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.