Unlawful detention of driver in a parked car requires suppression of evidence found in search

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. ALBERT JACKSON, Defendant and Appellant. (Cal. Ct. App., Mar. 15, 2024, No. B328954) 2024 WL 1131026, at *1

Summary: Two Los Angeles police officers in a cruiser saw Jackson, an African American man,  alone in a parked car. They pulled alongside, boxing Jackson in so that he would have to squeeze to get out. One officer went to Jackson’s side of the car, while the other walked to Jackson’s passenger side. Both shined flashlights on Jackson. Surrounding Jackson, the officers’ actions meant a reasonable person in his position would not feel free to leave.

The officers explained that Jackson was wearing a “big bulky jacket” on a “hot” and “humid” night. He “was seated kind of awkwardly in the driver’s seat.” And when they approached in the dark and shined flashlights on him, he looked “uncomfortable and kind of nervous,” “like he was surprised to see us.”

After speaking with Jackson, an officer observed a gun and and arrested him.

The officers’ observations did not suggest criminal activity and  Jackson’s detention violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court of Appeal suppressed the evidence the officers found as a result of this detention.

Initial Motion To Suppress

Jackson’s trial counsel argued that “[w]earing a bulky jacket in 60-something degree weather, without more, certainly does not [imply] criminal activity is afoot. This unreasonable inference is [a] textbook example of law enforcement hunch and conjecture with underpinnings of racial discrimination.”

The magistrate denied Jackson’s motion to suppress and without disclosing her reasoning and held Jackson to answer.

Jackson filed a motion under section 995 to challenge the holding order from the preliminary hearing.

Jackson’s counsel argued that “African American men are justified when becoming fearful of white officers who approach them late at night while they are alone…. As this Motion discusses, the assumption that an African American man in an expensive car is a criminal or that the vehicle is stolen, based solely on the way he looks and without any indication of criminal activity, is not in line with the Fourth Amendment.”

“A quick historical weather search reveals that the temperature this night around midnight was low to mid 60’s. There is no shortage of Angelinos who readily wear jackets when the weather is within this range. Mr. Jackson’s clothing was not suspicious to any reasonable individual. It begs the question – whether the officers would have also suspected a middle-aged Caucasian woman wearing a thick coat in the same location to have stolen a vehicle, just as they suspected of Mr. Jackson.”

“Officer Chavez testified he was immediately suspicious of Mr. Jackson based on the way he was seated. The officers were suspicious of an African American man in a high-end vehicle. The officers’ reflex assumption is that it must be stolen. This thought was formed in the absence of any facts, whatsoever, to suggest Mr. Jackson was in a stolen vehicle. Had a Caucasian female been the driver, the court should consider the likelihood that the officers would form the same assumption.”

The prosecution argued the incident was a consensual stop. The trial court agreed and

Jackson entered a plea of no contest to a felon-in-possession charge. The trial court sentenced him to 16 months in state prison. Jackson appealed.

Distinction between a consensual encounter and a detention

Consensual encounters require no justification. Police may approach people in public and engage them in consensual conversation and ask if they are willing to answer questions.  Police walking up to someone in a parked car is not a detention. Prosecutors may use voluntary answers and the officer’s observations in criminal prosecutions. (People v. Tacardon (2022) 14 Cal.5th 235, 241 (Tacardon).)

Detentions require justification. When an officer’s physical force or show of authority restrains someone’s liberty in some way, then the officer has seized that person and must justify this detention. Police seize someone if, in view of all of the circumstances, reasonable people in those shoes would not believe they are free to leave. (Tacardon, supra, 14 Cal.5th at p. 241; Brendlin v. California (2007) 551 U.S. 249, 254–255 (Brendlin).)

Courts consider the totality of the circumstances to determine whether police actions turn an encounter into a detention. The subjective belief of the person who is the target of police attention is irrelevant. (Tacardon, supra, 14 Cal.5th at pp. 241–242.)

If police detained Jackson before they saw the gun in Jackson’s pocket and absent other information, the detention would be unjustified. The consequence would be suppression of evidence that was the fruit of the poisonous tree. (Tacardon, supra, 14 Cal.5th at p. 242; Nardone v. United States (1939) 308 U.S. 338, 341.

The officers detained Jackson before spotting the gun

The officers pulled their car within a few feet of Jackson’s open driver’s side door, surrounded his car in the dark and, at close range, aimed two flashlights on him. Under these circumstances, a reasonable person would not feel free to leave.

Pulling the police car so close boxed Jackson in. Perhaps he “could have squeezed out.” The proximity of the car indicated he should not leave. The objective and reasonable meaning of this police action was a display of authority and control.

No adequate justifications for this detention

Officers may conduct an investigatory detention if they have an objectively reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Their suspicions must be supported by specific and articulable facts that are reasonably consistent with criminal activity.

Wearing a big bulky jacket on what feels to be a hot humid night does not lead an officer reasonably to conclude “that criminal activity may be afoot.” (Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1, 30.) It  is natural for someone to look surprised, nervous, and uncomfortable when police appear out of the dark, park too close for easy exit, surround your car, and shine flashlights on you.

The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment, vacated the conviction, and remanded the matter directing the trial court shall vacate its order denying Jackson’s motion to suppress the evidence and enterIng  new order granting that motion. (People v. Paul, supra, 99 Cal.App.5th at pp. 841–842.)

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