Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, January 3, 2022


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Court of Appeal:

Suspicion of People-Smuggling at Border Justified Vehicle Stop

Opinion by Wiley Upholds Beckloff’s Denial of Writ in DMV License-Yanking Case  


By a MetNews Staff Writer


A law enforcement officer justifiably pursued a minivan that was spotted in a restricted area a few yards from the Mexican border which, when the driver spotted the patrol car, sped off, the Court of Appeal for this district held on Thursday, saying the officer reasonably suspected the motorist of smuggling aliens into the United States and therefore had good cause to initiate a vehicle stop.

As it turned out, the driver, Steve Louis Elmore, was not engaged in smuggling but was, apparently, driving while intoxicated. The border patrol officer who stopped him phoned for assistance by the San Diego Police Department; Officer John Cochran arrived on the scene and advised Elmore that a refusal to submit to a chemical test would result in a one-year suspension of his driver’s license; Elmore refused; after a hearing the Department of Motor Vehicles yanked his license.

Justice John Shepard Wiley Jr. of Div. Eight wrote the opinion affirming Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff’s order denying Elmore’s petition for a writ of administrative mandamus.

“Ponce reasonably suspected the minivan was involved with illegal smuggling,” Wiley declared. “Objective circumstances justified his decision to stop it and to investigate.”

Recitation of Facts

Wiley, whose writing style is distinctive and draws praise, described the circumstances giving rise to the patrol officer’s suspicion in these words:

“A little past midnight and about 15 yards north of the Mexican border, Miguel Ponce of the Border Patrol sat in his parked cruiser. He was on the lookout for people cutting through the border fence and running to large vehicles, like minivans, that would take them away. After 17 years on the job, Ponce anticipated this tactic.

“A black minivan drove into this restricted area, which was off limits to the general public; this commercial lot was limited to daytime tractor-trailers bound for Mexico and waiting to pass through the nearby port of passage between the nations. Cars entering this area by mistake and seeing a patrol car typically asked for directions. ‘They don’t normally just go in, do a U-turn and then take off.’

“There was ‘a lot of ambient lighting’ that made Ponce’s marked car ‘pretty visible.’ The setting meant the minivan driver saw Ponce’s car. The minivan got about 20 yards from Ponce and then U-turned abruptly; its tires made a ‘squelch’ sound. Ponce heard the driver rev his engine as the minivan ‘fled off’ at a ‘high rate of speed’ that was ‘definitely faster than what cars drive in that area normally.’ Ponce decided to follow and to stop the minivan.”

Terry Stop Authorized

Alluding to the brief investigatory detention authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in Terry v. Ohio, Wiley said, citing opinions amplifying on Terry:

“Sighting and then fleeing police in a high crime area creates a reasonable suspicion that warrants a Terry stop…. “The federal law on this topic governs us. We are not permitted a state law departure.”

Second Argument

Elmore also argued that the suspension must be set aside because Cochran had neglected to read one sentence of the prescribed warning:

“Refusal or failure to complete a test will also result in a fine and imprisonment if this arrest results in a conviction of driving under the influence.”

Wiley, labeling the contention “insubstantial,” said:

“The Department is not seeking a fine or imprisonment. When police give an incomplete admonition about the consequences of refusing chemical testing, the law limits the permissible sanction to the extent of actual notice….This counts as ‘common sense.’ ”

The case is Elmore v. Gordon, 2021 S.O.S. 6863.


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