By Amy Berberyan and Ozzy Hernandez
RIVERSIDE, CA – Although one law enforcement witness could not identify the suspect, and another’s evidence appeared to be in doubt, a judge here in Riverside County Superior Court last week denied claims by the defense that an arrest was a result of unlawful search and seizure.
Adrian Horta, a sergeant for the California Highway Patrol, testified he was driving westbound on Interstate 10 “around dusk” when he noticed a dark vehicle—the accused’s black Ford Focus—“rapidly approaching” with its headlights off.
Though his radar was off, Horta estimated that the vehicle was going “approximately 80 mph” because it was overtaking the surrounding traffic that was going 70 mph.
“I was in fear that (the car) was going to rear-end me,” said Horta. When the vehicle got close, Horta tapped his brake lights and the vehicle “swerved around [him] abruptly” to his left-hand side.
Sgt. Horta then moved behind the vehicle to prepare a traffic stop, and the vehicle accelerated into the second lane on the freeway. He was able to determine she was up to 80 mph again “because she passed the two vehicles on her left and her right.
“She accelerated in front of a big rig that was in the slow lane,” said Horta, “unsafely cut that big rig off, and rapidly exited.”
When Deputy District Attorney Marissa Jimenez asked Horta what traffic violations he had observed during this incident, he mentioned four: “the unsafe speed behind [him],” “the fact that she had no headlights on after dusk,” “she accelerated a second time to 80 mph,” and “she made the unsafe lane change to cut off the big rig” without signaling.
When Sgt. Horta pulled over the suspect, she denied almost crashing into him. When he told her she was speeding, she said, “No I wasn’t.”
When DA Jimenez asked Horta about any odors he picked up, he said he “smelled the odor of an alcoholic beverage during that conversation” with the accused, and noticed her eyes were “red and wide, glossy.” This concerned him because these were signs of impairment, he said.
When asked, the suspect denied consuming alcohol. She admitted “she was coming from Casino Morongo” and was on her way home.
Horta requested a patrol officer and Samuel Rivera arrived three minutes after the stop to continue the investigation.
Deputy Public Defender Cesar Andaya stressed that Horta did not use his radar or any device to verify the vehicle’s speed. Furthermore, he clarified that it was only getting dark.
DDA Jimenez asked Sgt. Horta why he did not use his radar, and he said that “it wasn’t activated. I was returning from a traffic collision. That’s why Officer Rivera was only three minutes behind me. I wasn’t on routine patrol enforcing speed, I was simply driving back to my police station.”
Horta described the driving as “extremely unsafe,” and said he considered the DUI evaluation based on the “totality of the driving.”
Judge Jorge Hernandez questioned whether Horta would have stopped the vehicle if it had been speeding and for not using headlights if he had been on routine patrol. Horta responded in the affirmative, claiming “that was the only vehicle that did not have its headlights on at the time.”
CHP Officer Rivera was not quick to identify the defendant in court. Rivera had to recollect his memory after being allowed to look at a copy of the police report he authored, when answering questions.
After making contact, he claimed to have detected a stench of alcohol emanating from the defendant’s breath as well as her vehicle. He said the driver was visibly nervous and wanted to move away from the car. This is where Officer Rivera witnessed the swaying in her walking, according to his testimony.
Rivera said the driver admitted she had consumed an “Adios MF” 10 minutes before taking the wheel and was coming from a nearby casino. She allegedly said she felt “buzzed,” according to the officer.
The loss of balance also was concerning and she could not count to thirty. He immediately conducted other field sobriety tests and she did not perform satisfactorily.
Based on the findings presented by the prosecutor, there was enough evidence to suggest there was reasonable cause for the arrest of the defendant, said the judge, even if the officer could not properly identify the defendant in court.
“You never like to hear it, but this is an interesting case,” said Judge Hernandez, who agreed with the defense argument that Sgt. Horta did not have sufficient knowledge of recognizing vehicle speed from behind, but that Horta was “entitled to rely upon the determination that the speed that the defendant was driving was an excess of 70 mph.”
The judge also agreed with the defense argument that there was no showing this occurred after sundown, so he did not give weight to the driver not using her headlights.
The unsafe lane change, swerving, and almost striking the vehicle led to Judge Hernandez concluding that “there [were] reasonable grounds for at least an investigative stop with respect to a determination of whether or not the defendant was guilty of any traffic violation.”
The judge said the stop and contact with were valid, and the odor on the suspect’s breath, coupled with the smell of alcohol with her breath, warranted further investigation.
He denied the defense’s motion to suppress evidence, and the case could continue to trial or other resolution.
(NOTE: The Vanguard did not identify the accused because we do not identify people in most misdemeanor or violation cases.)