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Unreasonable Searches of a Vehicle in California

Even if you are on probation, that does not give police the right to arbitrarily detain you for no reason, especially if the officer doesn’t know you are on probation at the time of initiating the detention. Police must have “reasonable suspicion” to believe a crime has been committed to initiating the detention of a person they do not know is on probation with a search clause at the time of initiating the detention.

In a recent case, police were patrolling a neighborhood when they observed two people sitting in a car, lawfully parked, at 1:30 am. The people in the car were not doing anything illegal, and the officer observed nothing to indicate that any crime had been committed. Thus, there was no “reasonable suspicion” to investigate these two individuals.

The officer made a U-turn, parked behind this vehicle, and shined his yellow spotlights into the vehicle. The officer testified that the only reason he did this was: to check on them; to see exactly what they were doing; to see if they lived in the neighborhood or not. When the officer approached the car, he smelled marijuana. Thereafter, he shined his flashlight into the car and observed the passenger attempting to hide some bags which he believed contained marijuana.

Sometime later, the officer confirmed the driver was on probation and had a search clause. He then searched the car and found a loaded gun with the serial number scratched off, 26 ounces of marijuana, and 142 pills later identified as Alprazolam, a controlled substance available only with a prescription.

In California, police can approach any person on the street, or in another public place, and converse with them if the person is willing. Police do not need reasonable suspicion or probable cause to do this as long as the encounter is CONSENSUAL.

If a reasonable person would feel free to disregard the police, leave, and go about his or her business, no probable cause or reasonable suspicion is required, as no “seizure” has actually taken place. In determining whether a reasonable person would have believed he or she was free to leave or end the encounter, a court must consider the “totality of the circumstances” from the perspective of a reasonable person in the defendant’s position.

In the above mentioned case, the totality of the circumstances were that the officer drove past the vehicle, made a U-turn, parked his patrol car about 10 feet away behind the vehicle, shined his spotlights on the vehicle, exited his police car, armed and in uniform, immediately walked up to the vehicle, and questioned the driver about why he was there parked in this neighborhood. He questioned the legal status of the driver who freely admitted he was on probation. The officer observed the passenger who appeared to be hiding something. Even though the officer did not turn on his red lights, the court held that the officer’s show of authority was so intimidating as to communicate to any reasonable person that he or she was not free to decline the officer’s requests or otherwise terminate the encounter. Thus, a detention/seizure occurred even before the officer knew the person was on probation.

For detention to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment the detention must be based on an officer’s objective observation that a crime has been committed or a crime is about to be committed. The officer’s subjective thoughts, or a hunch that the people in the car were up to no good, is irrelevant for Fourth Amendment detentions and are UNREASONABLE.

The court found that the driver’s detention was not justified and suppressed the evidence pursuant to the Fourth Amendment as being unreasonable. (For more information about this case see People v. Kidd, California Court of Appeal, 4th District, Division 2, case # E070996).

The Fourth Amendment was added to the United States Constitution on December 15, 1791, and protects people from unlawful searches and seizures, i.e., a police state. The framers of the constitution realized that governmental intrusions may infringe on the rights of the public and protects citizens from unreasonable governmental actions.

If you have questions about an illegal search, contact the Law Office of Ivan O.B. Morse for a free consultation at (888) 865-0741.