By Eric Grammatico, Sydney Kaplan and Linhchi Nguyen
SACRAMENTO, CA – Assistant Public Defender Steven Hirsch late last Thursday here in Sacramento County Superior Court cross-examined three Sacramento police officers, who he suggested wrongfully detained his client after they followed his car and questioned him without solid evidence of a crime.
The suspicious detainment occurred on Sept. 3, 2020, where Defendant Billy Adams was arrested after police officers stopped him at a parking lot in an apartment complex.
During his preliminary hearing on Thursday, the court had to determine whether Adams had to answer on his six charges of various drug possession and for carrying a concealed weapon.
In the end, despite Hirsch’s best efforts, and strong suggestions that there was no reason for police to detain or search their vehicle, that is what the court did, rule there should be a trial.
The three Sacramento City police officers who were called in to testify were Officer Michael Phelan, Officer Connor Mills, and Sergeant Chase Cunningham.
Officer Phelan testified that he was on duty for the Sacramento Police Department at approximately 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 3, 2020, in the parking lot of the Arden Fair Mall, and claimed that he and several other officers were conducting a plainclothes surveillance on an unrelated individual that they “knew was armed with a gun.”
It was around this time that Eaton advised Phelan that he had witnessed a hand-to-hand transaction between an unidentified party and “some male Black adults occupying a [white] Chrysler 300.”
Phelan then located the moving vehicle and observed it as it pulled into a parking spot near the south entrance of Forever 21. Subsequently, two adults exited the vehicle and were seen in close proximity to another person. He testified that the person had parked nearby and “appeared to be associated with the group.”
He then said he saw the driver, Billy Adams, reach for a tan and green-striped satchel from his vehicle and don the satchel before the party entered the mall.
Officer Phelan explained earlier in the hearing that satchels are often used in hand-to-hand transactions in high crime areas for the transportation of narcotics, contraband, and/or weapons in exchange for cash.
After approximately 40-45 minutes, the two male adults exited the mall and reentered their vehicle. He claimed that the vehicle drove out of the south entrance of the mall parking lot “at a high rate of speed,” causing him to lose sight of it for about “90 seconds.”
Upon relocating the white Chrysler, Officer Phelan said he spotted the vehicle shortly before an exit on the Interstate 80 freeway, approximately 12 miles away from where the officer last had eyes on it. He said he observed a Chrysler 200 that appeared to be “driving in tandem” with the targeted vehicle, and claimed that “vehicles driving in tandem sometimes do so to prevent it from being contacted from law enforcement.”
Police Officer Conner Mills who, after being updated on the suspicion of the white Chrysler, followed the car for “three miles” to the parking lot of an apartment complex.
It was outside this apartment complex that Mills claimed to make “consensual contact” with the defendant.
Body camera footage reveals Mills approached the vehicle and greeted both the defendant and a singular passenger. The defendant immediately questioned why he was being pulled over, to which Mills responded, “I didn’t pull you over, we are just talking, and I smelled weed coming out of your car.”
Defendant Adams responded to Mills by saying, “I don’t want to talk though.”
Mills admitted during the cross-examination that he was standing too close to the driver’s door for Adams to leave the car and admitted to having the defendant’s driver’s license in his possession. Still, he insisted this contact was consensual.
“I’m just talking to you guys… you were going quick on the freeway and then you were kinda cruising around,”
Mills finally told Adams when asked for the fourth time why he stopped him.
However, when asked about the exact speed of the defendant, Mills said, “I don’t know… I know you were going quick because I was going quick.”
In direct examination, Mills admitted to doing background checks on the defendant and his passenger for around three minutes before Officer Cunningham arrived at the scene.
Officer Mills informed Cunningham about a strong odor of marijuana coming from Adam’s car. Cunningham testified he could also smell the marijuana odor when standing approximately 20-30 feet away from the vehicle, and it got “stronger when [he] got closer to the Chrysler.”
During his direct testimony, he confirmed the smell he detected was “unburnt marijuana.” However, in his body camera footage, Cunningham is shown asking the defendant and his passenger, “I’m just checking to see if anybody was smoking.”
Hirsch pointed out on cross-examination that Cunningham “didn’t testify that there was any smell of burnt marijuana.” Hirsch then asked him, “Are you saying you actually don’t know what type of marijuana you were smelling?”
Cunningham hesitated to answer, “I think I smelled a huge quantity of unburnt marijuana, but I don’t know if what I was smelling was masked.”
In the body camera footage, the passenger is heard repeatedly telling Cunningham that he and the defendant were not smoking in the car. The passenger proceeded to question Cunningham as to why they were pulled over.
“What did we even do? You need to tell us why we’re getting pulled over,” he exclaimed. “How come we can’t come out of the car and go to our apartment?”
Adams also chimed in, “You just followed us off the freeway. How can you just happily do this? I could never…do that to a person.”
Without acknowledging the hand-to-hand exchange at the Arden Fair Mall, Officer Cunningham simply responded, “I’m trying to figure out why it smells like marijuana so much in here,” adding it is common for him to omit certain information when talking to a suspect because he wants to get a feel of their conversation first.
He also added that he observed some ashes on the floorboard of the car, as well as an alcoholic beverage that was a quarter full. The passenger told Cunningham that the ashes came from the California fires, and the bottle was never opened during their drive.
However, Cunningham still asked the two individuals to step out of the car, and he proceeded to pat down Adams and search the car.
PD Hirsch questioned the basis of Cunningham’s search, asking whether he witnessed any signs of intoxication in Adams, whether he saw any weapons inside the vehicle prior to pulling Adams out of the vehicle, and whether he observed Adams touch any bag in the Chrysler while he was observing him.
To all these questions, Cunningham responded with a “no.”
After searching the defendant’s car, the police uncovered several drugs, including cocaine, “nicely packaged” marijuana, opened containers of alcohol, and MDMA, along with a scale and large amounts of cash.
Despite Hirsch attempting to dismiss the results of the search due to the “unreasonable arrest,” as he claimed, Judge Alyson L. Lewis denied the subsequent search to be dismissed. She stated the detainment was lawful.
As a result, the court ruled that there is sufficient cause to find Adams guilty on all of his six charges. Adams is expected to return to court for a trial readiness conference on Sept. 15 at 1:35 p.m. in Dept. 63. His trial is set for Sept. 20.
Eric Grammatico is a 3rd year English major at the University of California, Berkeley. He is from Stockton, CA.
Sydney Kaplan is an incoming third-year at Santa Clara University. As a Political Science major with Journalism & Economics minors, her biggest passion is exploring the various intersections between her fields of study. Currently, she is most interested in comparative media policy and criminal justice reform.
Linhchi Nguyen is a fourth year at UC Davis, double majoring in Political Science and English. She currently lives in Sacramento, California.
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