Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Supreme Court: Arrest Warrant Validates Search Even if Stop Is Illegal
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Evidence obtained by searching a vehicle after arresting a passenger pursuant to a valid warrant was admissible against the passenger even though the underlying traffic stop that led to discovery of the warrant was illegal, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
The justices upheld Bruce Brendlin’s conviction and four-year sentence for possession and manufacture of methamphetamine. It was their second decision in the case, which was sent back to them by the U.S. Supreme Court after it reversed a previous affirmance.
Brendlin was the passenger of a Buick that Sutter County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Charles Brokenbrough stopped in 2001 on the basis of expired registration tabs.
Although he learned that there was a pending application for the registration’s renewal, Brokenbrough directed the driver to pull over in order to investigate the validity of the temporary operating permit taped to the car’s rear window.
Testimony at a suppression hearing indicated that the deputy approached the car’s driver side and asked for the driver’s license, and upon recognizing Brendlin as a possible parolee at large and verifying that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest, ordered Brendlin out of the car at gunpoint and arrested him for parole violation.
During a search incident to the arrest, Brokenbrough found an orange syringe cap on Brendlin, along with drugs and drug paraphernalia on the driver and in the back seat of the car.
Brendlin moved to suppress the drug evidence, arguing that Brokenbrough’s detention of the Buick and its driver constituted an illegal seizure of his person that tainted all of the subsequently discovered evidence.
In denying the motion to suppress, Sutter Superior Court Judge Christopher R. Chandler held that Brendlin was seized not at the point of the traffic stop but rather when Brokenbrough commanded him to get out of the car and placed him under arrest. The defendant then pled guilty, subject to his right of appeal, and was sentenced to four years in prison.
The Court of Appeal reversed, reasoning that Brendlin was illegally detained as a result of the traffic stop and the stop itself was unlawful. But the high court, split 4-3, ruled that a passenger is not seized “as a constitutional matter” following a traffic stop because he or she need not submit to the officer’s show of authority.
Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for the majority, which included Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Joyce Kennard and Ming Chin. Justice Carol Corrigan dissented, joined by Justices Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Carlos R. Moreno. Corrigan said the ruling had “no sound basis in reason or policy.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, agreed with Corrigan, saying no reasonable passenger would have thought himself free to leave under the circumstances. The case was sent back to the state high court to consider whether there the search was valid based on the existence of the warrant.
Baxter said yesterday that it was.
“Case law from other state and federal courts uniformly holds that the discovery of an outstanding arrest warrant prior to a search incident to arrest constitutes an intervening circumstance that may—and, in the absence of purposeful or flagrant police misconduct, will—attenuate the taint of the antecedent unlawful traffic stop,” the justice wrote. “We join this chorus of cases and reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal....”
Baxter rejected the contention that allowing the search under these circumstances would encourage the police to randomly stop cars to run warrant checks on the occupants. While a search will not be upheld if it is “flagrantly or knowingly unconstitutional or is otherwise undertaken as a fishing expedition,” he wrote, here the deputy did not act pretextually or in bad faith.
The jurist also emphasized that the search did not take place until after the existence of the warrant had been confirmed.
The case is Brendlin v. California, 08 S.O.S. 6375.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company