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Is Search of Locked Glove Compartment Reasonable?

In Sacramento County, in an area police officers had “contacted multiple known gang members” and “personally made multiple gun arrests,” police observed a Honda Accord with two passengers.  Police decided to follow the car, which then made an “abrupt” turn down a side street and stop, blocking a residential driveway.

As parking so as to block a driveway is a violation of the Vehicle Code at § 22500(e)(1), police decided to contact the car’s occupants.

Officers later testified that before stopping the car, they did not notice any unusual interaction among the occupants and that after stopping the car, they did not notice the driver remove the keys from the ignition.

The driver of the car was Brandon James Claypool, who was not on searchable probation or parole.  The front seat passenger, Malcolm Clay, appeared “visibly nervous” to officers.  He was visibly sweating.

Carlos Olivia, sitting in the car’s back seat, told police he was a parolee. 

Police then decided to do a “parole search” of the passenger compartment and told the three occupants to exit the car.  Mr. Claypool left the keys on the dashboard as he exited.  Police asked Mr. Clay, the front seat passenger if there was a gun in the car, allegedly said “I don’t know.”

Police proceeded to the unlock the locked glove compartment, which revealed a loaded firearm.  The firearm had the serial number filed off, suggesting it may have been stolen.

Police then arrested the driver, Mr. Claypool, and he was later charged with possession of a firearm by a felon, unlawful possession of ammunition by a felon, unauthorized alteration of a firearm and carrying a loaded firearm in a vehicle, along with an enhancement for a prior strike under California’s Three Strikes Law.

Mr. Claypool brought a motion to suppress the evidence at the preliminary hearing, arguing that insufficient evidence supported the connection between a parolee (Mr. Olivia) in the back seat and the locked glove box and therefore the otherwise lawful parole search exceeded its legitimate scope.

The magistrate hearing the motion disagreed, citing the front seat passenger’s nervousness and his noncommittal response to the officer’s question if there was a gun in the car, as well as evidence that the stop took place in a high crime area.  The magistrate even found it reasonable to believe that Olivia could have quickly handed the gun up to the front seat passenger to lock in the glove box once police pulled over the car.

Mr. Claypool then brought a petition for a writ of mandate or prohibition to the Third Appellate District to challenge the denial of the motion and to dismiss the charges. 

The Third Appellate District agreed with Mr. Claypool and issued a peremptory writ of mandate to the trial court to grant the motion to suppress and dismiss the charges.

The Third Appellate District explained that a parole search of a car based on a passenger’s status as a parolee requires a nexus between the area or item searched and the parolee, as best articulated the California Supreme Court in People v. Schmitz (2012) 55 Cal. 4th 909.

Relevant factors include the nature of the area or item, how close and accessible it is to the parolee, the privacy interests at stake, and the government’s interest in the search.  Schmitz, supra, at 923.  In considering the governmental interest at stake, the California Supreme Court recognized this interest as “substantial,” including that parolees were more likely to commit and pose safety concerns, the parolees’ need for effective supervision, and the parolee’s incentive to conceal criminal activities by quickly disposing of evidence.  Id., at 923-924.

But this did not obviate all privacy interests of other individuals.  A permissible search based on a passenger’s status as a parolee is limited to “those areas of the passenger compartment where the officer reasonably expects that the parolee could have stowed personal belongings or discarded items when aware of police activity.”  Id., at 926.

Here, the court said the driver had a substantial privacy interest in the locked glove compartment and there was no evidence that Olivia transferred a firearm from the rear seat to the front passenger to place in the glove compartment.

Therefore, the Third Appellate District found the scope of the search exceeded its lawful scope and found the trial court judge had erred in denying the motion.

Incidentally, in a footnote from the Third Appellate District ruling, it was noted that the front seat passenger, Mr. Clay, was on searchable probation, but Mr. Clay did not tell the officers about this and officers only discovered this on a records check.  However, the trial court judge assumed the front seat passenger’s status did not support the search, but focused instead on the parole status of Mr. Olivia only. 

Moreover, the People did not attempt to justify the search based on the status of Mr. Clay, so it remains an open question if the motion would have been denied if the People had argued Mr. Clay’s status, as well as the status of Mr. Olivia, justified the search of the locked glove compartment.

For more information about unlawful searches, please click on the following articles:
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