Friday, March 21, 2008

Helpful California constitutional rights case

California DUI lawyer news

When a California DUI officer approaches you on the street, or knocks on your door at home, does that mean you are not free to leave, and/or that your must allow admission into your home? There are no clear answers and California DUI Criminal Attorneys litigate, almost daily, difficult search and seizure motions by filing Motions to Suppress.

If the California DUI situation is considered a “consentual encounter,” under Search and Seizure caselaw interpreting the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, then California DUI police officers do not need a reasonable basis or reason to speak to the person, i.e. they are just making “small talk” — which means that the California DUI officer can come up to the person and begin speaking. Of course, if you follow this train of reasoning, the California DUI person can just walk away right? Can the person just shut the door in the California DUI officer’s face? While in theory the answer to both questions is yes, how many times will police officers just let the California DUI person walk away, or stand having a door slammed? Probably never. If anything, the California DUI police officer will find an articulable basis to “detain” the person, to explain his belief that the person is involved in California DUI criminal activity. This reasonable basis is required to justify California DUI law enforcement’s intrusion on the person’s right to privacy under the U.S. Constitution. The greater the intrusion, the greater the need to justify the search and seizure under criminal constitutional law. Thus, California DUI police officers entering a person’s home - regardless if a California DUI or not - requires a much greater level of lawful justification, than detaining someone on the street.

A recent court of appeal decision clarifies further for all criminal lawyers in California - what is a “detention” (requiring justifying) under the Constitutional framework, as opposed to a consentual encouter (requiring none). The First District Court of Appeals ruling states that a police officer’s actions can give rise to a detention under the Fourth Amendment, despite the absence of any verbal commands. The court held that Defendant McKinley William Garry was “detained” when a police officer illuminated him with a spotlight and rushed directly at him while asking about his legal status, because the officer’s non-verbal actions constituted a show of authority so intimidating as to communicate to any reasonable person that he was not free to decline the officer’s requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.
As a result, the court held, the officer’s subsequent search of Garry upon learning that Garry was on parole during the encounter violated the Fourth Amendment, and the trial court should have suppressed drug evidence found during the search.

Garry was arrested and charged with one count of possessing cocaine base for sale after Officer Brian Crutcher saw him standing near a parked car in a Vallejo neighborhood known as a high-crime, high-drug area. Crutcher, who was in full uniform and armed with a baton and gun, was on patrol in a marked police vehicle at the time. Crutcher observed Garry for five to eight seconds, and then turned on his patrol car’s spotlight, emitting a white light and illuminating Garry. Upon exiting his patrol car, Crutcher noticed that Garry looked nervous, so he quickly approached Garry, covering 35 to 40 feet in less than five seconds. Taking a few steps back, Garry pointed to a nearby house and said that it was his residence. Crutcher asked Garry if he was on probation or parole, and when Garry admitted to the latter, Crutcher arrested him and conducted a search incident to the arrest, revealing the presence of cocaine. Before trial, Garry moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that it was found as the result of an illegal detention. He contended that Crutcher’s non-verbal actions—particularly the use of the spotlight and the rapid approach—employed a level of intimidation that amounted to an unlawful detention. The prosecution responded that Crutcher used the spotlight to illuminate the high-crime area for his own safety, and then merely approached Garry and asked him if he was on parole. It argued that Crutcher only detained Garry after receiving an affirmative answer, and pointed out that Crutcher did not verbally order Garry to stop or to approach Crutcher. The trial judge agreed with the prosecution and denied the suppression motion, and Garry was later convicted as charged. On appeal, Justice James R. Lambden said that a detention had occurred when Crutcher shined the spotlight and rushed towards Garry. Noting that previous cases in California had not found the use of a spotlight alone to constitute a detention, he said that the cases nonetheless indicated that a spotlight’s use should be considered in determining whether was a show of authority had taken place that was sufficient to establish that a detention occurred: “Crutcher’s testimony makes clear that his actions, taken as a whole, would be very intimidating to any reasonable person…No matter how politely Crutcher may have stated his probation/parole question, any reasonable person who found himself in defendant’s circumstances, suddenly illuminated by a police spotlight with a uniformed, armed officer rushing directly at him asking about his legal status, would believe themselves to be ‘under compulsion of a direct command by the officer.’”

In sum, this legal decision adds another argument into a California DUI / drunk driving criminal defense lawyer’s arsenal for defending a California DUI client’s constitutional rights. Search and seizure motions, under Penal Code Section 1538.5, are very important, as a successful result usually leads to the unlawfully seized evidence being suppressed, and the California DUI criminal case being dismissed.