At What Point Do the Police Have Reasonable Suspicion to Search a Vehicle?

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stock photo - not meant to depict the scene at this particular case
Stock photo – not meant to depict the scene at this particular case

Judge Maguire Partially Denies Motion to Suppress

By Tiffany Yeh

Twenty-five minutes. This is approximately the amount of time it takes me to watch a whole sitcom. Instead, imagine you are sitting for that amount of time on the hood of a police car with your hands behind your back in handcuffs.

It’s February and about dusk right now. A police officer is searching your car.

You are wearing a long-sleeved shirt and it is cold outside. About 25 minutes pass before your handcuffs are taken off. A jacket is offered to you and put on your shoulders after awhile.

Kristy Church is the person in the scene you are imagining. This was her on February 1, 2015.

Yolo County Sheriff’s Deputy Gary Hallenbeck was with a deputy trainee who was essentially doing a ride-along. The trainee was not to interact with the defendant, only to keep an eye on her and watch the investigation proceedings.

Ms. Church and co-defendant Kenneth Miller were at a rest stop, outside the car, when they saw a sheriff’s deputy car park at a spot two spaces away from Ms. Church’s car. Mr. Miller was driving that day and instinctively locked the car when he saw the deputies approach. The keys were in his hands and he was closer than Ms. Church to the car.

The officers saw Mr. Miller almost inside the car, in between the driver seat and the door, while Ms. Church was seen outside the locked passenger side door.

It is alleged that the car belongs to Ms. Church – at least when Deputy Hallenbeck asked her whose car it was, she replied that it was hers.

The deputy smelled marijuana from the Honda’s open driver’s side, then handcuffed Ms. Church and had her sit on the hood of the police car and wait while he searched the car. The trainee watched from a couple feet away.

Ms. Church had stated that the marijuana was in the center console of the car. The deputy did find it there but continued to search the car for approximately 25 minutes.

Earlier, Mr. Miller had tossed away a pill bottle/vial with white powder, methamphetamine, into the trash can in front of Deputy Hallenbeck. This was what led the deputy to believe there were other drugs besides marijuana in the car.

Later in the 25-minute wait, Deputy Hallenbeck walked near Ms. Church with her purse open, looking for a medical marijuana card she said she had. He easily found the card in a plastic Ziploc. However, he continued searching the bag while asking her some questions.

A couple of questions came up during this hearing on a motion to suppress evidence. First of all was the question of who owned the car – Ms. Church or Mr. Miller? During which point of the interaction did the detention occur? The prosecution argues that the detention occurred when Ms. Church was put in handcuffs, while the defense argues that it was when Ms. Church and Mr. Miller felt obligated to stay, and not leave, when the deputies parked nearby Ms. Church’s car. Then, there is the issue of whether the deputy was allowed to search her purse, or even her car in the first place.

Deputy Public Defender Emily Fisher argued that smelling marijuana did not give the deputy the right to conduct a full search of the vehicle. Moreover, she argued that the detention of 25 minutes was sufficiently lengthy to violate Ms. Church’s rights under the Constitution. She argued that the deputy was basically conducting a fishing expedition attempting to find illegal drugs, when Ms. Church had already admitted to the marijuana and claimed she had a medical marijuana card.

The prosecution argued that case law allows an officer to conduct a search based on a reasonable suspicion standard and that the deputy, based on the smell of marijuana alone, was lawfully permitted to search the car.

Judge Daniel Maguire ruled on one aspect of the suppression motion, stating that the deputy “acted reasonably” in his actions, believing the initial contact was consensual, and that detention only began when Ms. Church was handcuffed.

In People v. Collier, a case from Los Angeles County with an appellate decision in 2008, the smell of marijuana was deemed to be enough reasonable suspicion to allow a police officer to search. The judge mentioned that Ms. Church had told the deputy that it was her car.

The judge admitted that it was a “longish search” but that it was “not unduly prolonged.” Based on all of this, he denied the motion to suppress.

On the other issue of what justifies the search of Ms. Church’s purse, the judge asked the prosecution and defense for briefing on the case law to help him decide on this matter.

