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The People v. Troy Corsby Thomas

October 28, 2011


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Antonio Barreto, Jr., Judge. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. SA070104)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Epstein, P. J.



Defendant Troy Thomas appeals from the denial of his motion to suppress evidence under Penal Code section 1538.5.*fn1 He contends that the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing of saliva he deposited on the mouthpiece of a preliminary alcohol screening (PAS) device constituted an illegal search. We disagree and affirm the judgment.


Defendant was a suspect in a series of residential burglaries that occurred between 2006 and 2008. Genetic material was collected in five of these burglaries. A witness to a sixth burglary picked defendant's photograph from a six-pack photographic line-up. In November 2007, police received an anonymous tip about defendant and placed him under surveillance. On December 1, 2008, he was stopped for traffic violations. His eyes were bloodshot and watery. Defendant performed sobriety tests and consented to a PAS breath test that required him to place his mouth over the plastic tip of the PAS device and blow into it. Defendant was let go after passing all tests, but instead of discarding the mouthpiece of the PAS device, the police preserved it for DNA testing. The DNA profile derived from the mouthpiece linked defendant to two burglaries. A DNA sample obtained after defendant's arrest matched genetic material recovered from five of the burglaries. Additional evidence implicating defendant in the burglaries was found when police searched his home pursuant to a warrant after his arrest.

Defendant was charged with six counts of first-degree residential burglary under section 459, as well as with prior felony enhancements under sections 1170.12, 667, and 667.5. His motion to suppress evidence was denied. Defendant pled no contest to a single burglary count and was sentenced to 17 years in prison under a plea agreement. This timely appeal followed.


Defendant contends that testing the mouthpiece of the PAS device for DNA was a search that could not be conducted without a warrant under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We conclude that the DNA test was not a search because defendant abandoned any privacy right he had in the saliva he deposited on the police device.

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable governmental searches and seizures. A search occurs only when a government activity intrudes on an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, measured by the individual's subjective expectation of privacy in the item searched and society's objective recognition of the reasonableness of the individual's subjective expectation of privacy. (People v. Gallego (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 388, 395 (Gallego), citing California v. Ciraolo (1986) 476 U.S. 207, 211; Katz v. United States (1967) 389 U.S. 347, 360-361 (conc. opn. of Harlan, J.).)*fn2 When an individual is compelled to provide a biological sample for analysis, the collection and subsequent analysis of the sample are treated as separate searches because they intrude on separate privacy interests. (See e.g. Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives' Assn. (1989) 489 U.S. 602, 616-617 [both collection and analysis of urine samples for mandatory suspicionless drug testing of railroad employees were searches because passing urine is traditionally done in private and urine analysis can reveal private medical facts].)

Courts recognize that current forensic DNA testing functions like genetic fingerprinting because it is used solely for purposes of identification. (See People v. Robinson (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1104, 1121 and cases cited in it.) Defendant urges us to acknowledge that DNA can reveal more personal information than a fingerprint. We need not make that distinction here. The potential use of a DNA sample for purposes other than identification may be relevant to the extent of the government's intrusion on an individual's right to privacy in cases where it is necessary to determine whether a search is reasonable. (See id. at p. 1120.) But to make the preliminary determination whether a government activity is a search, it is unnecessary to explore the entire spectrum of private information that DNA carries. Until placed in lawful custody, an individual has a recognized privacy interest in his or her identifying information. (See id. at p. 1121.) Thus, even when used solely for purposes of identification, DNA testing intrudes on the reasonable expectation of privacy that a defendant not yet in police custody would have in his identifying information.

The question is whether a defendant may assert a privacy interest in a DNA sample that the police surreptitiously obtain from a publicly discarded item or material. In Gallego, supra, 190 Cal.App.4th 388, a cigarette butt tossed by a murder suspect onto a sidewalk was collected and tested for DNA. The court concluded that the test did not constitute a search because the defendant could claim no privacy interest in the cigarette butt he had abandoned in a public place. (Id. at p. 395.) The court relied on California v. Greenwood (1988) 486 U.S. 35, 40-41 (Greenwood), where the United States Supreme Court found no reasonable expectation of privacy in garbage bags containing evidence of drug trafficking because the bags had been left at the curb for garbage collection. (Gallego, at p. 395.) The Gallego court analogized the DNA testing of the discarded cigarette butt to the lifting of fingerprints from discarded juice containers in People v. Ayala (2000) 24 Cal.4th 243, 278-279. (Gallego, at p. 398.)

The trial court similarly found that defendant had abandoned the mouthpiece of the PAS device because he did not ask the officers to give it to him after the PAS test was over or to tell him what they planned to do with it. Defendant argues that he could not have abandoned a part of a testing device supplied by the police; nor could he have abandoned the DNA he deposited on it unconsciously. The court in Gallego agreed that abandonment requires a voluntary and conscious act, but tossing a cigarette butt on the sidewalk was deemed to be such an act. (Gallego, supra, 190 Cal.App.4th at p. 395.) The out-of-state cases on which Gallego relied went further, finding no expectation of privacy where a defendant could claim no possessory or ownership right in the object on which the DNA was deposited. (Id. at p. 396). For instance, the defendant in Commonwealth v. Cabral (2007) 69 Mass.App.Ct. 68 [866 N.E.2d 429, 433] could not claim to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in saliva he spat on a public sidewalk. Similarly, in Commonwealth v. Perkins (2008) 450 Mass. 834 [883 N.E.2d 230, 238-240], the defendant, who had refused to give blood for DNA testing, was found not to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a soda can from which he drank during an interrogation. The can was provided by the police, and the defendant knew he could not take it out of the interrogation room. (Id. at p. 240, accord Piro v. State (2008) 146 Idaho 86 [190 P.3d 905, 909-910] [no expectation of privacy in water bottle provided by police in interrogation room].) Alternatively, the defendant abandoned any privacy interest when he failed to clean the can. (Commonwealth v. Perkins, at p. 240.)

By the same token, defendant in this case had no privacy right in the mouthpiece of the PAS device, which was provided by the police, and he abandoned any expectation of privacy in the saliva he deposited on this device when he failed to wipe it off. Whether defendant subjectively expected that the genetic material contained in his saliva would become known to the police is irrelevant since he deposited it on a police device and thus made it accessible to the police. The officer who administered the PAS test testified that used mouthpieces are normally discarded in the trash. Thus, any subjective expectation defendant may have had that his right to privacy would be ...

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