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Bedroom Search Based on Misinformation: Evidence Suppressed?

There is an old saying “men must turn square corners when dealing with the government” Rock Island, A. & L.R. Co. v. United States (1920) 254 U.S. 141.  This quote was by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a famous U.S. Supreme Court justice.

However, “there is no reason why the square corners should constitute a one-way street.” Federal Crop Ins. Corp. v. Merrill (1947) 332 U.S. 380 (Jackson, J., dissenting).  Thus, the United States Supreme Court has correctly observed that “[i]t is no less good morals and good law that the Government should turn square corners in dealing with the people. . .”  Heckler v. Community Health Services of Crawford City, Inc. (1984) 467 U.S. 51.
For example, if there are strict standards for a probationer, the police should be held to strict standards of accountability, too.  It is only fair.  Or are we gravely naïve to expect such ideals?
Brief Synopsis: A search of a bedroom, leading to the discovery of a shotgun, was upheld as legal, even though dispatch wrongly advised the police officer that the homeowner was on probation, when his probation had ended.  Luckily for the police, the homeowner was on probation in an additional case with a search condition, preserving the search as legal.
The case of Eric Wolfgang in Riverside County certainly tests such reciprocal standards of equality.
Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Adan Yamaguchi was dispatched to a trailer park in Thousand Palms on March 26, 2012.  It was about 2:30 p.m.  Supposedly, there was some “suspicious activity” at Wolfgang’s trailer.  When he arrived, Yamaguchi saw a large meth pipe on a car.  Before looking for Wolfgang, he called dispatch with the license plate of the car.  Dispatch told him the car had been reported stolen.

Riverside Sheriffs DepartmentRiverside Sheriffs Department

Yamaguchi then knocked on the door to the trailer.  Wolfgang answered and provided his identification.  The deputy called dispatch, who advised that Wolfgang was on probation for brandishing a weapon.  Yamaguchi did not ask dispatch if Wolfgang had waived his Fourth Amendment rights as a condition of probation.  Yamaguchi just assumed he had.

Yamaguchi then conducted a probation compliance search of Wolfgang’s home and found a loaded .22 caliber rifle on defendant’s bed.  Wolfgang was then arrested, charged and convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon (Penal Code § 29800(a)(1)) and possession of ammunition by a felon (Penal Code § 30305(a)(1)).  He was sentenced to one year and four months in state prison.
At trial, when asked why he did such a search, Yamaguchi said he did so because there was a stolen car and a meth pipe visible.  Later, Yamaguchi learned that Wolfgang’s probation had ended twenty-five days earlier than his search.  However, Wolfgang was also on probation for another felony, which did include search terms. For his violation of probation on that case, arising out of Yamaguchi’s search, Wolfgang was sentenced to three years in state prison to run concurrently with his sentence on the sixteen month term.

Before trial, Wolfgang’s attorney argued that the evidence of the rifle should be suppressed because the deputy did not know for certain that Wolfgang had a search condition prior to conducting the warrantless search.  Yamaguchi just assumed this was so.  The prosecution argued that the “good faith” exception applied.  The trial court denied the motion, Wolfgang was then convicted and he appealed the ruling on the motion to suppress.

The Fourth Appellate District Court began its analysis by noting that a person can validly consent in advance to warrantless searches in exchange for avoiding prison, i.e. in exchange for probation.  Such consent aids in deterring further offenses and in monitoring compliance with the terms of probation and reduces recidivism.
An officer who is aware of the search condition may conduct a search even without the particularized suspicion of criminal activity.  Such a search is not considered a privacy violation.
However, under People v. Hoeninghaus (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th  1180, 1194-1195, police must be aware of the search condition to know that a probationer has given advance consent to the search so that the police can conduct the search.  The reasonableness of the search is determined by what police know at the time of the search.
The totality of the circumstances are what must be evaluated, said the appellate court.  In most all cases involving brandishing a weapon, if someone is placed on probation it will only be subject to consent to conduct a search.  Yamaguchi knew this.  The police dispatcher, however, gave him erroneous information.  The officer, however, proceeded in good faith.
Here, the appellate court commented that applying the exclusionary rule to the rifle would not serve a deterrent purpose, nor would upholding the search undermine judicial integrity.  Moreover, the court said, it could not “turn a blind eye to the fact that Wolfgang actually was on probation with a search condition."

Therefore, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling in denying the motion to suppress.

The citation for the Fourth Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Eric Wolfgang (4th App. Dist., 2015) 240 Cal.App.4th 1268.

For more information about the issues in this case, click on the following articles:
  1. Be Careful Who Your Friends are – You Can be Arrested on a Warrantless Search
  2. Standard Probation Conditions Authorizing Police to Conduct Warrantless Searches, With or Without Probable Cause, Upheld on Appeal When Police Find Felon on Probation with Shotgun
  3. Suspected Ecstasy Drug Trafficker Successfully Challenges Search of His House Based on Faulty Search Warrant Affidavit
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