Judge Maguire ordered that the dashcam footage shown in court remain as part of the record.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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14 thoughts on “At What Point Do the Police Have Reasonable Suspicion to Search a Vehicle?”

  1. Tia Will

    I am unclear on the matter of “consensually” of the encounter. If one greets a police officer,is that considered consent to further conversation and questioning ? If  one answers one question, such as the ownership of the car, does that mean that one is obliged to further engage with the officer. What happens if the officer says “can I ask you some questions ? ” and the civilian answers “no”in the case where no law has apparently been broken ? “

    1. sisterhood

      Hi Tia, A Davis cop pulled over my friend while he was driving by Motel 6, for expired plates. He then asked my friend what he was doing in the Motel parking lot! He told the cop he pulled him over there! (He was on his way home.) The cop then asked him if he could search his car. He replied, “I’d rather you did not.” The cop did not.

  2. Barack Palin

    Earlier, Mr. Miller had tossed away a pill bottle/vial with white powder, methamphetamine, into the trash can in front of Officer H. This was what lead Deputy Hallenbeck to believe there were other drugs besides marijuana in the car.

    I think anyone with a level head would see this alone as justification of a further search.

  3. PhillipColeman

    For the sake of future reports of judicial proceedings, the intern(s) would be well served by abandoning the pulp magazine “True Detective” style of narrative. It immediately compromises any pretense of objective or balanced reporting of the circumstances of the story. I found myself wondering if the deputies were properly attired for the temperature, which I think is probably irrelevant to the story.

    At four or five different parts of this narrative, summarizing the activities of the deputies (not officers) and defendants, I was confused on who said what, and how was that conclusion formed based on the abridged and fragmented comments from scene participants.

    In looking at the probable cause standard for searching the vehicle,this search and seizure more than met the legal standard. While only noted dismissively in the column, my probable cause standard spiked when one of the defendants “instinctively” locked the car when the deputies approached. Were I the prosecutor or the deputy justifying this search, I’d say that action alone was highly suspicious, and atypical of a citizen/law enforcement contact from a data base of hundreds or thousands of personal experiences.

    The ruling magistrate has answered the rhetorical question in the title of the column. Compelling and relevant case law was cited in support of the search.  The Public Defender was valiantly doing her job. Searches resulting in the seizure of incriminating evidence are always argued on the issues raised here (e.g., putting a stop-watch on a car stop) and such Motions to Suppress are refused in the vast majority of cases.

    1. David Greenwald

      Phil – I was there yesterday for the hearing, the most critical part of the motion was the search of the purse – which even Judge Maguire questioned and he didn’t rule on. They stopped the video when the Deputy searched the purse. My guess – though it was not mentioned – is that through the search of the purse the Deputy found Meth which he could link to the defendant. The Judge hasn’t ruled on this but this would appear to be the crux of the case.

      1. PhillipColeman

        The column title questions only the legality of the search of the vehicle, nothing about the secondary search of the purse.

        Why did the Public Defender argue the with marijuana possession when her client is described here as having a medical marijuana card. Would that not excuse the possession of same? Was there no valid card for either defendant? Or was the quantity of the marijuana such that it became a separate, “Possession for Sale charge”? Confusion again.

        Now the probable cause standard for searching for meth. A defendant was observed by the Deputy to toss a vial of residual meth into the trash, presumably in an attempt to conceal possession. That alone would justify an arrest, a complete search of the purse as part of a custody inventory, and the vehicle to be towed, and a search warrant later for the car.

        If this case is to be pursued further a complete re-write would be most helpful to any of us trying to understand what happened.

         

  4. Tia Will

    Phil

    my probable cause standard spiked when one of the defendants “instinctively” locked the car when the deputies approached. Were I the prosecutor or the deputy justifying this search, I’d say that action alone was highly suspicious, and atypical of a citizen/law enforcement contact from a data base of hundreds or thousands of personal experiences.”

