Articles Posted in Weapons Offenses

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.

Just a few weeks ago, we discussed the concept of constructive possession under California law in a blog post. Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in another California gun case raising the issue of constructive possession.

According to the court’s opinion, a police officer approached the defendant’s vehicle when it was illegally parked near a popular lookout point. When the officer approached the car, the defendant, who was with two other people, explained that they were just enjoying the view.

The officer recognized the defendant from a prior contact, and knew him to be on probation. The officer asked if there was any contraband in the car. The defendant responded in the negative. The officer then asked the defendant for his identification. The defendant provided a false name initially, but later gave the officer his real name. The defendant then admitted to having a small amount of marijuana in a backpack that was in the car. The officer searched the backpack, which was located directly behind the center console, within reach of all three occupants. Inside was some marijuana, a knife, and a pistol. The gun was preserved for fingerprints and DNA; however, there were no fingerprints on the gun and the DNA was not tested.

Every California crime has two essential parts: an act element and an intent element. For many offenses, the act and intent elements are easy to identify. In most cases, criminal law requires a finding that the defendant acted willfully or intentionally. However, for some possessory offenses, such as the possession of drugs, the act and intent elements blur.

Typically, California possessory offenses require someone to either have “actual” possession or “constructive” possession. Actual possession is when someone physically possesses an object. For example, someone has actual possession of a gun that is in a holster strapped to their waist. Actual possession is often quite simple to determine. Cases involving actual possession are not unbeatable cases, because there may be a viable motion to suppress the evidence based on illegal police conduct or a violation of the defendant’s rights.

Constructive possession, on the other hand, is a legal fiction that allows the fact finder to determine whether someone possessed an item by considering the surrounding circumstances. In these cases, the contraband is not found on the defendant, but the prosecution argues that the defendant is guilty of possessing the item because the defendant constructively possessed it. If constructive possession is established, it has the same legal effect as actual possession.

Who gets to decide on the defendant’s defense in a California criminal trial? The answer is, it is nuanced, and depends —some decisions are up to the lawyer, while others are left to the client. In a recent California case, the appeals court clarified whether the lawyer can admit that a defendant committed an act over the defendant’s objection.

In the case, the defendant was charged with the unlawful possession of weapons, and later with deliberately driving his car into a police officer while the officer was conducting a traffic stop. The officer was seriously injured, but survived. The defendant allegedly drove away, left the car, and went to a train station parking lot. He was arrested there, and later made incriminating statements to cellmates.

Before trial, the defendant told the court about his displeasure with his lawyer, saying that the lawyer wanted “to make him admit to something that [he] didn’t want to admit.” During the trial, the lawyer admitted that the defendant was driving the car, and argued that the defendant never had the premeditated intent to kill which was necessary to sustain a first-degree attempted murder conviction. The defendant objected to his lawyer’s admission that he was driving the car that injured the officer. At a later trial on the charges of weapons possession, the defendant objected when his lawyer admitted that he possessed certain firearms, and argued that he did not knowingly possess them because he did not understand the unlawful nature of the weapons.

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.

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