A POWERFUL TOOL IN THE DEFENSE TOOLBOX: THE MOTION TO SUPPRESS
Here’s an interesting case that caught my eye: Narcotics officers in Colorado Springs observed a driver in his parked vehicle conducting what appeared to be a narcotics transaction. The officers made contact with the driver and after a brief struggle, they discovered a brown satchel containing cash and Ziploc bags near the vehicle. They then searched the vehicle and found controlled substances, firearms, and ammunition. The first question any good defense attorney would ask is, “What reasonable suspicion did the officers have for contacting and detaining the driver in the first place?” Why? Because the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires either a search warrant or a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that the driver has violated the law before a vehicle can be searched. The courts have fashioned many exceptions to this requirement but if an arrest is the result of a search without a warrant and without probable cause or any of the enumerated exceptions, the entire arrest can be challenged by a motion to suppress.
The Colorado case is particularly interesting because of the facts: The police got a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle, the vehicle was sold, and the new vehicle owner was the guy that ended up getting arrested. The police continued to track the vehicle even though there was evidence that they knew the vehicle had been sold. The officers testified that they surveilled the vehicle to see if the previous owner was still driving the car. It was during that surveillance that the new owner of the car was observed parking the car and was contacted by the officers, which ended up in the search of the vehicle and the driver’s arrest.
The defendant, arguing that the officers had no warrant and no probable cause, filed a motion to suppress the evidence derived from the search and ipso facto, the fruits (i.e., the arrest) of that search.
Even though the GPS tracking device was placed on the vehicle with a warrant, the court held that the subsequently discovered information that the vehicle had been sold rendered the search based on the warrant unconstitutional. Now you might ask, so the warrant was invalid but what about the reasonable suspicion? After all, the officers observed the parked vehicle with the driver inside conducting what appeared to be a narcotics transaction. Despite the now invalid warrant, isn’t that enough to establish that the officers had enough probable cause to contact the driver? No, because the police would not have observed this suspicious behavior had they not been tracking and surveilling the vehicle were it not for the GPS device.
There was another hurdle for this defendant to overcome. He had to convince the court that the officers did not makea reasonable mistake, which can be an exception to the Fourth Amendment search and seizure requirements. The Supreme Court has carved out the “good faith” exception, which permits the admission of evidence otherwise violative of the Fourth Amendment. Here that exception would apply if the police surveilling the vehicle did so in objectively reasonable reliance that the warrant was still valid. This exception is often a “catch-all” for the prosecution and ends up defeating what may have been a very strong motion to suppress. In this case, the court pointed to strong evidence that the police knew, or should have known, that the vehicle had been solved and therefore their reliance on the warrant was not “objectively reasonable.” Notice that the standard Is objective; it does not rely on what the officer believed.
The motion to suppress can be a powerful tool for the criminal defendant but the “stars have to line up” for the motion to be granted. There are hurdles to overcome and exceptions to defeat. And the courts don’t always take a liberal view of the motion. Nonetheless, motions to suppress are occasionally granted and that will usually end in the dismissal of the charges. This defendant in Colorado, although caught red-handed, successfully had all the evidence suppressed. The law that supported his motion applies equally to any defendant in California as this is Constitution issue by which the states must abide.
Criminal defense attorney William Weinberg is available to consult with you regarding any criminal matter. You can reach him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.