Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, July 27, 2004


Page 3


S.C. Reverses Conviction of Man Caught With Cocaine Hidden In Truck Tire


From Staff and Wire Service Reports


The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously overturned the drug conviction and 12-year sentence of a San Diego man caught with 41 kilograms of cocaine.

The state’s top court unanimously ruled that searching a tire in the defendant’s yard and the subsequent search of the man’s residence violated his constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches.

The court ducked the long-running question of whether it would ever be legal in California to search a residence when its occupier is detained by police outside.

“The California Supreme Court has never addressed that issue,” Deputy Attorney General Sabrina Lane-Erwin said.

The defendant, Renato Celis, who is serving a 12-year sentence that began after his 2000 conviction, allegedly was part of a major California drug ring that transported cocaine from Mexico to Oakland.

Police were tailing the man and believed a vehicle tire he was rolling to an alley in his backyard was stuffed with cocaine. That is where authorities found other large caches of the drug in arresting others in the drug ring.

A task force of officers from California detained Celis at gunpoint in his backyard, searched the tire that contained 25 kilograms and went into the house, without a warrant, and found 16 kilograms more.

Justice Joyce Kennard said the officers were justified in detaining Celis on the basis of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. But the “protective sweep” of the residence, which the officers said was initiated to ensure their safety, was an illegal warrantless search, the justice said.

Such a sweep requires more than reasonable suspicion, and the circumstances did not warrant it, the justice said. She noted that Celis and another suspect found outside the house were unarmed, that the officers had no information that would cause them to believe someone was inside, and that they did not yet know that the tire contained cocaine.

“Unquestionably, the work of a police officer in the field is often fraught with danger. At any given moment, a seemingly safe encounter or confrontation with a citizen can suddenly turn into an armed and deadly attack on the officer,” the justice wrote. “Society’s interest in protecting police officers must, however, be balanced against the constitutionally protected interest of citizens to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar concurred separately. She argued that because the officers entered a private residence without a warrant and without probable cause, the search was illegal and the discussion of protective sweeps was unnecessary.

Lane-Erwin said “there was sufficient, reasonable suspicion to go in for the sweep.” She added that officers entered the house because the man’s spouse “was unaccounted for.”

“This case is about officer safety. I believe the officers took appropriate measures to protect themselves,” Lane-Erwin said.

Celis’ attorney, Nicholas DePento, did not return repeated calls to his San Diego office.

The case is People v. Celis, 04 S.O.S. 3863


Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company