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Ninth Circuit: Reasonable Suspicion Justifying Traffic Stop Doesn’t Provide Probable Cause to Open Door and Lean Inside Vehicle

Officer Kolby Willmes spotted Malik Ngumezi’s vehicle parked at a gas station and observed that the vehicle didn’t have license plates in violation of California Vehicle Code § 5200(a). Willmes approached the vehicle to investigate. Because a gas pump blocked access to the driver’s side, Willmes went to the passenger side. Willmes opened the passenger door, leaned into the car, and asked Ngumezi for his driver’s license and registration. Ngumezi admitted that his driver’s license was suspended and apparently explained he had recently purchased the car and that a bill of sale was affixed to the lower passenger-side corner of the windshield. A subsequent check confirmed Ngumezi’s license was suspended and that he had three prior citations for driving with a suspended license.

Police department policy requires officers to inventory and tow a vehicle when a driver lacks a valid license and has at least one prior citation for driving without a valid license. While conducting the inventory search, police found a loaded handgun. Because Ngumezi had a felony conviction, he was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Ngumezi moved to suppress the firearm as fruit of an unlawful search. He conceded that Willmes had reasonable suspicion to approach the vehicle because it had no plates. But Ngumezi argued that Willmes was in eyesight of the bill of sale affixed to the windshield, which would have “dissipated reasonable suspicion that the car was not registered.” The district court denied the motion because Ngumezi did not prove that Willmes was aware of the proof of sale, much less that the officer saw it or had the opportunity to factor it into his determination of reasonable suspicion.

Ngumezi then proceeded to a bench trial. He was found guilty and appealed. On appeal, he challenged the denial of the suppression motion but with a different argument. He asserted that regardless of whether Willmes had reasonable suspicion, his opening the door and leaning inside constituted a search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Because the Government failed to argue that Ngumezi had forfeited the claim but addressed the issue on the merits, the Ninth Circuit considered the merits of the claim. United States v. Doe, 53 F.3d 1081 (9th Cir. 1995).

The Court noted that New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1986), established that a physical intrusion into the interior of a car constitutes a search. Police must have probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle. United States v. Rodgers, 656 F.3d 1023 (9th Cir. 2011). Police may conduct a protective search of a vehicle’s passenger compartment when they have a reasonable belief that the suspect poses a danger. Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983).

In the instant case, the Court determined that Willmes did not have probable cause to believe Ngumezi had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime. Nor was there any evidence to support a belief that he posed a danger. And no other recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement applied.

The Court rejected the Government’s argument that opening the door and leaning inside was “minimally intrusive” and only “facilitated communication.” The Court explained that that argument ignored the emphasis that the Supreme Court placed on the constitutional significance of a physical intrusion: “When the Government obtains information by physically intruding on persons, houses, papers, or effects, a search within the original meaning of the Fourth Amendment has undoubtedly occurred.” Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013). Although Willmes’ intrusion may have been modest, Supreme Court jurisprudence has never even suggested that the magnitude of the intrusion is relevant to Fourth Amendment analysis, the Court further explained.

Having determined that Willmes’ intrusion was an unconstitutional search, the Court had to determine a remedy. Ordinarily, evidence obtained as the result of an unconstitutional search must be suppressed and excluded under the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056 (2016). However, in the instant case, it was likely that the gun would have been found through lawful means. That is, the Court observed that the evidence in question could have likely been admissible under the inevitable-discovery doctrine. Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984).  

But the Court did not need to decide that question because the burden was on the Government to show the evidence was not the fruit of the poisonous tree. United States v. Twilley, 222 F.3d 1092 (9th Cir. 2000). And the Government made no effort to do so. The Court concluded “[n]othing about this case calls for a remedy other than
 ‘[t]he typical remedy for a Fourth Amendment violation,’ which ‘is the exclusion of evidence discovered as a result of that violation from criminal proceedings against the defendant.’” United States v. Garcia, 974 F.3d 1071 (9th Cir. 2020).

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Related legal case

United States v. Ngumezi

 

 

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