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Cop Finds Meth in Car During I.D. Search: Meth Suppressed?

Many people leave their wallet in the glove compartment of their car, or they stash it unlocked in the car’s center console.  Hopefully, if they do this, they lock their car.
Brief Synopsis: Methamphetamine discovered in the purse of a suspect stopped for alleged erratic driving, after the suspect tells police she might have some identification in the car, was not improper.  We think this ruling is bad law and hope it is overturned either in this case at the California Supreme Court (if appealed) or through another case on similar facts.
In the following case, Marina Elena Lopez left her identification inside her car, as described above, in Yolo County.

Earlier in the evening, someone called 911 to report Ms. Lopez was driving erratically.  The officer drove to the location where Ms. Lopez was reported to be, but could not find her.  The officer then, knowing her address apparently from her license plate, drove to her house and waited for her to show up.

After a few minutes, the officer gave up and drove off, only to hear another dispatch report concerning Ms. Lopez and continued erratic driving.  Again, the officer went to the location where she was allegedly seen and could not find her.  Then the officer again proceeded to Ms. Lopez’s house to wait for her to arrive.

This time, the officer’s tactic worked.  Ms. Lopez drove up and parked on the street in front of the address.  The officer testified in court later that he did not notice anything erratic about how she was driving and noted no Vehicle Code violations.

Nonetheless, the officer approached Ms. Lopez as she got out of her car, “which caused somewhat of a panicked look” to appear on her face as she walked toward her front door.  The officer testified that he was concerned Ms. Lopez would not cooperate with his investigation, so he asked for her driver’s license.

Court of Appeal Third Appellate District SacramentoCourt of Appeal Third Appellate District Sacramento

Putting aside the questionable legality of the officer acting on an anonymous call about DUI and not observing any impaired driving, Ms. Lopez answered that she did not have a driver’s license.  This is where the officer had certain obligations and rights to investigate.  The officer then asked if she had any identification at all.  Ms. Lopez then answered that she might have some identification in the car.

The officer then put Ms. Lopez in handcuffs and noticed a purse on the front seat.  Another officer then arrived at the scene and went into the car and grabbed the purse, purportedly to find Ms. Lopez’s identification.

In a small side pocket in the purse, the officer also found a small amount of methamphetamine.

Ms. Lopez was then charged with possession of a controlled substance and promptly moved to suppress the evidence of methamphetamine found in her purse.  The trial court granted the motion and the People appealed to the Third Appellate District.

The Third Appellate District began its analysis of the warrant requirement, stating that there is a narrow exception to the warrant requirement in the context of a valid traffic stop in which the driver fails to produce automobile registration, a driver’s license or identification in response to an officer’s valid demand.  In re Arturo D. (2002) 27 Cal. 4th 60, 68.  Such a search can be in areas “where such documentation reasonably may be expected to be found.” Id., p. 65.

However, in Knowles v. Iowa (1998) 525 U.S. 113, 142 L. Ed. 2d 492, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “the Fourth Amendment prohibits a full-scale warrantless search of an automobile incident to the issuance of a traffic citation.”  In Knowles, a driver was stopped for speeding and issued a citation before a full warrantless search of the car, during which marijuana was found under the driver’s seat.

The key in the case was Ms. Lopez’s admission that she did not have a driver’s license, the Third Appellate District found.  The officer then arrested Ms. Lopez and, under New York v. Belton (1981) 453 U.S. 454, 69 L.Ed. 768, an officer may search the interior of a car when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”  The Third Appellate District, however, acknowledged that, “[i]n many cases, as when a recent occupant is arrested for a traffic violation, there will be no reasonable basis to believe the vehicle has relevant evidence.”

In Ms. Lopez’s case, however, the search was limited to only the purse, so the search was not unreasonable or intrusive as to violate the Fourth Amendment.  We certainly dislike this ruling, as the initial detention based on a 911 call was improper, we think under People v. Wells and later cases addressing this issue.

The citation for the Third Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Maria Elena Lopez (3d App. Dist., 2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 815.

For more information about unlawful search issues, please click on the following articles:
  1. U.S. Supreme Court Rules Dog Sniff of Car Improper After Officer Makes Routine Traffic Stop for Driving on the Shoulder of the Road
  2. Strong Marijuana Smell Does Not Justify Warrantless Search of Hotel Room
  3. U.S. Supreme Court Rules That Warrantless Use of Police Dog on Front Porch to Signal Drugs Violates the Fourth Amendment
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