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Name: People v. Lee
Case #: D073740
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 4 DCA
Division: 1
Opinion Date: 10/03/2019

In granting defendant’s motion to suppress, trial court properly concluded that defendant’s post-Proposition 64 possession of a small amount of marijuana was of little relevance in assessing probable cause. Police pulled defendant Lee over based on Vehicle Code violations. During a pat-down search for identification, Officer Robles found a bag containing a small amount of marijuana and a wad of cash in Lee’s pocket. Robles searched the car and found cocaine, a gun, and other items related to selling narcotics. Charged with drug and weapons offenses, defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence. The trial court granted the motion, finding the initial stop was lawful but the officers did not have probable cause to search the vehicle. The People appealed. Held: Affirmed. Under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, police may conduct a warrantless search of a lawfully stopped automobile where there is probable cause to believe evidence of a crime or contraband may be found. Here, the People argued probable cause existed, citing the marijuana and cash in Lee’s pocket, $10 in cash on the center console, and Lee’s admission that he delivered medical marijuana. However, following the legalization of marijuana in 2016, California law now expressly provides that legal cannabis and related products “are not contraband” and their possession and/or use “shall not constitute the basis for detention, search, or arrest.” (Health & Saf. Code, § 11362.1, subd. (c).) There must be additional evidence—beyond mere possession of a legal amount of marijuana—that would cause a reasonable person to believe evidence of a crime may be found. The factors cited by the People were insufficient to establish probable cause. [Editor’s Note: The court distinguished pre-Proposition 64 cases addressing the role of marijuana in the probable cause analysis, noting these cases were decided before marijuana was legalized, or included evidence of illegal marijuana possession.]

Trial court properly concluded the search of defendant’s vehicle could not be justified by the inventory search exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. When a vehicle is impounded or otherwise in lawful police custody, an officer may conduct a warrantless search aimed at securing or protecting the vehicle and its contents. In determining whether a search is properly characterized as an inventory search, the focus is on the purpose of the impound, rather than the purpose of the inventory. The decision to impound must be justified by a community caretaking function, the absence of which suggests the impound is a pretext to investigate without probable cause. Here, the impound served no community caretaking function. There was no indication the car was blocking traffic or parked illegally, and Officer Robles refused Lee’s offer to have someone else pick up the car. The manner of the search also suggested an investigatory purpose. Robles repeatedly asked Lee if there was anything illegal in the car and searched in places where illegal items might be stashed, rather than where someone might normally keep valuables. After the search, Robles did not fill out the required impound inventory ARJIS-11 form or assist the officer who ultimately did. Also, Robles said he was impounding the car because Lee had a suspended license, but Lee was not cited for driving with a suspended license. Under the totality of the circumstances, substantial evidence supports the trial court’s finding that the focus of the search was finding incriminating evidence. To the extent an inventory search was authorized by statute in this context, this does not establish the search was constitutionally reasonable. Defendant’s suppression motion was properly granted.

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