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The People v. Vernon Evans

November 4, 2011

THE PEOPLE, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
VERNON EVANS, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Patricia M. Schnegg, Judge. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BA363605)

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

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Reversed and remanded with directions.

INTRODUCTION

Officers stopped defendant and appellant Vernon Evans after they observed him commit traffic violations. When Evans refused to comply with a command to exit his automobile, officers broke the vehicle's window, tased and pepper-sprayed him, forcibly removed him from the car, and arrested him for interfering with a police investigation. A warrantless search of the vehicle at the scene revealed 11 empty sandwich baggies and $65 in cash, but no contraband. A second warrantless search of the car at an impound yard revealed cocaine hidden in an air vent. After the trial court denied Evans's motion to suppress the baggies, cash, and cocaine, Evans pleaded no contest to violating Health and Safety Code section 11352, subdivision (a). Because the searches of his vehicle were not authorized under either the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement (Arizona v. Gant (2009) __ U.S. __ [129 S.Ct. 1710] (Gant)) or the automobile exception, they violated the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, we reverse.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

An information filed on November 19, 2009, charged Evans with the sale, transport, or offer to sell a controlled substance (Health & Saf. Code, § 11352, subd. (a)) (count 1); possession of cocaine base for sale (Health & Saf. Code, § 11351.5) (count 2); and misdemeanor resisting, obstructing, or delaying an officer (Pen. Code, § 148, subd. (a)(1)) (count 3). It was further alleged that Evans had served two prior prison terms within the meaning of Penal Code section 667.5, subdivision (b).

1. Motion to suppress.

Evans moved to suppress evidence on the ground that the warrantless searches of his vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment. (Pen. Code, § 1538.5.) A hearing was conducted, at which the following evidence was adduced.

a. People's evidence.

On the evening of September 27, 2009, Los Angeles Police Department (L.A.P.D.) Gang Enforcement Officer Kevin Currie and his partner, Officer Prodigalidad,*fn1 were on patrol in Los Angeles when they observed Evans driving a black car northbound on West Boulevard, approaching Slauson Avenue. Evans turned eastbound on Slauson without signaling, a violation of the Vehicle Code. Evans's driving was erratic. When making the turn onto Slauson, Evans entered the middle of the second lane. He veered to the left, veered to the right, veered back to the left, and then veered so far to the right that he nearly hit the curb. He made a right turn onto Brynhurst Avenue, again veering to the left and then to the right. Evans stopped "on the curb just south of Slauson."

Due to Evans's erratic driving and the traffic violation, Officers Currie and Prodigalidad pulled up immediately behind Evans's car and exited their patrol vehicle. Currie approached the driver's side, while Prodigalidad approached the opposite side, where passenger Maurice Cash was seated. Evans appeared "very nervous." He was attempting to use a cellular telephone, and his hands were shaking. Currie told Evans to put the phone down, turn off the engine, and roll down his window. Evans complied, partially opening the window.

Evans's nervousness, coupled with the facts that the stop occurred at night, in an area claimed as the territory of the Rolling 60's criminal street gang, prompted Currie to ask Evans to step out of the car. Evans did not comply, but instead asked why he had been stopped. Currie explained the basis for the stop. Currie and Evans "went back and forth," with Currie asking Evans to exit the vehicle at least 10 times, and Evans repeatedly asking why he had been stopped. Evans asked to speak to a supervisor. Currie replied that a supervisor was on the way. Evans's reluctance to exit the vehicle appeared unusual to Currie; in his experience, most motorists comply with a direction to exit their cars "once you explain everything to them as [he] did." As Currie and Evans conversed, Evans continued to appear exceptionally nervous. Evans's voice "shuddered" and cracked. His hands continued to shake. Currie--who had been an officer for more than eight years and had conducted over 1,000 traffic stops--explained that Evans "appeared more nervous than most people I've ever come in contact with on a traffic stop." Evans's refusal to exit his car indicated to Currie that "something was wrong."

Currie told Evans he would use pepper spray or a taser if Evans continued to refuse to get out of his car. Evans continued to refuse. When additional police units arrived approximately 10 minutes later, Currie sprayed a small amount of oleoresin capsicum spray into the car through the window, which was open approximately one-half inch. Evans rolled up the window and remained in the car, staring forward. Another officer broke the driver's side window. Evans was tased and removed from the car. He was placed face down on the ground, with officers on top of him, and arrested for interfering with an investigation (Pen. Code, § 148) based on his refusal to exit his automobile.

After Evans was immobilized on the ground, Officer Prodigalidad searched Evans's car. He discovered 11 clear, empty sandwich baggies and approximately $65 in cash in the vehicle's front center console. The car was taken to the police impound yard. Evans was apparently taken to the hospital.

Approximately 10 minutes after leaving the scene, Officer Currie arrived at the police station and performed background checks on Evans and Cash. Within five minutes he learned that Cash was on parole, Evans had previously been on probation, and Evans had previously been arrested for murder.*fn2 Police conducting a search of Evans's vehicle related to that earlier arrest had discovered a firearm in the car's air vent. After Currie ascertained that Prodigalidad had not searched the vehicle's air vents, both officers went to the impound yard and conducted a second search of the car, where they discovered rock cocaine in the air vent. Their decision to search was due to Evans's behavior, the "totality" of circumstances of the traffic stop, and the fact that a gun had previously been discovered in the air vent of Evans's vehicle.

b. Defense evidence.

The general manager of the tow yard testified that Evans's vehicle had been inventoried by a company employee assigned to drive the car from the site of the stop to the yard. That inventory listed only the items which were in ...


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