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The People v. Rosland Nadine Torres et al

May 2, 2012

THE PEOPLE, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
ROSLAND NADINE TORRES ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND APPELLANTS.



(Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BA379379) APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Alex Ricciardulli, Judge. Reversed.

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

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Defendants Rosland Nadine Torres and Jnaya Nichole Dean pled no contest to charges of burglary (Pen. Code, § 459) and grand theft (§ 487, subd. (a)). On appeal, defendants challenge the trial court's ruling denying their motion to suppress evidence recovered during a warrantless entry and search of their hotel room. We reverse the judgment.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

We summarize the evidence in accordance with the rules governing review of a trial court order on a motion to suppress. (People v. Rios (2011) 193 Cal.App.4th 584, 589.) As there was no trial in the case, this background is taken from the evidence adduced at the hearing on defendants' suppression motion.

On December 21, 2010, security personnel at a hotel in Los Angeles contacted police about a burglary. A hotel guest reported several items were missing from her room, including a laptop computer and a Blackberry cell phone. Hotel personnel determined that a hotel engineer had unlocked the victim's hotel room door for two women. The engineer provided a description of the two women. A hotel security officer believed he had previously helped the two women enter a different hotel room, with their key. Hotel personnel also reviewed relevant video surveillance footage. They believed the suspects were still in the hotel.

Los Angeles police officers were directed to the room in which security personnel believed the suspects were staying. At the door, police noticed a "strong smell" of marijuana. One officer smelled marijuana when he was around two or three feet away from the door of the room. An officer knocked on the hotel door. When a woman opened the door, the smell of marijuana was stronger. The officers asked everyone in the room to step into the hallway. Defendants and two men came out of the room.*fn1 Police then conducted a "protective sweep" of the room. During the sweep, an officer noticed a Blackberry cell phone in plain view. There was a purse on a bed. The top of the purse was open; inside the officer saw a credit card in the victim's name. The officer looked in the purse to locate an identification card; he found Dean's identification. He saw what looked and smelled like marijuana ashes in an ashtray. Police also found a black laptop underneath a mattress.

Pursuant to Penal Code section 1538.5, defendants moved to suppress evidence found in the room. At the hearing on the motion, defendants argued there were no exigent circumstances permitting a warrantless entry of the hotel room, and there was no evidence a protective sweep was necessary. The trial court partially denied the suppression motion. The court concluded a protective sweep rationale did not permit the warrantless entry. However, the court determined there were exigent circumstances justifying the entry. The court stated police officers could lawfully enter the hotel room to prevent marijuana from being destroyed or from "going up in smoke." The court concluded evidence of items in plain view was admissible. However, it suppressed evidence of items seized that were not in plain view, including the laptop computer found under a mattress.

Defendants eventually pled no contest to burglary and grand theft charges. The trial court sentenced each defendant to three years of formal probation.

DISCUSSION

The Police Officers' Warrantless Entry Was Not Justified by Exigent Circumstances

Defendants contend the warrantless entry in this case was not justified by exigent circumstances and the evidence recovered in the hotel room should have been suppressed. The parties focus their arguments on whether the warrantless entry was lawful because the police officers reasonably believed it was necessary to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence.*fn2 When reviewing a trial court's denial of a motion to suppress, "we uphold [the trial court's] factual findings, whether express or implied, if they are supported by substantial evidence. [Citation.] We then exercise our independent judgment and 'measure the facts, as found by the trier, against the constitutional standard of reasonableness' to determine whether the search and seizure were lawful." (People v. Rios, supra, 193 Cal.App.4th at p. 589.) We conclude the warrantless entry was not lawful in this case.

"[A] guest room in a hotel is considered a home for purposes of the Fourth Amendment . . . . [¶] An exigent circumstance is needed for a warrantless entry into one's home regardless of the strength of the probable cause to arrest [citation] or the existence of a statute authorizing the arrest." (People v. Ortiz (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 286, 291 (Ortiz), citations omitted.) " '[S]earches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.' [Citation.]" (People v. Thompson (2006) 38 Cal.4th 811, 817 (Thompson).) However, "[t]he presumption of unreasonableness that attaches to a warrantless entry into the home 'can be overcome by a showing of one of the few "specifically established and well-delineated exceptions" to the warrant requirement [citation], such as " 'hot pursuit of a fleeing felon, or imminent destruction of evidence, . . . or the need to prevent a suspect's escape, or the risk of danger to the police or to other persons inside or outside the dwelling' " [citation]. The United States Supreme Court has indicated that entry into a home based on exigent circumstances requires probable cause to believe that the entry is justified by one of these factors such as the imminent destruction of evidence or the need to prevent a suspect's escape.' [Citation.]" (Id. at pp. 817-818.) In People v. Hua (2008) 158 Cal.App.4th 1027 (Hua), the Court of Appeal considered a situation very similar to that presented in this case. In Hua, police officers went to an apartment building to investigate a report of a noise disturbance. When they approached the apartment in question, they smelled burnt marijuana and, through a window, saw a person smoking what appeared to be marijuana. Several people were socializing in the house. (Id. at pp. 1030-1031.) Police entered the apartment without a warrant and discovered two marijuana cigarettes on a coffee table, marijuana plants, and a cane sword. (Id. at pp. 1031-1032.) The defendant was charged with cultivation and possession for sale of marijuana, and felony possession of a cane sword. (Id. at p. 1030.) The defendant moved to suppress the evidence seized during the warrantless entry. A magistrate, and later the trial court, denied the defendant's motion, concluding there were exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless entry. (Id. at pp. 1032-1033.)

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court order. In short, the court concluded that while the police officers had probable cause to believe a crime was being committed inside the defendant's apartment, the crime they observed was too minor to support a warrantless entry based on exigent circumstances. The Hua court relied on the United States Supreme Court's reasoning in Welsh v. Wisconsin (1984) 466 U.S. 740 (Welsh) and Illinois v. McArthur (2001) 531 U.S. 326 (McArthur), as well as the California Supreme Court's opinion in Thompson. Welsh and Thompson both involved police officers' warrantless entry into a DUI suspect's home in order to preserve evidence of the suspect's blood alcohol content. (Welsh, supra, at p. 753; Thompson, supra, 38 Cal.4th at pp. 816, 820-821.) McArthur concerned a police officer's detention of a suspect outside of his home, thereby preventing him from entering unaccompanied and destroying evidence of marijuana possession. (McArthur, supra, at p. 329.) In Welsh, the Supreme Court concluded the exigent circumstances exception did not justify the warrantless entry because in Wisconsin, the DUI offense was a ...


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