    I must defer to your knowledge of how a police officer with a great deal of experiences views the act of locking a car. However, I would like to share an alternative point of view as a civilian. First, with one exception, I have been a single female in a car by myself when stopped. The police have, with one exception all been males. I trust police to the exact same degree that I would trust any other human being since that is exactly what they are. Thus, when my car is approached by a police officer,or anyone else that I do not know personally, I am on alert. I drive with my car locked, having had two attempted forced entries in my time driving.

    During a recent traffic stop for speeding in Davis, where I have the utmost respect for the police, when I was asked to produce my license, proof of insurance and registration, before reaching for said documents, I explained to the officer exactly where they were and when I was going to reach for them to avoid any misperceptions of my actions. Paranoid ?  Maybe. But the fact remains that I am an unarmed civilian being confronted by another man being ( with all the strengths and weaknesses thereof) who is armed with the ability to kill me. Those are the facts, not my imaginings. To me, the act of locking a car takes on a somewhat different significance than it apparently does for you.

    1. Biddlin

      “But the fact remains that I am an unarmed civilian being confronted by another man being ( with all the strengths and weaknesses thereof) who is armed with the ability to kill me. Those are the facts, not my imaginings. To me, the act of locking a car takes on a somewhat different significance than it apparently does for you.”

      Good for you, Doc! I do the same, as does my daughter. I refused a search of my car the other night after being stopped, allegedly for a license number that was “close” to a 10-8-51 (stolen vehicle) different make and model, though, just reported. When asked to step out of the car, I showed my handicap placard and declined. “Well, I’d like to look inside your car, sir.” (I’m an old white guy in his own blue collar neighborhood, driving a nice car) “No thanks, unless you have a warrant.” He got on his cell phone and called someone, about a minute later, a guy ready for retirement arrives. “How you doin’ tonight sir?” ” I’m doing OK, officer W, but I’d like to get on my way.” Shining the light through the window, he spotted my collapsible cane on the seat next to me and uttered, ” Ah s…. I’m sorry Mr…Here’s your license and insurance card. The young man saw your cane and mistook it for something else.”

      Well, no autopsy, no foul, I guess. I too find Phil’s probable cause pretty thin and wonder if the outcome would have been different had the “suspects” asserted their rights, more vigorously?

      Drugged minds seldom think that clearly, though.

  5. Frankly

    Smoking pot in a car parked at a rest stop means probable driving while intoxicated.  What would have happened if there was the smell of alchohol and open containers found in the vehicle?

    But the tossing of the meth bottle alone seems to justify everything this officer did.

    1. Davis Progressive

      What is interesting is that because they were outside the vehicle, implied consent goes away.  They could have locked the door to the car and walked away and the police would have not been able to do anything.

    2. Tia Will

      Frankly

      Smoking pot in a car parked at a rest stop means probable driving while intoxicated.”

      I am with you with regard to the meth. I think the use of medical marijuana is going to make the assertion that smoking pot at a rest stop means “probable driving while intoxicated” highly questionable. Lets take a case in which medical marijuana is prescribed to the passenger in a car for seizure control. Having felt the aura preceding a seizure, they pull over at a rest stop for the passenger to self administer her inhaled marijuana ( much the way an asthmatic would use their inhaler). Now do we have probable cause for searching the car ?  Suppose the passenger has all appropriate documentation of her condition ? What say you, Phil ?

      1. Miwok

        There are hundreds of blogs about smoking on the road. The stupid Medical Card gives kids an attitude of entitlement as they merrily drive down the interstate stopping to “smoke a bowl” or sharing a joint on the trip while driving.

        They all mention the card is not honored “out of state” and “it is still illegal to go over state lines” but yet, there you are.

        My amazement is how a kid who hopes to be someone someday, like in Law Enforcement or Teaching, maybe even a Doctor, can seriously fake a disability needing grass, then ever quitting it?

        But then the voters in this State think Felony Prisoners can be let out and their record expunged or reduced, so they can lead productive lives.. I have read about a couple, out of thousands. Most go back to the gangs they took the dive for..

  6. Biddlin

    Off-topic for Phil: How much training do officers get on the radios? I notice more and more the officers trying to operate their handheld without turning down the volume on their Motorolas, creating a great echo effect and feedback and allowing everyone in 25 foot radius to hear their transmissions.

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