By Anya Chen, Peter Eibert, Michelle Luu, Koda Slingluff
SACRAMENTO, CA — At a pretrial hearing Tuesday in Sacramento County Superior Court, defendant Abel Ruelas argued that his car was unlawfully searched because there was no probable cause.
However, the prosecution insisted the search was lawful, because the police officer had seen and smelled signs of marijuana use in the car. Ruelas’ attorney disagreed, saying the marijuana grinder present in the car was not sufficient evidence for a search, and filed a PC § 995 motion to dismiss the information.
Private Defense Attorney Isaac Choy referenced a Californian Vehicle Code which allows a driver “to transport a closed container of marijuana, or one that is still sealed.”
The VC says failure to comply with the “sealed” condition results in a fine. A person driving with “…a receptacle containing cannabis or cannabis products” can also be fined if the receptacle “…[has] loose cannabis flower not in a container.”
With the VC in hand, throughout the court session, Choy emphasized how the container was closed and kept inside an enclosed space, and it was not “[thrown] in the passenger seat.” Choy argued that the grinder was not opened at the time of the search, and that the “little marijuana grinder, 0.1 grams…was in the glove compartment box of his car.”
A grinder for marijuana is typically made of two pieces which snap together. Dried cannabis goes in the middle and is ground up by the user manually moving the two pieces. The top piece is sometimes called a ‘lid’ because, when snapped close, it can store ground marijuana inside.
Due to the makeup of a grinder, there was debate over whether or not it could be considered an open container.
Deputy District Attorney Nikita Skokov explained that in a previous hearing, a different judge had determined that Ruelas’ grinder was an open container because “[t]he officer said that if you shake it the lid falls right off, and there was loose marijuana inside there, so I think there’s still a grey area as to whether or not this grinder does constitute an open container, even if it’s not.”
He also stated that the appearance of the grinder, along with the smell of marijuana in the car showed that “the whole purpose of the grinder is to essentially smoke while you are driving,” therefore it was meant for immediate consumption.
Attorney Choy disagreed, saying that during the preliminary hearing the officer “testified… that it was a closed container, because he had [said that he had] yet to open it to look inside to see what was inside the container” when deciding to conduct the search.
Choy focused on the fact that the officers needed to shake or open the container defines the grinder as a closed object that had to be opened by the authorities.
Judge Patrick Marlette refuted Choy’s statement on the grounds that he was using “open container” in two different senses.
“They were the same words, but different context,” Marlette said. “[The preliminary court judge] was saying it as a legal observation. [The officer] was saying it in terms of factual observation.”
Choy replied that “when somebody says you have to open something to look into it… that’s inferring that it was closed before you opened it. If [the officer] didn’t have to open it, he could’ve already just looked and seen what was inside of it.”
Judge Marlette then held that the police had probable cause to search the defendant’s car, and denied the defense’s motion.
“The odor of marijuana, and seeing the grinder which was produced after the request gave the officer… probable cause that there was marijuana use at that time… [and] for the remainder of the search,” Marlette said.
The case is still in the pre-trial phase, and will return to court July 13 for further proceedings.
Anya Chen is a third year Communication major at UCLA and hopes to pursue criminal defense law. She is from Washington, D.C.
Peter Eibert is a fourth-year student at UC Davis, majoring in Political Science and minoring in History. He is originally from Half Moon Bay, California.
Koda is a junior at UC Berkeley, majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Rhetoric. He is from Ventura, CA.
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