Tuesday, November 26, 2019

People v. Lopez (Cal. Supreme Ct. - Nov. 25, 2019)

Justice Kruger writes a pretty good introduction to this opinion, which overrules precedent and explains why.  She writes:

"Acting on an anonymous tip about a motorist’s erratic driving, a police officer approached defendant Maria Elena Lopez after she parked and exited her car. When the officer asked if she had a driver’s license, she said she did not. Police then detained her for unlicensed driving and, without asking her name, searched the car for Lopez’s personal identification. They found methamphetamine in a purse sitting on the front passenger’s seat.

The trial court held the search was invalid under Arizona v. Gant (2009) 556 U.S. 332 (Gant), which narrowed the scope of permissible warrantless vehicle searches incident to a driver’s arrest. The Court of Appeal reversed. It held that the search was authorized under this court’s pre-Gant decision in In re Arturo D. (2002) 27 Cal.4th 60 (Arturo D.), which allowed police to conduct warrantless vehicle searches for personal identification documents at traffic stops when the driver failed to provide a license or other personal identification upon request.

We granted review to consider the application and continuing validity of the Arturo D. rule in light of subsequent legal developments. At the time Arturo D. was decided, no other state or federal court had recognized an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement for suspicionless traffic-stop vehicle searches. The same holds true today; California remains the only state to have recognized such an exception. Considering the issue in light of more recent decisions from both the United States Supreme Court and our sister states, we now conclude that the desire to obtain a driver’s identification following a traffic stop does not constitute an independent, categorical exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. To the extent Arturo D. held otherwise, we conclude that rule should no longer be followed. We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remand for further proceedings."

Not surprisingly, the decision is not unanimous.  It's instead a 4-3.  The dissent is authored by Justice Chin, which isn't surprising, since he was in the majority in Arturo D.  Alongside Justice Chin in the dissent are Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Corrigan; again, about what you'd expect.

But it's a new California Supreme Court.  It's not just that Gant came along in 2009; a case that itself departed from precedent.  It's also that the composition of the California Supreme Court is different -- more left-leaning -- than it was 17 years ago.  Which in part explains this opinion.

Though not entirely.  This is how the dissent ended in Arturo D. back in 2002.  Bear with me, as it's a little long:

"Who among us can ever forget the horrendous events of September 11, 2001, when our nation suffered the most destructive terrorist assault in our history? As this opinion is being written, our nation is undergoing a painful recovery from the devastating physical and psychological effects of that day. One part of this recovery process has been an effort to devise and implement more effective methods of law enforcement to protect the security of our citizens and our institutions. Another and equally important part of this process must be a rediscovery of and rededication to the principles upon which our nation was founded and which have made it a true beacon of liberty throughout the world.

One principle, so basic to our personal liberty, is the prohibition that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution places on unreasonable searches and seizures. In determining whether a search is "unreasonable," a court must adhere to the decisions of the United States Supreme Court articulating the meaning of that word in a similar case. Virtually identical to the two cases here is the high court's unanimous decision in Knowles v. Iowa. [Cite] There, the court held that when a police officer has stopped a motorist for a routine traffic violation, and the officer has not arrested the motorist, the officer may not rummage through the vehicle.

Today's majority decision does nothing to enhance our security and does much to erode our Fourth Amendment rights. Under California law, an officer making a routine stop for a traffic violation may arrest a motorist who fails to produce proof of identity and, within the limitations of the Fourth Amendment, may search the vehicle incident to the arrest. Given this ability, there is no justification for the warrantless, nonconsensual search of a car's interior when the officer has made no arrest and the officer lacks probable cause to believe that the car contains contraband. In announcing a blanket rule authorizing such searches, the majority disregards the high court's decision in Knowles and chips away at one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by our federal Constitution."

Sure, that dissent was written by Justice Kennard.  But it was also joined by Justice Brown.  So it's not completely a left-right issue.  There's definite room for concern on both sides of the aisle.