By Ryan Gonzales
On January 27, 2017, acting Judge Stephen Mock, substituting for Judge Dave Rosenberg, presided over the motion to suppress of co-defendants Frances Rodriguez and Alo Ola Faletoese, both of whom are being charged with possession of a controlled substance and carrying a concealed firearm.
The People’s witness was Woodland Police Officer Robert Middleman, who conducted a traffic stop of Ms. Rodriguez’s vehicle on June 15, 2016.
Prior to the traffic stop, Officer Middleman testified that he was at a local mini-mart observing traffic, when a Nissan sedan drove into the parking lot. The prosecution questioned Officer Middleman about whether he noticed anything suspicious about the vehicle, to which he replied that the driver of the Nissan seemed to make an effort to avoid him.
Due to the suspicious activity, Officer Middleman told the court that he remained in his squad car to observe the vehicle. After an extended period of observation, the officer testified that two males and one female had eventually exited the vehicle, while the driver remained inside. However, only one male and the female went into the mini-market, while the other male went to place an item in the trunk. They all returned to the vehicle.
As the driver of the Nissan drove out of the mini-market, Officer Middleman testified that he noticed two cracks on the windshield that he believed to obstruct the driver’s vision. Thus, Officer Middleman told the court that, under California’s Vehicle Code section 26710, the driver was illegally operating a vehicle and he proceeded to stop the vehicle to issue a citation.
Upon approaching the vehicle, Officer Middleman asked for the driver’s identification, which was Ms. Rodriguez’s, as well as the passengers’ identification, which included Mr. Faletoese’s.
After informing dispatch of their names, Officer Middleman was informed that one of the backseat passengers had a felony warrant. He testified that he removed the individual from the car and placed him under arrest.
Due to this arrest, Officer Middleman returned to the vehicle to conduct the search of the female passenger who was siting next to the wanted felon. As she consented to the search of her person, Officer Middleman testified that he found a syringe with methamphetamine.
As Officer Middleman placed this individual under arrest, Mr. Faletoese openly volunteered to have his person searched, and the officer testified that he didn’t find anything.
However, Officer Middleman testified that he was informed by dispatch that Mr. Faletoese had a possible warrant as well, thus he removed him from the vehicle.
Because of the possible warrant on Mr. Faletoese, the felony warrant on the other male passenger and drug paraphernalia found on the female passenger, Officer Middleman advised Ms. Rodriguez to consent to the search of her vehicle, to which she responded no. Although she did not consent to the search, Officer Middleman asked her to remove herself from the vehicle to conduct the search anyway.
Officer Middleman then testified that, during his search, he found a methamphetamine pipe located behind the passenger seat, giving him probable cause to put Ms. Rodriguez under arrest.
Since Ms. Rodriguez was placed in custody, Officer Middleman proceeded to search her person, and he testified that was when he found a .38 special revolver located in her purse.
Officer Middleman then testified that he returned to search the vehicle, where he found black pants with meth paraphernalia, a meth pipe found in the tool box in the back of the trunk and a “useable” amount of meth in the center console of the vehicle.
When he informed Ms. Rodriguez of his findings, she told the officer that the pants belonged to Mr. Faletoese and that he also placed the revolver in her purse. Thus, Mr. Faletoese was placed under arrest due to Ms. Rodriguez’s accusations.
The prosecution ended the examination by inquiring if there were any serial numbers on the revolver. Officer Middlemen responded that it had been reported stolen in the 1980s.
During cross-examination, Deputy Public Defender John Sage, who represented Mr. Faletoese and believed that the police officer wrongfully pulled over Ms. Rodriguez, questioned Officer Middleman about whether the windshield cracks were in a critical area of visibility – or simply that the cracks obstructed the passenger’s view. Officer Middleman responded, “No, I would disagree.”
Officer Middleman was dismissed and the People rested.
As the motion to suppress neared conclusion, Judge Stephen Mock ask for closing arguments from both counsels.
Defense Attorney J. Robert Spangler, who represented Ms. Rodriguez and believed that the police officer conducted an unlawful search of the vehicle, stated that the cracks in the window would only obstruct “air traffic.”
However, the prosecution rebutted, telling the court that, although the crack did not impede the driver’s forward vision, it did affect the driver’s vision toward the right.
Judge Stephen Mock agreed with the prosecution’s argument and ruled that the officer had justifiable bases to investigate the vehicle under the Vehicle Code violation. Thus, he denied the defense’s motion.
On the matter of an illegal search of the vehicle, Judge Mock held that the syringe of meth, found on the backseat passenger during a consensual search of her person, justified the officer’s action to investigate the backseat. In turn, the finding of the meth pipe offered more substantial evidence to search the entirety of the vehicle.
Furthermore, Judge Mock ruled that Ms. Rodriguez was going to be the only person to be charged with felony possession of a firearm. However, due to her statements about Mr. Faletoese, who is a convicted felon and cannot possess a firearm, Judge Mock denied for both defendants the motion to suppress or to reduce any charges to misdemeanors.
Judge Mock set the arraignment of Mr. Faletoese and Ms. Rodriguez for February 10, 2017, in Department 11.