Inevitable discovery doctrine applies to vehicle search

People v. Banks (Cal. Ct. App., Nov. 20, 2023, No. 2D CRIM. B312618) 2023 WL 8010242, at *1, reh’g denied (Dec. 6, 2023)

 Summary: Banks appealed from the judgment after a jury convicted him of human trafficking of a minor. Banks argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained during a warrantless search of his vehicle and that the prosecutor committed misconduct during argument. The Court of Appeal affirmed.

Traffic stop and vehicle search

In 2018, Banks was driving through San Luis Obispo with a minor in the car. San Luis Obispo Police Officer Rouse conducted a traffic stop because Bank’s vehicle did not have proper license plates, and he was not wearing his seatbelt. The officer did  not see any temporary DMV registration sticker on the front passenger window. Banks explained that he did not have a driver’s license, and instead, provided his I.D. card.

Officer Rouse observed an open container of marijuana in the center console of the front driver’s seat and front passenger seat. A records check showed that Banks’ license was suspended and there was a misdemeanor traffic warrant for his arrest.The passenger appeared to be under the age of 18.

Banks argued that  the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress the “fruits of the warrantless search” of the vehicle and the decision to tow and then search the vehicle was “obviously ‘motivated by an investigatory purpose.’ ” The search was justified by the inevitable discovery doctrine.

The inevitable discovery doctrine is an exception to the exclusionary rule and permits the admission of otherwise excluded evidence if the prosecution can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the information would have been inevitably discovered by lawful means, such as routine police procedures. (Nix v. Williams (1984) 467 U.S. 431, 444; People v. Hughston (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 1062.)

Here, Officer Rouse lawfully stopped appellant’s car. Banks did not have a valid driver’s license. The San Luis Obispo Police Department has a policy regarding inventory searches “[t]o protect the department as well as the defendant or owner of the vehicle in the event that there’s property – highly valuable property inside the vehicle, large amounts of cash, things of that nature. In addition, the inventory search will document any damage to the vehicle to protect the tow company in the event of civil litigation … [a]s well as document everything inside the vehicle.”

Officer Rouse suspected the vehicle may have been stolen because it was an older vehicle with paper plates, there was no vehicle registration in the window, and Banks could not produce proof of ownership. “Police officers may exercise discretion in determining whether impounding a vehicle serves their community caretaking function, ‘so long as that discretion is exercised according to standard criteria and on the basis of something other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity.’ [Citation].” The trial court correctly concluded the evidence would have been inevitably discovered pursuant to a lawful inventory search.

Alleged Prosecutorial Misconduct

Banks also argued that the prosecutor committed misconduct by repeatedly suggesting that sexual trafficking merely requires “encouraging” prostitution, that the crime of trafficking is already “done” if a pimp recruits an active prostitute to work for him, and that encouragement and persuasion are “interchangeable.”

Review of prosecutorial misconduct claims requires reversal only when a prosecutor uses “ ‘deceptive or reprehensible methods [to attempt] to persuade either the [trial] court or the jury’ [citation] and ‘ “it is reasonably probable that a result more favorable to the defendant would have been reached without the misconduct” ’ [citation].” (People v. Davis (2009) 46 Cal.4th 539, 612.)

“To preserve for appeal a claim of prosecutorial misconduct, the defense must make a timely objection at trial and request and admonition; otherwise, the point is reviewable only if an admonition would not have cured the harm caused by the misconduct.” (People v. Price (1991) 1 Cal.4th 324, 447.)

Here, appellant’s trial counsel objected to the prosecutor’s misstatement of the law when he repeatedly used the word “encourage” to describe the legal standard to establish trafficking. The objections were sustained but counsel did not ask that the jury be admonished to disregard the prosecutor’s misstatement of the law.

“ ‘[I]t is improper for the prosecutor to misstate the law generally [citation], and particularly to attempt to absolve the prosecution from its prima facie obligation to overcome reasonable doubt on all elements. [Citation.]’ [Citation.]” (People v. Hill (1998) 17 Cal.4th 800, 829-830.) But those misstatements must be evaluated “ ‘[i]n the context of the whole argument and the instructions’ [citation], [and the appellant must show] there was a ‘reasonable likelihood the jury understood or applied the complained-of comments in an improper or erroneous manner. [Citations.] In conducting this inquiry, we “do not lightly infer” that the jury drew the most damaging rather than the least damaging meaning from the prosecutor’s statements. [Citation.]’ ” (People v. Centeno (2014) 60 Cal.4th 659, 667 (Centeno).)

Section 236.1, subdivision (c) provides, “A person who causes, induces, or persuades, or attempts to cause, induce, or persuade, a person who is a minor at the time of commission of the offense to engage in a commercial sex act, with the intent to effect or maintain a violation of [certain enumerated crimes] is guilty of human trafficking.”

The prosecutor repeatedly used the word “encourage” to describe appellant’s conduct as sufficient for a violation of section 236.1, subdivision (c)(2). This was erroneous but trial counsel did not request an admonition. The trial court sustained these objections and the prosecutor corrected himself each time. It is not likely that the jury applied the prosecutor’s misstatements in an objectionable fashion because the trial court instructed the jury to “follow the law as I explain it to you, even if you disagree with it. If you believe that the attorneys’ comments on the law conflict with my instructions, you must follow my instructions.” We presume the jury followed the trial court’s instructions, rather than any conflicting statements by counsel. (Centeno, supra, 60 Cal.4th at p. 676, 180 Cal.Rptr.3d 649, 338 P.3d 938; People v. Meneses (2019)

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