Articles Posted in Policing Issues

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a California drug possession case discussing whether or not the police officers’ search of the defendant’s car was justified. The court eventually concluded that the search lacked probable cause, and held that any evidence recovered as a result of that search must be suppressed.

According to the opinion of the court, police officers pulled over the defendant, who was driving a gold Cadillac. The defendant, who had a front-seat passenger with him, pulled over and explained that he did not have his license. The officers asked him to step out, and they patted him down to confirm that he did not have any identification on him. During the pat-down, they discovered a small amount of marijuana. The defendant explained that he delivered medical marijuana.

Officers placed the defendant in handcuffs and turned their attention to the passenger. The passenger was placed in handcuffs and told that he would be free to go if a search of the car did not reveal anything illegal. At this point, both the defendant and the passenger were out of the car, and the officers conducted a thorough search of the car. Ultimately, they discovered a backpack in the truck containing a gun and a large sum of money. The police then obtained a key to the locked glove box and found cocaine inside. The defendant was arrested and charged accordingly.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that people have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Over the years, courts have interpreted the Fourth Amendment to mean police officers must obtain a warrant before conducting a search. While warrantless arrests are presumptively invalid, there are several fairly large exceptions to the warrant requirement.

Perhaps the most common exception to the warrant requirement is that an officer can make a warrantless arrest, “if there is probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been or is being committed.” This exception is the basis for most site arrests, where a police officer witnesses a crime, or has the victim of the crime identify the alleged offender, and arrests the suspect at the scene. A recent state appellate decision in a California robbery case illustrates how courts view warrantless arrests and how police officers try to get around the warrant requirement.

According to the court’s opinion, police were investigating a series of robberies that took place in 2012. During the investigation, the assigned officer reviewed surveillance video of several of the robberies. Four days after the most recent robbery, the officer was responding to a report of another robbery. The report indicated that the suspects were two black males, one taller than the other. The detective thought that these might be the men responsible for the robberies he was investigating.

Criminal defendants in California and throughout the country have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, as a recent California case shows, there are exceptions to the general requirement that police obtain a warrant before conducting a search. The issue before the California appeals court was whether police could enter a residence without a warrant based on the role of the police as a “community caretaker.”

In that case, the police responded to a report that 11 gunshots had been fired. They came to a house and found a spent shell casing on the driveway. They arrested an individual on the scene who was yelling at the officers, and found additional spent casings behind a gate leading to the back yard. An officer knocked on a door on the side of a garage apartment several times. No one answered, but he heard what he believed was items being pushed against the door. The officers spoke to other people at a window and at the front door of the house.

According to police, the defendant’s father let police enter the house and was looking for a key to open the garage apartment when the defendant came out of the apartment, shutting the door behind him, which automatically locked the door. The officer arrested the defendant and kicked the door open to the garage apartment. He found a semiautomatic pistol and an explosive device. The officers later obtained a search warrant and searched the residence. They found an additional handgun, bullets, a body armor vest, spent shell casings, and a bag with a clear, rock-like substance. Police later found surveillance video which showed the defendant walking down the driveway, pulling out a gun and firing six shots into the air. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in his apartment because he claimed the police’s initial search was in violation of the Constitution.

Just last month, we posted a blog post about the case Mitchell v. Wisconsin, which presented the court with the question of whether, and in what circumstances, police can draw the blood of an unconscious motorist. At the end of June, the Court released its opinion in the case. In what is the relatively rare case, the Court could not come up with a majority opinion. However, five of the nine Justices were able to agree on a result. Because of this, the future of the law is still somewhat in question, as no five Justices could agree on a rationale.

Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the plurality, and was joined by the Chief Justice, Justice Breyer and Justice Kavanaugh. In his opinion, Justice Alito explained that warrantless blood draws of an unconscious driver are most often permissible because “there is a compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.” However, Justice Alito made room for exceptions, noting that in some “unusual cases” where a defendant can show that “his blood would not have been drawn had police not been seeking BAC information and police could not have reasonably judged that a warrant application would interfere with other pressing needs or duties.”

While Justice Alito’s opinion garnered the votes of four Justices, that is insufficient to create a majority opinion. This is referred to as a plurality opinion. However, Justice Thomas joined in the result of the plurality, although he based his decision on a different calculus. Justice Thomas would have held that a warrantless blood draw is always permissible if police officers have reason to believe that a motorist is under the influence – regardless of whether they are conscious or unconscious.

The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution provide fundamental rights to all citizens. For example, police officers cannot perform a search without probable cause. Nor can they interrogate someone on the subjective belief that they look suspicious. For the most part, police officers must be able to point to specific facts that give them probable cause to believe someone committed a crime before they subject that person to investigatory procedures.

Of course, there are exceptions to that general rule. One common exception is when a defendant engages in a consensual encounter with the police. Courts have held that consensual encounters do not require a police officer to develop probable cause.  A recent California appellate decision illustrates this concept.

According to the court’s opinion, police officers were on patrol when they saw the defendant walk out of an apartment, look in their direction, and then turn around. The officers also saw the defendant put something into his pocket. The officers approached the defendant, asking him “Hey, how are you doing? What’s your name? Do you got anything illegal on you?” The defendant admitted to having a meth pipe on him. When asked if he had anything else illegal on him, the defendant admitted to having a “bunch of meth” on him. Police searched the defendant, finding methamphetamine, a pipe, and 162 dollars in small bills.

Last month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a California drug-dealing case in which the defendant claimed that the testimony of the prosecution’s expert witness was impermissibly based on the defendant’s race and national origin. Ultimately, the court concluded that, regardless of the impropriety of the expert’s testimony, the defendant failed to preserve the issue for appeal because there was no objection made at the time the expert testified.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was arrested after an officer observed the defendant hand a middle-aged Cuban man an unknown object. Officers were able to see that the object the defendant handed the man contained off-white solids that resembled cocaine base.

The officers arrested the defendant, and after searching him, found a baggie with 41 small, individually wrapped “bindles” containing what was later determined to be crack cocaine. The defendant did not have any money on him when he was arrested.

Witness credibility is essential in any California criminal case. If a witness is found not to be credible, their testimony comes into question, which can create doubt in the minds of the jurors. Thus, in cases involving the testimony of a police officer, defendants can attack an officer’s credibility just like any other witness.

One way a defendant can attack the credibility of a police officer is by showing the jury that the officer has been engaged in past misconduct. Under California case law, when a defendant can show good cause, he “is entitled to discovery of relevant documents or information contained within the confidential personnel records of peace officers accused of misconduct against the defendant.” Before ordering that any evidence of misconduct be provided to the defense, the trial must review the material at issue to determine its potential relevance. This is called a Pitchess motion hearing, named after the case that first announced the rule. A recent case illustrates how a Pitchess motion should be conducted, and the consequences if the proper procedures are not followed.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant dropped a can of spray paint as police officers approached him. Evidently, when police asked, the defendant admitted to having recently tagged something. The officers located fresh graffiti nearby and arrested the defendant.

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