Following a traffic stop, officers searched Brandon Lance Lee’s car without a warrant and discovered 56 grams of cocaine, a firearm, and other items associated with selling narcotics.
After Lee was charged with various drug and weapons offenses, he filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the warrantless vehicle search. The trial court granted Lee’s motion, rejecting the People’s contentions that the search was proper under the automobile exception as supported by probable cause or, alternatively, as an inventory search of a vehicle following an impound.
Reviewing that order, the California Court of Appeal relied on the trial court’s express and implied factual findings, provided they were supported by substantial evidence, to independently determine whether the search was constitutional. In evaluating the People’s reliance on the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, the California Court of Appeal weighed the totality of the circumstances to determine whether officers had probable cause to search Lee’s car.
The analysis, like that of the trial court, does not overlook the small, permissible amount of marijuana found in Lee’s pocket. But following the legalization of marijuana in 2016, California law now expressly provides that legal cannabis and related products “are not contraband” and their possession and/or use “shall not constitute the basis for detention, search, or arrest.” (Health & Saf. Code, § 11362.1, subd. (c).) As a result, the trial court properly concluded that Lee’s possession of a small amount of marijuana was of little relevance in assessing probable cause. Because the other factors relied on by the People were also of minimal significance, the California Court of Appeal concluded that even considering the totality of circumstances known to the officer there did not exist ” ‘ “a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found.” ‘ ” (Alabama v. White (1990) 496 U.S. 325, 330.)
A warrantless search is unlawful under the Fourth Amendment “unless it falls within one of the ‘specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.’ ” (People v. Woods (1999) 21 Cal.4th 668, 674; see also Arizona v. Gant (2009) 556 U.S. 332, 338.)
Automobiles are the subject of special exceptions, and warrantless searches of automobiles “have been upheld in circumstances in which a search of a home or office would not.” (South Dakota v. Opperman (1976) 428 U.S. 364, 367.) These broader exceptions from the Fourth Amendment’s general prohibition against warrantless searches derive from the inherent mobility of automobiles and a diminished expectation of privacy given the public nature of automobile travel. (Id. at pp. 367–368.)
The two exceptions relevant here include (1) a search of any area of the automobile where there is probable cause to believe evidence of a crime or contraband may be found, generally referred to as the “automobile exception” (People v. Evans (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 735, 753 (Evans)), and (2) an inventory search conducted in the course of impounding an automobile (see e.g., People v. Torres (2010) 188 Cal.App.4th 775, 786.)
Under this exception, “police who have probable cause to believe a lawfully stopped vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity or contraband may conduct a warrantless search of any area of the vehicle in which the evidence might be found.” (U.S. v. Ross (1982) 456 U.S. 798, 821.) A probable cause inquiry relies on an objective standard; we do not consider an officer’s subjective beliefs. Probable cause is a more demanding standard than mere reasonable suspicion. (People v. Souza (1994) 9 Cal.4th 224, 230‒231.) It exists “where the known facts and circumstances are sufficient to warrant a man of reasonable prudence in the belief that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found . . . .” (Ornelas v. U.S. (1996) 517 U.S. 690, 696.) In determining whether a reasonable officer would have probable cause to search, we consider the totality of the circumstances. (See Illinois v. Gates (1983) 462 U.S. 213, 238.)
The People emphasized the marijuana found, arguing that cases like People v. Mower (2002) 28 Cal.4th 457 and People v. Strasburg (2007) 148 Cal.App.4th 1052 stand for the proposition that possession of a legal amount of marijuana does not deprive police “of the capacity to entertain a suspicion of criminal conduct.”
However, California transitioned to legalized marijuana in stages, from (1) total illegality to (2) permitted medical use to (3) decriminalization to (4) recreational legalization. Prior to 1996, any possession or use of marijuana was illegal. But in November 1996, voters approved a ballot initiative—Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act (Act)—which added section 11362.5 to the Health and Safety Code. (Strasburg, supra, 148 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1052, 1057; see § 11362.5.) This Act allowed individuals suffering from an illness to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes with a physician’s 13 recommendation. (Strasburg, at p. 1057.) These individuals, as well as their primary caregivers, were immune from criminal prosecution or sanction. (Ibid.)
