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People v. Cervantes

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, First Division

May 18, 2017

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
JAIME E. CERVANTES, Defendant and Appellant.


         Appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court of San Diego County, No. SCD264150 Michael S. Groch and Joseph A. Brannagan, Judges. Affirmed.

          David W. Beaudreau, under appointment by the Court of Appeal, for Defendant and Appellant.

          Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, Gerald A. Engler, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Julie L. Garland, Assistant Attorney General, Genevieve Herbert, A. Natasha Cortina and Kristen Kinnaird Chenelia, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

          HALLER, J.

         Police validly stopped defendant Jaime Cervantes for driving with expired vehicle registration. They searched his vehicle after they learned that the adult female riding in the front passenger seat had provided them with a false identity and was subject to a felony warrant and probation search condition. Police initially discovered large quantities of illegal drugs and paraphernalia in a closed toiletries bag and an opaque plastic drawstring bag in the backseat behind the driver. They continued their search and found more methamphetamine in the front center console. They arrested defendant, who admitted to transporting drugs for sale.

         Defendant moved to suppress the seized drugs and his confession on the basis the officers were unjustified in searching the bags in the backseat because the probationer on whom the police justified their search was female, yet the closed bags in the backseat undisputedly contained male toiletries and clothing. After the trial court denied the motion, defendant pleaded guilty to transporting drugs for sale. The trial court granted him probation, one of the conditions of which requires him to submit to warrantless and suspicionless searches of his electronic devices and social media accounts.

         On appeal, defendant contends the trial court erred by denying his suppression motion. The contention lacks merit. The policy considerations articulated by the California Supreme Court in People v. Schmitz (2012) 55 Cal.4th 909 (Schmitz), which upheld a search of personal items in the backseat of a car based on a front seat passenger's status as a parolee, justify the search of defendant's center console based on his passenger's status as a probationer. The discovery of illegal drugs there would inevitably have led to the discovery of the drugs in the bags located in the backseat. Thus, the trial court did not err in denying defendant's suppression motion.

         Defendant also challenges the reasonableness and constitutionality of the electronics search condition of his probation. The challenges lack merit.

         We affirm.


         Defendant's October 18, 2015 Arrest

         On October 18, 2015, San Diego Police Officer Peter Larson and his partner, Officer Thomas Cooper, stopped "a four-door compact sedan" (a 2001 Toyota Corolla) for having expired registration. Defendant was driving. A female sitting in the front passenger seat identified herself to Officer Larson as Sarah Craft. After a computer-based record search returned no information for Sarah Craft, Officer Larson learned that the passenger's real name was Tiffany Craft. Records indicated she had "a felony warrant and a valid [F]ourth waiver."[2] Officer Cooper detained Craft outside of the car.

         Officer Larson told defendant he was "going to search his vehicle." Defendant wanted to know why and asked to speak to a sergeant. Officer Larson called his sergeant to the scene. After speaking with the sergeant, defendant got out of his car. Officer Larson then searched defendant's car.

         Officer Larson began by searching two bags he found on the driver's side backseat that were "within arm's reach of where the passenger was sitting." He first searched a "toiletries bag" that was zipped closed. He saw "numerous men's toiletries" (deodorant, shaving cream, and razors) and a black pouch. Officer Larson opened the pouch and found "numerous items, " including "one small clear plastic bag with a crystalline material inside" that he believed was methamphetamine. He told Officer Cooper to handcuff defendant. Officer Larson continued to search the pouch and found 4.46 grams of heroin (about 80 dosage units), a digital scale, and a cigar cutter (commonly used to cut narcotics for sale).

         Officer Larson then searched the other bag, which was an opaque gray plastic bag with the drawstrings drawn closed. He untied the drawstring and "immediately noticed men's boxers, " "men's white tennis shoes, " and "men's body wash." He continued searching the bag and found an opaque Tupperware container. Officer Larson opened the container and found 185.65 grams of methamphetamine ("well in excess of 3600 dosage units").

         Craft never claimed ownership of either bag, and Officer Larson never saw her try to grab or look at them.

         Officer Larson then searched the center console, [3] where he found two "orange zipper bags, and inside one was the same material which [he] believed was methamphetamine." He also found two cell phones in the car.

         After Officer Larson completed his search of defendant's car, Officer Cooper searched defendant and found a glass pipe and about $300 in cash. The officers arrested defendant and transported him to the police station. After being read his Miranda rights, [4] defendant told Officer Cooper that a man named Carlos had been paying him to transport methamphetamine once or twice per month from Los Angeles to San Diego, where "[h]e gave it to another man to sell."[5]

         Defendant was released on bail.

         Defendant's October 20, 2015 Arrest

         Two days after his arrest, a patrolman stopped defendant in his car for having tinted windows. Defendant acknowledged his recent arrest and admitted to having used drugs the day of his October 18 arrest. A search of his car revealed 17.1 grams of methamphetamine (approximately 342 dosage units) and a glass pipe. Defendant was arrested again.

         Defendant's Suppression Motions

         In connection with his October 18 arrest, the People charged defendant with one count of transporting methamphetamine (Health & Saf. Code, § 11379, subd. (a)), with an allegation that he was transporting in excess 28.5 grams (Pen. Code, [6] § 1203.073, subd. (b)(2)); and one count of transporting heroin (Health & Saf. Code, § 11352, subd. (a)). In connection with his October 20 arrest, the People charged defendant with one count of transporting methamphetamine. (Health & Saf. Code, § 11379, subd. (a).) The People alleged as to all counts that the drugs were not for personal use. (§ 1210, subd. (a).)

         Before the preliminary hearing, defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained and statements he made in connection with his October 18 and 20 arrests.[7]The prosecution argued the October 18 search was justified under Schmitz, supra, 55 Cal.4th 909, which held that "a vehicle search based on a passenger's parole status may extend beyond the parolee's person and the seat he or she occupies, " but "is confined to those areas of the passenger compartment where the officer reasonably expects that the parolee could have stowed personal belongings or discarded items when aware of police activity." (Id. at p. 926.) Defendant agreed Schmitz was controlling, but argued Officer Larson's search exceed the permissible scope. At the preliminary hearing, the trial court (Hon. Frederic L. Link) found the search was "valid and legal" because "the items were within the reach of the female" who "had a Fourth waiver." The court denied the suppression motion and bound defendant over for trial.

         Defendant renewed his suppression motion (§ 1538.5, subd. (i)) and moved to dismiss the case (§ 995). He again acknowledged Schmitz was controlling, but argued Officer Larson exceeded the permissible scope of a Fourth-waiver search because it was immediately apparent that the toiletries bag and plastic drawstring bag contained male items. The prosecution responded that the search was within the bounds of Schmitz because the exterior of the bags appeared gender-neutral or, in any event, because "the center console contained narcotics, " was "absolutely within arm's reach of the felon passenger, " and thus the "officers could have started their search there and moved to the back seat, resulting in the inevitable discovery of the methamphetamine." The trial court (Hon. Joseph P. Brannagan) found the decision made by the judge at the preliminary hearing was a close call, but not unreasonable: "So on a close call like this, I can't say that Judge Link's finding is unreasonable. I would need to find it unreasonable in order to overturn it, and I can't make that finding." The court denied defendant's motions.

         Guilty ...

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