People v. Castro (Cal. Ct. App., Nov. 18, 2022, No. B318174) 2022 WL 17662954, at *1
Summary: Castro appealed from a judgment entered after he pleaded no contest to carrying a loaded, unregistered handgun in a vehicle. He argued that a warrantless search of his vehicle, during which a police officer discovered the handgun, did not fall within the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, and the trial court should have suppressed the evidence from the vehicle search on his motion under Penal Code section 1538.5. The Court of Appeal rejected his contention and affirmed the judgment.
Castro’s Detention and the Vehicle Search
On June 22, 2020, when the vehicle search occurred, Officer Zendejas and his partner, Officer Organista, were riding in a marked patrol car when they observed two males sitting in a car parked on a public street. Officer Organista ran the registration on the vehicle which came back expired. The patrol car approached the parked car, both cars with windows rolled down and Officer Zendejas “noticed there was a strong odor of marijuana coming from inside the vehicle.” Based on the “expired registration, and pending a narcotics investigation,” the officers initiated a traffic stop.
Officer Zendejas made contact with Castro, who was sitting in the driver seat of the parked car. Officer Zendejas recognized the male sitting in the front passenger seat and another male lying in the backseat from prior encounters with them, and he knew they were minors. Officer Zendejas asked Castro if they had been smoking, and Castro responded that he had smoked marijuana two hours earlier. Castro also said he was 20 years old. Officer Zendejas testified, because the three males were “not allowed to possess or smoke marijuana under the age of 21,” the officers ordered them to exit the car and handcuffed them for officer safety (due to the area where the stop occurred and Officer Zendejas’s knowledge that Castro’s passengers were gang members).
The officers “conducted a narcotics investigation search” of Castro’s car and found a Xanax pill and one round of nine-millimeter ammunition in the closed center console of the car. Officer Zendejas opened the trunk and found an open duffle bag that contained an operational and loaded nine-millimeter handgun with no serial number on it. After Officer Organista advised Castro of his Miranda rights, Castro admitted the handgun was his.
Motions to Suppress Evidence From the Vehicle Search
Castro made a motion to suppress evidence from the vehicle search (§ 1538, subd. (a)(1)(A)), and the magistrate granted the motion and dismissed the case. On June 8, 2021, after hearing oral argument from the parties, the trial court granted the district attorney’s motion, concluding the magistrate erred as a matter of law in granting Castro’s motion to suppress evidence and subsequently dismissing the complaint. The court cited People v. Strasburg (2007) 148 Cal.App.4th 1052 in support of its conclusion the odor of marijuana and Castro’s age provided probable cause for the officers to search Castro’s car because Castro could not lawfully possess marijuana. The matter was sent back to the magistrate, and Castro was held to answer.
Automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement
Castro contends the trial court erred in declining to suppress the evidence from the warrantless vehicle search, arguing the search does not fall within the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.
“Under the so-called automobile exception[,] officers may search a vehicle without a warrant if it ‘is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband’ or evidence of criminal activity.” (People v. Johnson (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 1026.) Probable cause to search exists “where the known facts and circumstances are sufficient to warrant a [person] of reasonable prudence in the belief that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found.” (Ornelas v. U.S. (1996) 517 U.S. 690, 696.) “Once an officer has probable cause to search the vehicle under the automobile exception, they ‘may conduct a probing search of compartments and containers within the vehicle whose contents are not in plain view.’ ” (McGee, supra, 53 Cal.App.5th at p. 80.) Moreover, “ ‘[w]here such probable cause exists, a law enforcement officer may search the vehicle “irrespective of whether [the offense] is an infraction and not an arrestable offense.” ’ ” (Id. at p. 805, 266 Cal.Rptr.3d 650, quoting People v. Fews (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 553, 564.)
Issue: Whether the officers had probable cause to search Castro’s car under the automobile exception.
We are not evaluating a search incident to an arrest and, as explained above, where probable cause to search a vehicle under the automobile exception exists, “ ‘a law enforcement officer may search the vehicle “irrespective of whether [the offense] is an infraction and not an arrestable offense.” ’ ” (McGee, supra, 53 Cal.App.5th at p. 805, 266 Cal.Rptr.3d 650.)
The “strong odor” of “burnt marijuana” emanating from Castro’s car along with his admission he had smoked marijuana, and the fact all occupants of the car were under 21 years of age, provided probable cause for the officers to believe they would find contraband or evidence of a crime (e.g., marijuana possessed by someone under 21) in the car. Officer Zendejas’s belief “that there was still marijuana in the car based on the current smell of marijuana coming from inside the car” was reasonable under the circumstances of this case. The officers had probable cause to search the car under the automobile exception, and the trial court did not err in declining to suppress the evidence from the vehicle search.
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