Officer Robles did not conduct a valid inventory search. Inventory searches are a well-defined exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. (Colorado v. Bertine (1987) 479 U.S. 367, 371.)
When a vehicle is impounded or otherwise in lawful police custody, an officer may conduct a warrantless search aimed at securing or protecting the vehicle and its contents. “The policies behind the warrant requirement are not implicated in an inventory search [citation], nor is the related concept of probable cause.” (Colorado v. Bertine, at p. 371.)
To determine whether a warrantless search is properly characterized as an inventory search, “we focus on the purpose of the impound rather than the purpose of the inventory.” (People v. Aguilar (1991) 228 Cal.App.3d 1049, 1053.) “The decision to impound the vehicle must be justified by a community caretaking function ‘other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity’ [citation] because inventory searches are ‘conducted in the absence of probable cause’ [citation].” (Torres, supra, 188 Cal.App.4th at p. 787.) For example, impounding serves a community caretaking function when a vehicle is parked illegally, blocks traffic or passage, or stands at risk of theft or vandalism. (Id. at p. 790; People v. Williams (2006) 145 Cal.App.4th 756, 762‒763.)
Also relevant to the caretaking inquiry is whether someone other than the defendant could remove the car to a safe location. (Torres, at p. 790.) 20 The absence of a proper community caretaking function suggests an impound is a pretext to investigate without probable cause, a purpose which is inconsistent with an inventory search. (Torres, supra, 188 Cal.App.4th at p. 788.) Officers may not use an inventory search as “a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence.” (Florida v. Wells (1990) 495 U.S. 1, 4.)
Unlike the probable cause determination, which rests solely on an objective standard, the inventory search exception evaluates both the objective reasonableness of the impound decision and the subjective intent of the impounding officer to determine whether the decision to impound was “motivated by an improper investigatory purpose.” (Torres, at p. 791.) Such purpose renders a decision to impound and the subsequent inventory search unlawful under the Fourth Amendment. (Aguilar, supra, 228 Cal.App.3d at p. 1053.)
The California Court of Appeal concluded the vehicle search in this case does not fall within either of these exceptions.
The California Court of Appeal likewise found no error in the trial court’s conclusion that the search was not valid as an inventory search. The search here served no community caretaking function. And based on the manner in which the search was conducted and the statements of the officer to Lee and his passenger, the trial court reasonably found that the primary purpose of the search was not to inventory the contents of Lee’s car, but rather to investigate Lee for possible criminal behavior. The California Court of Appeal therefore affirmed the order granting Lee’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the unlawful search of his car.
See Peo. v. Lee.
Attorney Robert Rodriguez has filed Penal Code § 1538.5 motions to suppress for his clients in criminal drug related cases, and has won! If you are in need of a criminal defense attorney, do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Robert Rodriguez! 209-596-4263.
Robert Rodriguez has represented defendants in dozens of misdemeanor and felony criminal matters including bank robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, motor vehicle theft, grand theft, felony driving under the influence, felony domestic violence, felony drug possession and sales, 3-Strikes cases, criminal appeals, juvenile criminal court, and matters under the Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA).
Robert Rodriguez has litigated well over 100 family law cases and civil litigation matters including personal injury motor vehicle cases, dog bite and slip & fall cases, breach of contract, defamation & invasion of privacy, fraud, unfair business practice, malicious prosecution, workplace and employment matters including sexual harassment, wrongful termination, wage & hour violations, discrimination pursuant to the FEHA, Gov’t Code §§ 12940 et seq., violations of the FMLA & Pregnancy Leave, Civil Rights discrimination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the State of California and California federal district courts.
* Disclaimer – Robert Rodriguez is licensed to practice only in the State of California & this analysis is applied only under State of California law. Robert D. Rodriguez is also admitted to practice in the U.S. District Courts, Central, Northern & Eastern Districts of California. Robert Rodriguez has practiced in the State of California Court of Appeal.