Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Court Strikes Parole Search of Vehicle Passenger’s Purse
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A police officer conducting a parole search of a vehicle driven by a male parolee lacked authority to search the distinctly female purse he found on the floorboard of the seat from which the car’s only female passenger had just exited, the Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Reversing Wendy Nichole Baker’s conviction for possession of methamphetamine, the court held that Baker did not impliedly consent to her purse’s search when she failed to assert ownership over the purse and left it in the vehicle during the parole search.
The court also ruled that the officer had no reasonable basis to conclude that the male parolee had common authority over the purse, and instructed the trial court to grant Baker’s motion to suppress and allow her to withdraw her plea.
Baker was arrested after the car in which she was riding was stopped for speeding. The only passenger, she was seated in the front passenger seat with her purse at her feet.
When the officer approached the car, the male driver stated that he was on active parole. Confirming this information, the officer decided to search the car pursuant to the terms of the driver’s parole, and asked Baker to exit, which she did, without taking her purse or asserting ownership of it.
The officer searched the entire car and found nothing. He then searched the purse and found a folded tinfoil packet containing a small usable amount of methamphetamine.
Baker admitted the purse was hers after the officer also found her California identification card inside.
She pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge after Kern Superior Court Judge Charles P. McNutt denied her motion to suppress the methamphetamine, and was placed on probation for three years.
However, Justice Rebecca A. Wiseman wrote on appeal that McNutt should have granted the motion.
Wiseman first pointed out that there was no argument that probable cause had existed to conduct a warrantless search of the purse, and rejected the prosecution’s argument that the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in New York v. Belton (1981) 453 U.S. 454—that the lawful custodial arrest of a vehicle’s occupant permits officers to contemporaneously search the passenger compartment and any containers—extends to a case where no one had yet been arrested.
She then rejected the contention that the driver’s consent, given in advance as a condition of his parole, gave the officer authority to search Baker’s purse.
Noting that the driver could only grant consent if he possessed joint access or control over the purse that would make it reasonable to recognize that he had the right to permit its inspection, Wiseman opined that there was no reasonable basis to believe the purse belonged to anyone other than the female passenger.
“[S]imply because a container is clearly designed for a person other than the parolee does not mean it may never be searched,” she wrote. “However, a purse is not generally an object for which two or more persons share common use or authority…. Here, there is nothing to overcome the obvious presumption that the purse belonged to the sole female occupant of the vehicle who was not subject to a parole-condition search.”
Wiseman similarly concluded that Baker’s failure to protest the search or assert a claim of ownership over the purse did not constitute implied consent, prove joint ownership and control, or suggest an intention to relinquish her ownership interest.
Noting Baker’s testimony that she “didn’t know” why she left the purse, Wiseman wrote:
“While the meaning of this statement is not entirely clear, it prevents any inference that Baker knowingly consented to have her purse searched.”
Justices Steven M. Vartabedian and Brad R. Hill joined Wiseman in her opinion.
The case is People v. Baker, F052913.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company