Los Angeles Criminal Law Blog

Arrest Warrants and Illegal Stops

Posted on: December 28, 2008 at 4:32 p.m.

Typically law enforcement must act within the purview of the U.S. Constitution to justify a search of a person, car, or home. Our firm's Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers frequently contest a client's search where we feel the police violated the constitutional requirements. A recent case, however, provides the police a broader basis for searching a car, even though the reason for the stop was illegal where the police are armed with an arrest warrant for the car's passenger.

The California Supreme Court recently concluded that evidence obtained by searching a vehicle after arresting a passenger pursuant to a valid warrant was admissible against the passenger even though the underlying traffic stop that led to discovery of the warrant was illegal.The judges upheld defendant's conviction and four-year sentence for possession and manufacture of methamphetamine.

Defendant was the passenger of a Buick that Sutter County Sheriffs Deputies stopped in 2001 on the basis of expired registration tabs. Although the deputy learned that there was a pending application for the registrations renewal,he directed the driver to pull over in order to investigate the validity of the temporary operating permit taped to the cars rear window. Testimony at a suppression hearing indicated that the deputy approached the cars driver side and asked for the drivers license, and upon recognizingdefendant as a possible parolee at large and verifying that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest, orderedhim out of the car at gunpoint and arrested him for parole violation.

During a search incident to the arrest,the deputyfound an orange syringe cap on defendant, along with drugs and drug paraphernalia on the driver and in the back seat of the car. Defendant moved to suppress the drug evidence, arguing thatthe detention of the Buick and its driver constituted an illegal seizure of his person that tainted all of the subsequently discovered evidence. In denying the motion to suppress,a Sutter Superior Court Judge held thatdefendant was seized not at the point of the traffic stop but rather whenthe deputycommanded him to get out of the car and placed him under arrest.The defendant then pled guilty, subject to his right of appeal, and was sentenced to four years in prison.

The Court of Appeal reversed, reasoning thatdefendant was illegally detained as a result of the traffic stop and the stop itself was unlawful. But the high court, split 4-3, ruled that a passenger is not seized as a constitutional matter following a traffic stop because he or she need not submit to the officers show of authority. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, agreed with the court of appeal, saying no reasonable passenger would have thought himself free to leave under the circumstances.

The case was sent back to the state high court to consider whether there the search was valid based on the existence of the warrant. In a subsequent opinion the court reasoned that Case law from other state and federal courts uniformly holds that the discovery of an outstanding arrest warrant prior to a search incident to arrest constitutes an intervening circumstance that mayand, in the absence of purposeful or flagrant police misconduct, willattenuate the taint of the antecedent unlawful traffic stop.

The Court rejected the contention that allowing the search under these circumstances would encourage the police to randomly stop cars to run warrant checks on the occupants. While a search will not be upheld if it is flagrantly or knowingly unconstitutional or is otherwise undertaken as a fishing expedition, he wrote, here the deputy did not act pretextually or in bad faith. The jurist also emphasized that the search did not take place until after the existence of the warrant had been confirmed.

Tagged as: bench warrants, probation and sentencing laws

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