COURT WATCH: Judge Throws Out Drug Case of Woman after Ruling She Was Unlawfully Searched

By Roni Ayalon

WOODLAND, CA- Yolo County Superior Court Judge Tom Dyer this week dismissed a possession of controlled substance charge for an accused, agreeing she was unlawfully searched by Woodland police officers last November.

Deputy Public Defender Villa originally filed a motion to suppress evidence found during the unlawful search. Once the judge agreed, there was no evidence to charge the accused with, so the case was dismissed.

The unlawful search took place on Nov. 6, 2022, in Downtown Woodland. Police officers patrolling the area said they “noticed a tent in the rear of… [an] old building [in the area],” according to Police Officer Shayne Souza.

Upon observing the tent, Souza and his partner Officer Eric Aguirre drove their patrol vehicle to the spot and met the owner of the tent, who said there was another woman in the tent, the accused.

Officer Souza said he “announced (him)self” to the woman in the tent and “got no response.”

When the woman exited the tent, police officers say she was wearing “loose baggy clothing” and a backpack that was full. She also had a fanny pack on her person.

The officers said they wanted to perform a pat down search “in the front pocket area.” They asked for her consent to perform the search but she denied consent. They restrained her arms and performed the search, upon which they discovered a “baggie” with what looked like methamphetamine.

Both officers testified there was an officer safety risk, which led to the search. Both said they were concerned about the lack of response from the accused when she was in the tent.

Souza said that “the tent was fully closed, I couldn’t see inside and so I just want to know who it is that’s in there… and also the potential for weapons or maybe they could hear us while we’re talking to (the accused) and they’re getting ready.”

The officers testified the supposed baggy clothing could have been concealing a weapon. When they asked her what was in her fanny pack, she reached for it, which seemed as if it could have been a reach for a weapon, the officers maintained.

Officer Aguirre testified that he knew the accused from “previous contexts and encounters.” He said that during these previous encounters, she had carried pocketknives. The officers asked the accused if she had a pocketknife on her, to which she responded she wasn’t sure.

Deputy District Attorney Sherri Bridgeforth used these facts and concern to justify the pat down search to the court, arguing that since the accused was trespassing on private property, this was a consensual interaction.

PD Villa asked during both cross-examinations whether the officers actually felt any present danger. During the examination of Officer Souza, Villa noted that when the accused walked out of the tent, the officers didn’t tell her to put her hands up and didn’t order her on the ground, nor did they didn’t draw their weapons or tell her to sit on the curb.

In fact, Officer Aguirre conceded that not only was the accused not being “hostile,” but she actually “complied” with the police demands.

Villa also pointed out to both officers, after watching body camera footage on both direct examinations, the accused was not wearing baggy pants, like was previously described. She was wearing tight yoga pants.

Villa continued that nowhere in the police report was there any mention of the officers seeing a weapon on the accused, and reminded the court that the officers weren’t even there responding to a call or complaint, but were just patrolling the area.

PD Villa asked Officer Aguirre if he had ever arrested the accused for any violent crime, to which the officer replied that he had not.

The most crucial piece of evidence for Villa was the lack of consent on the part of the accused, recorded on body camera footage.

The police had asked for permission to pat her down and search her fanny pack to which she said, “No.” She also protested she was not on probation or parole, which would have granted the officers more leeway to search her.

But, noted PD Villa, despite her rejection, the officers searched the accused, which Villa said is a warrantless search and seizure, which violated the accused’s Fourth Amendment right. He said that the evidence of drugs seized under this unlawful search was subject to the exclusionary rule.

Although the exclusionary rule has exceptions, including a present danger to officer safety, Villa argued that “the evidence fails to show that she was presently dangerous.”

He said that the “police didn’t point to specific and relevant evidence” and that there were “no fervent movements” or “hostility” from the accused, adding if the accused had actually been dangerous, they would have ordered her to the ground and told her to keep her arms up.

Judge Dyer agreed with PD Villa this was not a consensual search, but agreed the officers had a right to detention because of the trespassing that had occurred.

However, he said that this case was not reasonable cause for officer safety concern because a pocketknife isn’t something that is automatically extended and ready to use as a weapon.

The judge said he was also skeptical about the accused’s ability to quickly deploy a weapon from a bag full of items. She was also “seven to 10 feet away from the officers,” which the judge determined was not enough of a concern.

Given that there was no safety concern, the search was not reasonable and the accused’s Fourth Amendment right was violated, Judge Dyer reasoned, and granted the motion to suppress the evidence.

Immediately following, Villa moved for dismissal under Penal Code section 1385, stating this was the only evidence in this case and now that it has been suppressed, this warranted a dismissal for the accused. The motion to dismiss was granted.

About The Author

Roni is a senior at UC Davis, studying Political Science - Public Service with minors in Social and Ethnic Relations, Community and Regional Development, and Sociology. She plans on pursuing a career in criminal justice reform after finishing her degree.

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