Tuesday, July 8, 2003
Appeals Court: Blanket Nighttime Stop-and-Frisk Policy in High Crime Area Unconstitutional
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A concern for police officer safety does not justify a blanket policy of detaining and frisking drivers stopped for equipment infractions in a high crime areas at night, this district’s Court of Appeal has ruled.
The Fourth Amendment “does not permit such an intrusion,” Justice Steven Perren wrote for the court’s Div. Six in an opinion filed Thursday. The decision reverses the cocaine possession conviction of Ramon Medina, who pled guilty after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Fahey denied his suppression motion.
Perren rejected the contention that the combination of time of day and crime risk were sufficient to justify a stop and frisk under Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1.
Medina was stopped by two Los Angeles police officers last year for driving with a broken taillight near Olympic Boulevard and Alvarado Street. Perren noted that one of the officers conceded at the suppression hearing there “wasn’t anything specific” about the 49-year-old Medina that led him to believe Medina was armed.
The officer testified he decided to search Medina because the stop took place in a “high-gang location.” He explained that he then “grabbed” Medina’s hands and asked him if he had any weapons, sharp objects, “or anything he should know of prior to the search.”
Medina responded that he had a “rock” in his pants. The officer found rock cocaine in Medina’s pocket and, after he was arrested, another small amount of cocaine in his car.
Perren said Medina’s statement could not be used as a justification for the subsequent search. The officer “testified that he set out to conduct a patdown pursuant to his ‘standard procedure,’ and his act of securing Medina’s hands behind his head was part and parcel of that search,” the justice explained.
“The only reason for restraining Medina’s hands and searching him was the time and location of the stop. Apparently, anyone observed to be driving in that area at night with a citable equipment defect would be stopped and subjected to a patdown search. The Fourth Amendment plainly prohibits the police from employing such a procedure.”
Nor, Perren wrote, was Medina’s statement a “spontaneous confession” that could save the drugs from suppression as the fruits of an illegal search under People v. Loudermilk (1987) 195 Cal.App.3d 996 and People v. Sims (1993) 5 Cal.4th 405. The statement was not “an intervening act that was sufficiently independent of the unlawful search and seizure” to justify application of that line of cases, the justice explained.
“Because the officer’s question could reasonably be interpreted to mean that the search would not be limited to weapons, Medina cannot be faulted for revealing that which he believed would be inevitably discovered. Moreover, the question was asked and answered while Officer Lopez had Medina’s hands secured behind his head. Although individuals generally are under no obligation to answer questions posed to them during a routine traffic stop that are unrelated to the purpose of the stop..., the elements of coercion present here prevent us from relying on that principle.”
Perren said the appellate court was “mindful” of concerns for the lives and safety of officers conducting traffic stops under potentially dangerous circumstances. But he rejected Fahey’s reasoning, in denying the suppression motion, that “additional steps short of arrest are permissible for officer safety” in such situations and the need for them had been “reasonably articulated” by the arresting officers.
Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert and Justice Paul Coffee joined in the opinion authored by Perren.
San Francisco attorney Geri Lynn Green, who represented Medina on appeal, said yesterday that while the decision followed established law, it would be welcomed by the criminal defense bar.
“A happy decision is usually an oxymoron in my business,” Green said. “California courts have for too long turned away from addressing violations of constitutional rights.”
This tendency has had the “unintended consequence” of encouraging police officers to “incorporate violative acts into their standard operating procedures,” Green asserted.
“The courts have not been addressing the issue in published opinions in this way for a long time,” the attorney added.
A MetNews telephone call to the deputy attorney general who handled the case on appeal was not returned yesterday.
The case is People v. Medina, 03 S.O.S. 3546.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company