California Supreme Court Announces Warrantless Search Parole Condition Does Not Dissipate Taint of Unlawful Detention and Subsequent Search, Suppresses Evidence
by Anthony W Accurso
In resolving a split among the state Courts of Appeal, the Supreme Court of California held that, unlike an outstanding arrest warrant, a condition of a suspect’s parole allowing for warrantless and suspicionless searches does not dissipate the taint of an unlawful detention and that any evidence obtained as a result of the subsequent search must be suppressed.
Officer Matthew Croucher of the San Jose Police Department responded to a report of a possible vehicle burglary in a business parking lot on an evening in January 2017. A security guard on the premises “told him she had seen two suspicious individuals on bikes shining flashlights into parked cars.”
After finding nothing suspicious in the commercial lot, Croucher then drove through an adjacent lot. He noticed one of the vehicles was occupied by Duvanh Anthony McWilliams, who “did not appear to be sleeping, just hanging out.”
Croucher called for backup, then approached the vehicle, and instructed McWilliams to exit, ostensibly for “safety reasons.” A records check showed McWilliams was “on active and searchable [California Department of Corrections] parole.” Croucher then conducted a search of McWilliams and the vehicle, “from which he seized a firearm, drugs, and drug paraphernalia.”
After being charged, McWilliams filed a suppression motion, arguing the seizure and search was unreasonable and all evidence obtained as a result must be suppressed. The trial court denied the motion, finding the 911 call and the security guard’s reporting suspicious activity provided reasonable suspicion to support the search.
The Court of Appeal affirmed in a divided opinion. It held that, though the seizure was improper—as the parties by then agreed— “the officer’s discovery of the parole search condition sufficiently attenuated the connection between the officer’s unlawful detention of McWilliams and the evidence seized during the search.”
The Supreme Court certified the case on appeal, in part, to resolve a split among the state Courts of Appeal on the issue of whether the discovery of a parole search condition following an unlawful detention of a suspect sufficiently attenuates the taint of the unlawful detention so that any evidence discovered during the subsequent search is admissible.
The Court began its analysis by reiterating that the Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effect, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The principal mechanism to enforce this right is the exclusionary rule, which serves as “a deterrent sanction that bars the prosecution from introducing evidence obtained by way of a Fourth Amendment violation.” Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229 (2011). The exclusionary rule requires the suppression of both “primary evidence obtained as a direct result of an illegal search or seizure” and “evidence later discovered and found to be derivative of an illegality,” known as “fruits of the poisonous tree.” Segura v. United States, 468 U.S. 796 (1984).
However, there are exceptions to the exclusionary rule. One exception is the attenuation doctrine, which holds that “[e]vidence is admissible when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance, so that the interest protected by the constitutional guarantee that has been violated would not be served by suppression of the evidence obtained.” Utah v. Strieff, 579 U.S. 232 (2016).
When making a determination on the applicability of the attenuation doctrine, courts employ a three-factor test first set forth in Brown v Illinois, 422 US 590 (1975): “(1) the temporal proximity between the unlawful conduct and the discovery of evidence; (2) the presence of intervening circumstances; and (3) the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.”
The defendant must first establish a Fourth Amendment violation, but once that has been satisfied, the prosecution has the burden of establishing admissibility of the evidence under this exception. Id.
The Court noted that the current case is similar to People v. Brendlin, 45 Cal.4th 262 (2008), and Strieff. Both cases involved an unlawful detention that arose from police misconduct, and in both cases, the officer was alerted to an arrest warrant for the suspect. Upon conducting a search incident to arrest, officers discovered illegal contraband.
In Brendlin, the officer initiated a traffic stop on a hunch that the temporary permit in the window might belong to another vehicle, which constituted an unlawful stop. The officer ran a records check on the occupants of the vehicle and discovered an outstanding no-bail arrest warrant for Brendlin. The officer conducted a search incident to arrest and found drugs on him.
