Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, December 18, 2009


Page 1


C.A. Expands Good-Faith Exception to Exclusionary Rule

Divided Panel Says Evidence Is Admissible Where Search Was Legal When It Occurred




The good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule renders evidence admissible where the warrantless search by which it was obtained was legal when it occurred, even if invalid under subsequent case law, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.

“Although it may be that a ‘criminal is to go free because the constable has blundered’...the guilty should not go free when the constable did precisely what the United States Supreme Court told him he could do, but the court later decides it is the one who blundered,” Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland wrote for the court.

Justice George Nicholson concurred, but Justice Ronald Robie dissented, saying his colleagues were ignoring precedent requiring that new search-and-seizure case law be applied to pending cases.

Conviction Affirmed

The court affirmed Jasper Branner’s conviction and six-year sentence on a charge of possessing cocaine base, as a second offense. He pled no contest and admitted the prior conviction in exchange for dismissal of charges of transporting cocaine base while armed and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.

Branner’s Jeep Wagoneer was stopped by police who were observing vehicles coming and going at a Sacramento apartment complex where drug sales were believed to be taking place. They knew Branner as a person required to register as a drug offender under Health and Safety Code Sec. 11590, and noticed that his rear license plate light was not working and that a headlight was misaligned, according to testimony at a suppression hearing.

When the vehicle stopped and a passenger got out and urinated on the wall of one of the apartment buildings, the officers detained Branner for violating the Vehicle Code. After he produced his driver’s license, the officers ran a records check, confirmed that he was a registered drug offender, and asked him if he lived at the address shown by his drug offender registration.

Drug Offender Registration

When he responded that he had moved eight to 12 months earlier, the police arrested him for violation of Sec. 11594, making it a misdemeanor for a registered drug offender to fail to update the registration within 10 days of changing residences. They searched the vehicle, discovering drugs and a gun.

“The entire encounter, from urination to arrest, took approximately 15 minutes,” Scotland explained.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Troy L. Nunley denied the motion to suppress, and Branner entered his plea.

In its initial ruling, on April 20 of this year, the court affirmed. In doing so, it cited Atwater v. City of Lago Vista (2001) 532 U.S. 318, holding that police may arrest a person who in the officer’s presence commits “even a very minor criminal offense,” and New York v. Belton (1981) 453 U.S. 454, when an officer “has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile” and “any containers found” there, even if the person arrested is no longer in the car.

Supreme Court Ruling

The day after the ruling, however, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gant (2009) 173 L.Ed.2d 485, holding that officers “may search incident to arrest only the space within an arrestee’s ‘immediate control,’ meaning ‘the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence’” and thus could not search the vehicle after the arrestee had been secured, absent reason to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the arrest offense.

The Third District panel then granted rehearing to determine whether Gant required a different result in Branner’s appeal.

Scotland, writing for the court, agreed that Gant renders the search of Branner’s vehicle illegal. But that’s a different question than whether the evidence obtained by illegal search may be admitted, the presiding justice wrote.

He cited a line of cases beginning with United States v. Leon (1984) 468 U.S. 897, which held that evidence obtained as a result of an officer’s good-faith reliance on a search warrant is admissible, even if the warrant is later determined to be invalid.

 Later cases extended the good-faith exception to cases in which officers relied on a statute, later held unconstitutional, authorizing a warrantless administrative search; on a record in a court database, later found to be erroneous, showing the existence of an outstanding arrest warrant; and on an “isolated” instance of negligent bookkeeping by a police employee, likewise resulting in an erroneous record of an outstanding warrant.

Scotland wrote:

“We conclude the reasoning of Leon, [Illinois v.] Krull [(1987) 480 U.S. 340], [Arizona v.] Evans [(1995) 514 U.S. 1], and Herring [v. United States (2009) 172 L.Ed.2d 496], must be extended to the officers’ search in this case. Just as the officers in Leon, Krull, and Evans could not be faulted for relying on judges’ decisions or information provided by a court clerk, surely the officers here cannot be faulted for acting in conformity with the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Belton which, for more than a quarter century, had uniformly been understood and applied by other courts to allow the officers to conduct the vehicle search incident to arrest even though defendant was in the back of a patrol car.”

To rule otherwise, Scotland wrote, “would be unjustified because it would not advance the purpose of the exclusionary rule, it would offend basic concepts of the criminal justice system by allowing a guilty and possible dangerous criminal to go free, and it would damage public confidence in the judicial system.”

The presiding justice also reiterated the court’s previous holding that People v. McGaughran (1979) 25 Cal.3d 577, authorizing suppression of evidence obtained as a result of an unduly prolonged detention for a minor offense, is no longer good law because it goes beyond the federal rule and has thus been superseded by the “truth-in-evidence” provision of Proposition 8, the 1982 enactment that largely eliminated independent state grounds for the exclusion of illegally obtained evidence.

Robie, dissenting, argued that “the choice between advancing the deterrent purpose of the exclusionary rule or treating Branner the same as Gant is not mine (or the majority’s) to make.” The Supreme Court, he said, has ruled on numerous occasions that a “new rule” of criminal procedure, including a change in the court’s search-and-seizure jurisprudence, is to apply to pending cases, including those in which a defendant has been convicted but has not exhausted appeals.

“In my opinion,” he wrote, “we cannot draw a distinction between the rule and the remedy with respect to the retroactivity of Gant, such that the rule regarding the permissibility of a vehicle search incident to arrest is retroactive but the remedy for the violation of that rule—suppression of evidence—is not.”

A ruling in Branner’s favor would not be “foolish,” Robie said, because “the Supreme Court has decided that advancing the deterrent purpose of the rule is less important than honoring the paramount principle of treating similarly situated defendants the same” and nothing in the cases cited by Scotland “suggests the court has changed its mind on this point.”

The case is People v. Branner, 09 S.O.S. 7098.


Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company