to signal his intention to turn left at an intersection, the officer stopped the car. When asked if he felt particularly threatened at the time he made the traffic stop, Cordery responded affirmatively, stating, "I did feel uneasy, yes sir." He noted that his concern arose out of the location of the stop, that it was a dark road, that there were three persons in the vehicle, and that in his experience, persons involved in drugs are known to carry weapons. Cordery acknowledged that the occupants of the vehicle had not made any menacing or threatening gestures toward him, but he further stated, "[a]nytime you are on a dark road with three people in a vehicle *** there is a threat to my safety[;] [o]fficers die all the time from situations like that."

Officer Cordery further testified that after he approached the vehicle, the driver produced his driver's license and proof of insurance. Cordery then asked him if he had "any weapons, drugs, needles." At that point, the driver consented to a pat-down search, which did not reveal any weapons or contraband.

Cordery stated that following the pat-down of the driver, he turned his attention toward the defendant because the defendant was on his side of the vehicle and therefore would be the "quickest threat" to the officer. Cordery asked the defendant if he had any weapons, drugs, needles or anything on him that could hurt the officer. The defendant responded that he did not. According to Cordery, the defendant then gave his permission to be searched. The defendant stepped out of the vehicle and placed his hands on the trunk of the car. Cordery then conducted a frisk of the defendant. During the course of the frisk, Cordery asked the defendant to remove his boots and kick them to the side. Cordery noted that he asked the defendant to remove his boots because they were unlaced. The officer added that, in his experience, any time boot laces are untied there is a very strong possibility that a weapon may be located inside and that it allows quick access. He further noted that knives, razors and small caliber handguns fit in boots. After the defendant removed his boots, Cordery observed a white, rock-like substance in one of the boots. The officer recognized the substance as possibly being cocaine, and it subsequently tested positive for the presence of cocaine.

The defendant was the only other witness to testify at the suppression hearing. The defendant testified that on the evening in question, he went inside the house located at 1524 East Moffat Street for about 5 or 10 minutes. When he left the house, he got into a vehicle with two of his friends. He stated that he thought the officer pulled the vehicle over because the driver had activated his signal late into the turn. The officer pulled the vehicle over about one block from the house the defendant had left. When the officer finished searching the driver, he told the driver to sit back down in the car. According to the defendant, the officer then told the defendant to "step out of the vehicle" and put his hands on the trunk. The defendant complied with the officer's instructions. The officer then conducted a pat-down search of the defendant. When the officer finished the pat-down, he noticed that the defendant's boots were unlaced. The officer then asked the defendant to remove his boots. The defendant described his boots as steel-toed hiking boots that came above his ankles.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court denied the defendant's motion to suppress. It found that the State had failed to meet its burden of proof as to whether the defendant consented to the search, but it further found that the search of the defendant was valid under the standards enunciated in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889, 88 S. Ct. 1868 (1968). In its written order denying the defendant's motion to reconsider, the trial court noted the following objective circumstances surrounding the stop, in concluding that Officer Cordery possessed a reasonable belief that the search was necessary to protect himself from harm:

"[T]he officer testified that he observed the defendant exit a known drug house, that he stopped the vehicle on a dark street, that [the defendant] was in closest proximity to the officer after the driver exited the vehicle, that he is trained to suspect that drug purchasers are armed with greater frequency than the norm, that his training instructs him that weapons are often carried in boots and that the fact that the boots were unlaced induced him to search those boots for weapons."

The cause subsequently proceeded to a stipulated bench trial. The defendant agreed to the stipulation presented by the prosecutor, with one notable exception. In that regard, defense counsel told the trial court that the defendant had "previously testified that consent was not volunteered, and that is the issue that will be appealed, along with some other issues along with the search." The trial court accepted the stipulation and found the defendant guilty of unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

The appellate court affirmed the defendant's conviction and the trial court's denial of the defendant's motion to suppress. We granted the defendant leave to appeal. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315.


The defendant challenges the propriety of the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress. Traditionally, this court has stated that when a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress evidence involves factual determinations and credibility assessments, the ultimate ruling will not be disturbed on appeal unless it is manifestly erroneous. See People v. Buss, 187 Ill. 2d 144, 204 (1999); People v. Gonzalez, 184 Ill. 2d 402, 411-12 (1998). This deferential standard of review is grounded in the reality that the trial court is in a superior position to determine and weigh the credibility of witnesses, observe the witnesses' demeanor, and resolve conflicts in the witnesses' testimony. Gonzalez, 184 Ill. 2d at 412. Most recently, however, this court has applied the de novo standard of review to the ultimate ruling on a motion to suppress, relying on the Supreme Court's decision in Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 134 L. Ed. 2d 911, 116 S. Ct. 1657 (1996). See In re G.O., 191 Ill. 2d 37, 46-50 (2000). In Ornelas, the Court held that when an appellate court reviews a ruling on a motion to suppress involving a question of probable cause or reasonable suspicion, the reviewing court should review de novo the ultimate finding with respect to probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Ornelas, 517 U.S. at 699, 134 L. Ed. 2d at 920, 116 S. Ct. at 1663. The Court cautioned, however, that findings of historical fact should be reviewed only for clear error and that reviewing courts must give due weight to inferences drawn from those facts by the fact finder. Ornelas, 517 U.S. at 699, 134 L. Ed. ...

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