Applying the Brown factors, the court acknowledged that the first factor of temporal proximity weighed against attenuation but explained that it placed little weight to that factor because the timeline matched the typical investigatory stop scenario. The second factor weighed heavily in favor of attenuation because an arrest on a valid warrant and associated search is an intervening event that “tends to dissipate the taint caused by an illegal traffic stop.” Id. The Brendlin Court explained that a “warrant is not reasonably subject to interpretation or abuse,” and that the arrest warrant “supplied legal authorization to arrest defendant that was completely independent of the circumstances that led the officer to initiate the traffic stop.” Finally, the court didn’t view the officer’s conduct purposeful or flagrant, so the third factor also favored attenuation.
Similarly, in Strieff, a police detective unlawfully stopped Strieff after he observed him leaving what he believed to be a drug house. Upon a records check, the detective discovered Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant, arrested him, and searched him incident to arrest. He found drugs on him.
Applying the Brown factors, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the first factor weighed against attenuation. However, the second factor weighed heavily in favor of attenuation. The Strieff Court explained that the warrant was valid, predated the detective’s investigation, and was completely unrelated to the investigatory stop. It further explained a “warrant is a judicial mandate to an officer to conduct a search or make an arrest, and the officer has a sworn duty to carry out its provision.” Thus, the Strieff Court concluded that the detective’s arrest of Strieff was simply a “ministerial act” that was independently required by the pre-existing arrest warrant. It added that once the detective was authorized to arrest Strieff, “it was undisputedly lawful to search Strieff as an incident of his arrest to protect” the detective. Strieff. The third factor also favored attenuation because the detective “was at most negligent” in performing the unlawful stop, according to the Strieff Court.
Turning to the present case, the Court observed that like in both Brendlin and Strieff, the officer unlawfully seized McWilliams. In contrast to those cases, a records check did not turn up an arrest warrant for him; instead, it revealed that he was on parole and subject to warrantless, suspicionless searches.
The Court applied the Brown factors and stated that the first factor can be quickly addressed by noting this factor only favors attenuation if “substantial time” passes between the unlawful act and when the evidence is seized. Strieff. No substantial time elapsed in this case, so the first factor doesn’t favor attenuation, according to the Court.
The Court stated that the primary issue in this case is whether the discovery of the parole search condition dissipates the taint of the unlawful initial stop like the arrest warrant in Brendlin and Strieff. At the outset of its analysis of this specific issue, the Court declined to adopt a blanket rule that discovery of a parole search condition can never constitute an intervening circumstance attenuating the link between the unlawful police conduct and a subsequent search. Instead, the Court stated that it “suffices for us to conclude that the discovery of the parole search condition had no considerable attenuating effect under the circumstances of this case.”
In reaching its conclusion, the Court explained that an outstanding arrest warrant is materially different than a parole search condition. As the Strieff Court stated, arresting a suspect upon discovering that they have an outstanding arrest warrant is merely the performance of a “ministerial act that was independently compelled by the pre-existing warrant.”
In contrast, the Court explained that a parole search condition isn’t a mandate by a court to perform a ministerial act; rather, it “merely authorizes a suspicionless search of the parolee for purposes of monitoring the parolee’s rehabilitation and compliance with the terms of parole.” It doesn’t “compel further action of any sort,” the Court stated, adding that the decision to search is “largely within law enforcement’s discretion.” See People v. Reyes, 19 Cal.4th 753 (1998). The Court found it significant that there was an “absence of compulsion to continue the interaction after [the] initial unlawful detention.” Therefore, the Court determined that the second Brown factor weighs against attenuation.
Finally, with respect to the third Brown factor, the Court stated that the detective “offered no basis … for believing McWilliams was involved in the suspicious parking-lot activity he had set out to investigate.” The Court determined that the detective’s decision to detain McWilliams “was purposeful and further supports applying the exclusionary rule to deter this type of unconstitutional conduct.” See Brown.
Thus, after applying the Brown framework to the facts of this case, the Court ruled that “the People have not carried their burden of establishing the attenuation doctrine applies here” and that the evidence discovered after McWilliams’ unlawful detention is inadmissible.
Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: People v. McWilliams, 524 P.3d 768 (Cal. 2023).
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