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California Court of Appeal: Unoccupied Running Vehicle Doesn’t Justify Warrantless Search of Residence

Division One of the Fourth Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal ruled that an unoccupied vehicle left running in a driveway satisfied neither the “emergency aid exception” nor the “exigent circumstances exception” to justify the warrantless search of a residence. The Court further ruled that Senate Bill No. 136 (“SB 136”) limiting sentence enhancements based on prior convictions applied retroactively to cases not final as of January 1, 2020.

In December 2014, officers from the Palm Springs Police Department responded to a call that an unoccupied vehicle had been left running in the driveway of a residence for about 30 minutes. The car was determined to be owned by a rental company. One of the officers later testified at a suppression hearing that they became concerned that an occupant of the residence might be in distress or that crime was afoot. The residence was dark and no noise came from inside. A porch light was on. They rang the front doorbell and knocked but received no response. About 10 feet from the front door and under the same roofline, officers discovered another door which they believed opened to the main residence (but the door actually opened to a casita that lacked access to the front door). Finding the door unlocked, they opened it and announced “police.” They stepped into the room and discovered Skylar Damon Smith, along with drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine.

The Riverside County District Attorney filed an information charging Smith with five counts, including possession of methamphetamine and heroin. Then in September 2015, Smith was involved in a motorcycle accident and was hospitalized. The motorcycle had to be towed. Police conducting an inventory search discovered methamphetamine, cash, and a loaded firearm. The prosecutor amended the information to charge five additional counts. The cases were consolidated and all 10 counts were tried together.

Smith moved to suppress all evidence obtained from the casita, arguing the search and seizure were unreasonable. The trial court denied his motion. A jury convicted Smith of all 10 counts, and the trial court also found that Smith had two prior convictions: one for assault likely to cause great bodily injury and one for possessing a firearm. The trial court imposed a sentence of 10 years, eight months in prison, including consecutive terms of one year each for the priors.

Smith appealed, arguing, inter alia, that the trial court erred when it denied his suppression motion. The Court of Appeal affirmed. However, the California Supreme Court granted review, transferred the case back to the Court of Appeal, and instructed that court to vacate their decision and to reconsider the cause in light of People v. Ovieda, 446 P.3d 262 (Cal. 2019). While the cause was pending in the Court of Appeal, the Legislature enacted SB 136 - which amended Penal Code § 667.5(b) to limit one-year prison terms for prior convictions to only those cases where the prior was for “a sexually violent offense as defined in ... the Welfare and Institutions Code [§ 6600(b)].” The amended statute became effective January 1, 2020.

The Court of Appeal observed that the Fourth Amendment of the federal constitution prohibits the government from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures of private property. Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009). Warrantless searches are unreasonable per se - subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions. Katz v. United States, 389 U.S.347 (1967). Two of those exceptions are (1) exigent circumstances that require police to act immediately to prevent a suspect from escaping or destroying evidence or (2) an emergency situation requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property whether or not a crime might be involved. Ovieda.

But police may not speculate or attempt to create an emergency situation when there are no objective signs to support such a belief. People v. Smith, 496 P.2d 1261 (Cal. 1972). In People v. Ray, 981 P.2d 928 (Cal. 1999), the California Supreme Court held that the “community caretaking exception” permits police to enter a home to conduct a welfare check in the absence of exigent circumstances. But in Ovieda, the California Supreme Court disapproved of Ray because the community caretaking exception in the absence of exigent circumstances was not recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court of Appeal determined that an unoccupied vehicle left running in the driveway is neither an exigent circumstance nor is it an emergency situation. There were no noises or moans coming from inside the home or any blood or other indications that anyone was in distress. Nor were there any signs of a burglary or other crime being committed.

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Related legal case

People v. Smith



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