People v. Leal (Cal. Ct. App., July 25, 2023, No. C096463) 2023 WL 4729326, at *1
Summary: The Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of the fundamental right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures is fundamental. Generally warrantless searches are unreasonable. (Katz v. United States (1967) 389 U.S. 347, 357, 88 S.Ct. 507, 19 L.Ed.2d 576.) The automobile exception provides ‘police who have probable cause to believe a lawfully stopped vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity or contraband may conduct a warrantless search of any area of the vehicle in which the evidence might be found.’ ” (People v. McGee (2020) 53 Cal.App.5th 796, 801.) The scope of a warrantless search is “defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.” (United States v. Ross (1982) 456 U.S. 798, 824 (Ross).) Whether a warrantless search was justified under the automobile exception depends on the facts, because probable cause exists “where the known facts and circumstances are sufficient to warrant a man of reasonable prudence in the belief that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found.” (Ornelas v. United States (1996) 517 U.S. 690, 696.)
The facts here were that the searching police officer received information via a radio broadcast from another officer that a juvenile on probation with a firearm restriction likely placed a firearm under the front passenger seat in Leal’s car before he got into his car and drove away. Leal’s car was under constant surveillance from the time of the alleged firearm placement until the searching officer conducted the search. A search of the passenger compartment of his car found no firearm. Then, the searching officer decided to search the trunk, where he discovered a firearm. Leal was charged with several offenses and filed a motion to suppress the firearm; the trial court denied the motion. Leal pled no contest to being a felon in possession of a firearm. The issue is whether the search of Leal’s trunk was justified under the automobile exception.
The Court held that when an officer has probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of a crime will be found specifically in the passenger compartment of a vehicle and no other information provides further probable cause to believe the evidence will be found in the trunk, an officer’s search of the trunk exceeds the permissible scope of a warrantless search under the automobile exception. The court reversed the judgment with directions to set aside the order denying Leal’s motion to suppress, enter an order granting the motion, and allow Leal to move to withdraw his plea.
Probable cause for warrantless search of trunk
In determining whether probable cause to search exists, courts look at the totality of the circumstances. (People v. Tousant (2021) 64 Cal.App.5th 804.) Review is limited to the facts and circumstances known to the searching officer. (Henry v. United States (1959) 361 U.S. 98, 102.) “[P]robable cause [to] search exists when an officer is aware of facts that would lead a [person] of ordinary caution or prudence to believe, and conscientiously to entertain, a strong suspicion that the object of the search is in the particular place to be searched.” (Wimberly v. Superior Court (1976) 16 Cal.3d 557, 571 (Wimberly).)
Courts generally find warrantless searches of trunks and other enclosed compartments in a vehicle justified in three categories of circumstances: (1) officers have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of a crime will be found specifically in the trunk or other enclosed compartment; (2) a search of the passenger compartment reveals contraband or other evidence generating further probable cause to search the trunk or other enclosed compartment; or (3) probable cause exists as to the entire car The search of the trunk here did not fit within any of these categories.
Facts that create probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of a crime will be found specifically in the trunk or other enclosed compartment involve situations where officers see the defendant access the area and either place the evidence in the area or remove the evidence from the area.
Here, the police never saw Leal’s trunk open, nor did he see anyone access the trunk in any manner. The officer believed the firearm would be found in the passenger compartment, underneath the passenger seat, and that is what he broadcast to the other officers, including to the searching officer, Leal did not take any action himself to suggest he had contraband in the car, and his nervousness about the search certainly did not, in and of itself, establish probable cause to search the trunk. (People v. Moore (2021) 64 Cal.App.5th 291 [“Nervousness by itself … does not establish probable cause”].)
The facts here also do not fall within the second category of cases in which probable cause to search a trunk exists based on contraband or evidence of a crime found during a search of the passenger compartment. No contraband or evidence of a crime was found in the passenger compartment.
The third and final circumstance in which probable cause to search an enclosed compartment like a trunk exists is when an officer has probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of a crime will be found somewhere in the car. There was no probable cause for in this case.
Here, the police observations established probable cause to believe a firearm would be found specifically in the passenger compartment. Once the searching officer did not find anything in the passenger compartment, the Fourth Amendment required him to stop the search because the probable cause to search the passenger compartment did not extend to the car’s trunk.
Allowing officers to search outside the scope of the particular location or compartment within which there is probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of a crime will be located would permit exploratory searches prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. When officers have probable cause to search a particular compartment of a vehicle for evidence of a crime, and no such evidence is found, the search must stop absent facts generating probable cause to search another compartment of the vehicle.
Here, the officer did not have probable cause to search defendant’s trunk; thus, the search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment and the judgment was reversed.
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