Judge Denies Motion to Suppress after Long Argument by Public Defender

By Ankita Joshi

ALAMEDA, CA – Alameda County Superior Court Judge Karin Schwartz last Friday denied a defense motion to suppress evidence, ruling officers had a reasonable basis to continue their investigation despite contentions from the defense about violations of the accused’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Note: Since the charge is misdemeanor drug possession the Vanguard is not disclosing the accused’s name.

The motion to suppress hearing relied primarily on the testimony of the arresting officer, as well as body cam footage of the events leading up the defendant’s detention.

In his testimony, the arresting officer stated he had twice driven by a parked car with its parking lights on which seemed unoccupied.

On his third drive past the parked car, the officer parked in front of the car, shined his floodlights into the car, and saw that there were two people reclined back in the seats inside.

Body cam footage showed the officer came up to the window, asked the accused to roll down his window, and said, “So on this street, we get a lot of vehicle break-ins, business break-ins, things like that, so when I see a vehicle sitting here parked with lights on, it leads me to believe that something might be going on.”

Neither of the men in the car had IDs on them, and denied that they were on probation or that they had anything illegal in the car.

When asked by the prosecution, the officer noted he ran a background search on the two men because he could smell marijuana emanating from the car, and saw “a large Ziploc bag that was open and had marijuana in it” in the center console of the car.

The officer recalled that it was a one-gallon Ziploc bag that was at least half to three quarters full, which he estimated to hold around 50 grams of marijuana.

At this point, the second officer on the scene asked the accused if the marijuana was properly stored, and had stated, “We can search the car for that alone.”

Both passengers were pulled out of the vehicle and detained, while the testifying officer then searched the vehicle.

During her cross-examination, Assistant Public Defender Claire Samuelson then replayed the body cam footage and asked the officer if the marijuana bag appeared to be open in the footage.

The bag “wasn’t completely open… but the middle of the bag was,” responded the officer.

PD Samuelson said “the police violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights in at least three different ways. First, when they detained [the accused] without any reasonable suspicion. Second, when they unlawfully prolonged the detention beyond the initial claimed purpose. And third, when the police officers searched the car without probable cause.”

PD Samuelson argued “reasonable suspicion cannot be based on factors not relating to the defendant, such as criminal activity in the area.”

At this point, Judge Schwartz interrupted and asked, “If an officer, in the middle of the night, sees a car on the side of the road that doesn’t have anyone in it with the lights on, does the officer act reasonably if the officer goes to see what’s happening with the car?”

Samuelson responded with the argument that since the officer did notice that there were people in the car before he got out of his own car, the analogy does not apply, and continued by highlighting that any specific crime not relating to the defendant cannot be applied to him as a basis for probable cause.

Judge Schwartz cut in and said that the officer searched the vehicle because he smelled marijuana. To which Samuelson, again, stated the officer only smelled marijuana after asking the defendant to roll down his window.

She ended her argument by stating, “Nothing at all to suggest that my client was involved in unlawful activity. No report to unlawful activity in the area, and [the officer] had not been given any reason to see that the defendant was engaging in any illegal activity.”

Judge Schwartz interrupted again and said that Samuelson had made her point.

As a final point, PD Samuelson also noted that the body cam footage shows that neither officer had said they could smell the marijuana at any time during their interaction with the defendant.

“I’m sorry, the smell of drugs with something in plain view suggesting a violation of a statute …[was not enough]?” asked Judge Schwartz.

Samuelson responded by citing case law that argued that the smell emanating from the car was not enough to search the car because the accused was not driving the car.

Judge Schwartz then commented that she could see a “pretty big bag in the video,” referring to the bag of marijuana in the center console.

PD Samuelson, again, responded by stating that the body cam footage only shows the bag after the officers pull it out of the center console, citing it as retroactive justification of the officer’s actions.

During redirect, the prosecutor followed Samuelson’s first argument by stating, “It is well-settled law that not all interactions with the police will result in arrests or detention, especially on a public road… so the officer is justified in approaching the car.”

The body cam footage was replayed again, and both the DDA and Judge Schwartz pointed out that you could see the marijuana in the center console without even opening the car window.

The DDA continued by contending valid case theory is all the officers needed to proceed with the detention, since the plain view of the marijuana is “more than enough justification to search the car and arrest the defendant.”

The hearing ended with Judge Schwartz concluding that the officer acted reasonably in approaching the car since he had smelled marijuana, and had noticed the one-gallon Ziploc bag which he had estimated held approximately 50 grams of marijuana.

Both those elements “supplied reasonable basis to continue his investigation,” said the judge, and the motion to suppress was denied.

A pretrial hearing date is set for next month.

About The Author

Ankita Joshi is a second-year student at the University of San Francisco, pursuing a major in International Studies and a minor in Political Science. She is originally from Sacramento, CA.

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