COURT WATCH: Fentanyl Case Dismissed in Preliminary Hearing after Judge Rules Search Unlawful

San Francisco Hall of Justice – Photo by David M. Greenwald

By Varun Noronha

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Michael Rhoads Friday tossed out five charges against the accused after finding the search was unlawful.

The accused, allegedly caught with a backpack containing fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine, and a large amount of cash, had all criminal charges expunged. The man had been charged with possession and sale of multiple illegal drugs for a total of five criminal counts at his preliminary hearing.

Deputy District Attorney Eugene Frid called the arresting officer to the witness stand to explain potential evidence for the charges, who reported she was staking out the corner of 7th and Mission, which was “known for illegal drug activity.” She stated she observed the site at night using binoculars from a distance of approximately 70 yards.

The officer claimed she saw the accused make three exchanges with different individuals. At around 3 a.m., shortly after the third exchange, she conducted a stop, temporarily detaining the accused and his counterpart. Upon searching the former’s backpack and latter’s pockets, she found illegal substances and arrested both men.

Conducting a Terry stop, commonly known as “stop and frisk,” legally requires that an officer has reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in criminal activity.

Searching someone’s backpack without a warrant legally requires that an officer has probable cause, a higher standard than reasonable suspicion. Both Terry stops and warrantless searches are disproportionately targeted toward Black and brown men, justice reform groups claim.

On cross-examination by Deputy Public Defender Olivia Taylor, the officer admitted she was unable to see what was exchanged between the accused and his counterparts. The officer was not confident that either man she detained had drugs until after her search.

Judge Rhoads was convinced that the Terry stop met the standard of reasonable suspicion. 

However, he disagreed that the officer met the burden of probable cause required to search the backpack. Judge Rhoads cited case law to assert a suspected seller’s belongings could only be searched after drugs were found on the suspected buyer.

And since the officer’s report did not make it clear whether she searched the accused or his counterpart first, the prosecution did not establish probable cause for the backpack search and subsequent arrest, said the judge, who dismissed all five counts against the accused.

The San Francisco Police Department has been a key part of a major crackdown on fentanyl this year. Mayor London Breed has issued a mandate to make San Francisco streets safer by seizing such narcotics and arresting dealers.

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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