Wednesday, December 01, 2010

People v. Smith (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 29, 2010)

Police officers perform a valuable and socially beneficial function.  They're not the enemy.  We should help them when we can.
We should even be willing to offer our assistance when it comes at some cost to us.  For example, were a police officer to come to my home and ask for my help -- for a glass of water, to make a phone call, to let him check out my back yard for a suspected burglar, etc. -- my very strong instinct would be to say "Yes."  That's what being a member of a society is all about.

Cases like this one, however, push me the other way.  Sending, in my view, exactly the wrong message.

There, police officers were doing probation/parole checks.  They thought that a particicular parolee lived at a certain house.  So they went there and knocked on the door.  No problem.

It's early, mind you -- 6:00 a.m. -- and before knocking, they peek through the window of the apartment and see a woman sleeping on a couch.  She wakes up when the police talk to her through the window, at which point the police say they're there to do a compliance check on a parolee (Mr. Jones).  The woman says that there's no Mr. Jones there, and that no one by that name lives there.   The police officers say that they'd like to come in anyway to check.  At which point the woman -- consistent with my admonition that we should try to help the police when we can -- agrees, saying: "Hold on.  Let me get dressed."

She then (understandably) goes into a back room, presumably to get dressed, but the officers also hear her doing something quickly in the kitchen and then hear her start the dryer, which starts "clunking" around like it has some metal in it.  She then returns and opens the door and steps aside.  The officers again say that they are there to check for Mr. Jones, telling her "Look, we're just here to check, [to] make sure [Mr. Jones] isn't here."

She again says:  "You can check, but [Mr. Jones is] not here. . . . Just me and my kids and my brother."  A statement that, again, is fine.  Go ahead and check.  It invades my privacy a bit.  But I'm happy to help.

The police, however, are suspicious.  Not of Mr. Jones, who's indeed not there.  But of Ms. Smith.  She put something in the dryer, probably.  And there's a marijuana smell in the apartment as well.  Which may explain why Ms. Smith was crashed on the couch.

So the police "check" for Mr. Jones.  Where do they "check" for him?  In the dryer.  Which they open up outside of the sight of Ms. Smith.  And which, predictably, contains some marijuana.  At which point they arrest Ms. Smith.

Ms. Smith says that she only consented to the police looking for Mr. Jones, and that since he clearly was not in the spinning dryer, that search violated the Fourth Amendment.  The police, by contrast, say that the only reason they opened the dryer was because it was "loud" (and they wanted to turn it off) and, in any event, it was legitimate to look inside for weapons or anything else that might be used against them.

Which is a total crock, of course.  They looked inside (rather than just opening the door a crack and shutting it to turn of the dryer) to see if anything illegal was inside.  And they had no reason whatsoever to think that a person who had just invited them inside her home was planning on killing them with a weapon that she hid in her dryer -- a dryer in an entirely different room than she was.

Nonetheless, the Court of Appeal holds that it's a legitimate search.  No Fourth Amendment violation.

Which, in turn, makes me much more reluctant to help.  You've got a citizen here who would have been entirely within her rights to say "Mr. Jones doesn't live here.  I don't give consent.  Go to hell."  But instead tries to accommodate the police.  And, for her help, ends up getting burned.  By officers who expand her consent to start searching for evidence against her.  And by a judiciary that says that's entirely okay.

Which perhaps doctrine allows.  Indeed, at this point, given the Court of Appeal's holding, undeniably does.

But it makes me that much less likely to help out officers.  This case will unquestionably enter my mind if the police ever come to my home and ask to enter.  Before, I'd have clearly let them in.  After, I'm not at all so sure.  Because if letting them in means they can -- and might well -- rummage through my dryer, drawers, etc., looking for evidence against me or even just invading my privacy, well, that's something very different.  Personally, it makes it much less likely for me to say "Yes."  Which is a bad thing.  But a direct consequence of opinions like this one.