By Özge Terzioğlu
SACRAMENTO – A can of air freshener on a car dash may make the air smell nice, but for Demetrius Hill the freshener and a sticker caused a window obstruction that led to a stop by police officers—now he’s facing years in jail for an arrest for being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm.
At Hill’s preliminary hearing here in Sacramento County Superior Court, the district attorney’s office called the three police officers who arrested defendant Hill as witnesses to the stand to paint the picture of the stop on July 23, 2019.
According to Officer Javier Gutierrez of the Sacramento Police Department, on July 23, 2019, he was on patrol with Officers Trujillo and Gross when he observed a black SUV BMW with an air freshener and sticker obstructing the front windshield.
He noted the air freshener was about three inches tall and one inch wide and the white sticker was about two inches tall and four inches wide. He stated that he decided to conduct an enforcement stop on the vehicle because, in his experience, anything affixed to the front windshield causes obstruction to the driver’s vision of the road.
Officer Gutierrez noted that when he told the defendant (the driver) about the air freshener that he yanked it off the rear view mirror and stowed it in the car. The officer then recalled that he noticed an open container of beer (an alcoholic beverage) in the center console, which gave him probable cause to search the car for more containers of alcohol.
During this search, Officer Gutierrez indicated that the container of beer was full and he found a backpack in the backseat which contained a loaded firearm with a debit card that had the defendant’s name on it.
Officer Gutierrez learned that the firearm was stolen in San Francisco (where the defendant said he is from). The officer then ran a record check and found that defendant Hill had a previous felony conviction in 2010 in San Francisco for violating PC § 245 (b), which is assault with a semiautomatic firearm.
Because of the defendant’s possession of a stolen firearm and his previous felony conviction (which prohibits the defendant from having a firearm), Officer Gutierrez arrested defendant Hill, booked the stolen firearm, Four Loko container, debit card, marijuana found in the car, the defendant’s cellphone, and the backpack which held the firearm.
Defendant Hill’s vehicle was not impounded. Instead, Officer Trujillo contacted the passenger in the car and gave her the keys to the car and permission to go, as per defendant Hill’s request.
Upon cross-examination, the defendant’s attorney, Brandon Leibrock, confirmed that Officer Gutierrez did not see anyone pick up the container or drink from it, and that the defendant was not swerving, speeding, or making wide turns. Leibrock had the officer confirm that he turned his lights on after the defendant parked and that he had no specialized training in looking for obstructions of the windshield.
Leibrock tried to compare the officer’s dash camera to the sticker and air freshener in the defendant’s car, but Officer Guiterrez made it clear that the dash camera in his police car was about two by five inches and mounted at the same height of the rear view mirror, not making it an obstruction to his view of the road.
Since the defendant’s vehicle was tinted, Leibrock asked the officer witness how he could even see the air freshener and sticker from behind the defendant’s car. Officer Gutierrez clarified that he saw the obstructions while following the defendant, who made three left turns and his windows were rolled down, allowing him to see inside the vehicle.
Rawan Albuelreich, a legal intern representing the District Attorney’s Office under the supervision of Deputy District Attorney Keith Hill, called the second witness to the stand, Officer Christina Trujillo, who was in the backseat when Officer Gutierrez told her he wanted to pull the defendant over for the air freshener and sticker causing an obstruction on the windshield.
Officer Trujillo’s story conflicted with Gutierrez’s when she mentioned that none of the three officers activated the overhead lights on the police car.
Legal intern Albeulreich called the third and final witness to the stand, Officer Ryan Gross, who offered the same story as the other officers. Officer Gross said the defendant told him the can of alcohol was his and that he had just opened it. He also mentioned that defendant Hill denied the backpack being his at first, but later confirmed it was his.
The defense counsel submitted a motion to suppress evidence of the stop because the air freshener wasn’t preserved, and also submitted a motion to strike the defendant’s prior felony conviction to help him with California’s Three Strikes Law.
The judge and the defendant’s attorney, Leibrock, went back and forth over why the evidence should be suppressed. Leibrock claimed Officer Gutierrez was not a reliable witness because his partner said the lights were not on while he claimed they were on.
Leibrock also refuted his reliability because Officer Gutierrez identified the defendant on a tiny, virtual screen while he was wearing a mask. Leibrock believed it was “almost as though [Officer Gutierrez’s] testimony was knee-jerking in order to give the results he desires.”
The judge countered his reliability by reminding the attorney that Officer Gutierrez said the window was open, the sticker was below the air freshener, and they all saw those in the body camera screenshot from evidence.
Leibrock argued that the stop was unlawful because the lights weren’t on to signify a stop and the defendant was not on a public road with the open can (he was on private property).
The judge cut in and exclaimed that he was on a public road just before pulling onto private property. She also reminded him that the officers were pulling the defendant over for obstruction on the windshield, and they saw the open container, which gave them probable cause to search the vehicle.
Leibrock pulled out his last card, which was arguing that a FastTrack sticker up to five inches long is allowed on the windshield. The judge cut in to clarify that something of a FastTrack size is permissible on the windshield, but the officers still had the right to pull him over to inquire about the sticker and why it was on the windshield.
The district attorney’s legal intern Rawan Albeulreich argued that the defense’s motion didn’t hold up because the defendant took the air freshener and put it somewhere in the vehicle. So, there was no due process violation.
Judge Laurel White ruled to deny the motion to suppress evidence because there was “more than sufficient justification” for the stop because of the obstruction on the windshield and probable cause to search the vehicle.
The judge also denied the motion to strike the prior felony conviction because the defendant has a “non-stop history of arrests and criminal conduct resulting in those numerous arrests.” She noted that he’s been in custody or on parole consistently since 2009 and she expressed that the defendant hasn’t shown any evidence that he’s taking steps to change his ways.
The court decided to hold the arraignment on a different day, but when Leibrock requested a PC § 977 to waive the defendant’s presence at the trial, the judge got noticeably agitated and arraigned Mr. Hill immediately.
When Leibrock explained that he requested a waiver because the defendant lives in San Francisco, the judge granted it, but urged the defendant to stay in touch with his attorney because he needs to know what’s going on in his case.
The defendant entered a not guilty plea and the trial readiness hearing is set for Aug. 25 at 8:30 a.m. in Department 63.
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