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Name: People v. Johnson
Case #: B282810
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 2 DCA
Division: 7
Opinion Date: 03/28/2018

Warrantless search of defendant’s car, which was located two blocks from the site where he was arrested, was not valid as a search incident to arrest, but was supported by probable cause. While monitoring a housing development via closed circuit television, police saw Johnson engage in a hand-to-hand drug sale. He then left the area in his car, but returned a short time later. When Johnson was about two blocks away from his car, he was arrested. No drugs or money were found on his person. Officers then drove to his car and saw a small bag of marijuana in it. The car was searched and drugs were found. The trial court denied Johnson’s suppression motion, finding that officers had probable cause to arrest him and to search his car for evidence. Johnson entered a plea to selling cocaine base, and admitted a prior strike conviction. He appealed the denial of his suppression motion. Held: Affirmed. Under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, officers may search a vehicle if it is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it carries evidence of criminal activity. Here, officers saw Johnson sell one of several off-white, rock-like substances. However, when he was arrested, no drugs were found. Because Johnson had used his car after the drug sale but prior to his arrest, officers had a basis to believe that he left the other rocks in his car and that a search of the vehicle would yield evidence of criminal activity. This provided probable cause under the automobile exception to the prohibition against warrantless searches.

The search of defendant’s car was not a valid search incident to a recent occupant’s arrest. A search incident to lawful arrest is an exception to the rule prohibiting warrantless searches. It is reasonable for officers to search the arrestee’s person and areas within his reach to remove any available weapons and to seize evidence to prevent its destruction. (Chimel v. California (1969) 395 U.S. 752.) When the occupant of a vehicle is arrested, officers may search the passenger compartment of the vehicle as well as any containers therein (New York v. Belton (1981) 453 U.S. 454). This doctrine has been extended to “recent occupants” of vehicles if the arrestee is within reach of the vehicle, or the police believe the vehicle contains evidence relevant to the crime of arrest (Arizona v. Gant (2009) 556 U.S. 332). Because Johnson’s car was two blocks away from the site of his arrest, its search was not a valid search incident to arrest.

Although defendant’s trial attorney failed to renew the motion to suppress in the superior court, his search issue was not forfeited. A defendant may appeal the denial of his motion to suppress evidence after a guilty plea (Pen. Code, § 1538.5, subd. (m)). The failure to renew the motion after the filing of the information ordinarily forfeits the issue on appeal (People v. Lilienthal (1978) 22 Cal.3d 891, 896). However, Johnson was told by the trial court he could appeal the denial of his suppression motion and, because of this representation, the Attorney General did not argue the issue was forfeited.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: