A jury convicted Blanca Luna Mendoza of transporting for sale more than four kilograms of cocaine based on evidence a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent acquired after a stop on Interstate 15.
Mendoza sought to exclude the evidence, arguing the agent did not have reasonable suspicion she was engaged in criminal activity when he stopped her. The agent said he decided to stop Mendoza because she was driving in a known smuggling corridor in a vehicle which had crossed the United States-Mexico border in the prior week; she slowed and changed lanes after he pulled alongside her in an unmarked car, rolled down his window, and stared at her; she drove at approximately 50 miles per hour to stay behind him; and she then refused to look at him when she ultimately passed him a few minutes later. The trial court held—albeit with reservations—that the stop was justified, and a jury later convicted her of transporting narcotics for sale.
Mendoza appeals her conviction based only on the impropriety of the stop. The California Court of Appeal concluded the agent based his decision to stop Mendoza on insufficient evidence she was engaged in criminal activity.
Since the stop was unlawful, Defendant argues, the trial court should have suppressed the fruits of the search conducted after the stop. (People v. Loewen (1983) 35 Cal.3d 117, 122-123 (Loewen).) The California Court of Appeal agreed.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. (Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1, 8-9.) The primary purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to “impose a standard of ‘reasonableness’ upon the exercise of discretion by government officials, including law enforcement agents, in order to ‘safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions.’” (Delaware v. Prouse (1979) 440 U.S. 648, 653-654.) “A defendant may move . . . to suppress as evidence any tangible or intangible thing obtained as a result of a search or seizure” if “[t]he search or seizure without a warrant was unreasonable.” (Pen. Code, § 1538.5, subd. (a)(1)(A).) A traffic stop is a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. (Delaware v. Prouse, at p. 653.) “It is settled that circumstances short of probable cause to make an arrest may justify a police officer stopping and briefly detaining a person for questioning or other limited investigation.” (In re Tony C. (1978) 21 Cal.3d 888, 892, superseded on another ground as stated in People v. Lloyd (1992) 4 Cal.App.4th 724, 733.)
However, law enforcement officers are not free to detain citizens at will. “[T]o justify an investigative stop or detention the circumstances known or apparent to the officer must include specific or articulable facts causing him to suspect that (1) some activity relating to crime has taken place or is occurring or about to occur, and (2) the person he intends to stop or detain is involved in that activity.” (In re Tony C., at p. 893.) 9 Officers may properly “draw on their own experience and specialized training to make inferences from and deductions about the cumulative information available to them that ‘might well elude an untrained person.’” (United States v. Arvizu (2002) 534 U.S. 266, 273 (Arvizu).) However, the officer’s suspicion must be objectively reasonable. “[T]he facts must be such as would cause any reasonable police officer in a like position, drawing when appropriate on [their] training and experience . . . to suspect the same criminal activity and the same involvement by the person in question. The corollary to this rule, of course, is that an investigative stop or detention predicated on mere curiosity, rumor, or hunch, is unlawful, even though the officer may be acting in complete good faith.” (In re James D. (1987) 43 Cal.3d 903, 919-920.)
At bottom, the agent acted on a hunch, which is improper, even though—in this case—it proved correct. The California Court of Appeal therefore reversed the conviction and remanded for further proceedings.
See Peo. v. Mendoza.
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).
* 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.