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People v. Brendlin Limits Suppression of Evidence


As reported in today's News Scan, the California Supreme Court has handed down its decision in People v. Brendlin. Yesterday's decision adopted a rule "that discovery of an outstanding arrest warrant prior to a search incident to arrest constitutes an intervening circumstance that may - and, in the absence of purposeful or flagrant police misconduct, will - attenuate the taint of the antecedent unlawful traffic stop." In other words, the drug paraphernalia found on Brendlin should be admitted as evidence even though the warrant for his arrest would not have been discovered "[b]ut for the unlawful vehicle stop." The lesson: if you have violated parole, and have a warrant out for your arrest, don't drive around in a car with containers that are used to make methamphetamine.
This was not the first time the California Supreme Court had heard Brendlin's case. In 2006, the court held that a passenger in a vehicle subject to a traffic stop is not seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment unless the passenger can show he was the subject of the officer's investigation and did not feel free to leave. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected this holding last April.

In its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Brendlin had been seized for Fourth Amendment purposes because "no reasonable person in his position" would have believed that he was free to "terminate the encounter between the police and himself." The Court then remanded the case so that California could consider whether suppression of the evidence turned on any other issue.
Yesterday's decision found several.
Embracing the idea that exclusion of the evidence is an extreme remedy, the California Supreme Court ruled that although Brendlin was the subject of an illegal stop, exclusion was not required on the lone ground that a constitutional violation had allowed the officer to obtain evidence. Instead, the court reasoned that evidence need only be suppressed if it was obtained through exploitation of the initial illegality.
California supported its reasoning with decisions from two federal courts and 12 state courts that had found the initial taint of an illegal search could be purged by some interrupting circumstance or event. Some of these cases had relied on Brown v. Illinois, which recognized three circumstances that could attenuate the taint of an initial illegality. The circumstances included the time between the Fourth Amendment violation and the procurement of evidence, the presence of intervening circumstances, "and the flagrancy of the official misconduct." In Brendlin's case, the warrant for his arrest supplied the police with independent legal authorization to arrest him, and the search had only taken place pursuant to his arrest. The police had not exploited the illegal stop in order to seize the incriminating evidence.
It also helped that in this case, the officer had pulled over the car in good faith. He had wanted to investigate a suspicious registration, and nothing in the record indicates the officer sought to obtain incriminating evidence when he conducted the search. Based on the evidence available to the officer at the time, the court found his conduct to be reasonable and reasoned that the purpose of exclusion - deterring police misconduct - would not be served by suppressing evidence.
It remains to be seen whether Brendlin will appeal and try his luck with the U.S. Supreme Court again. The Supreme Court's holding last term focused on whether Brendlin had standing to challenge the stop and subsequent search. Now that he has, the Supreme Court may decide to review California's reasoning that suppression is unnecessary to deter this type of police conduct. Based on the record, People v. Brendlin may not be the best vehicle for further limiting Mapp v. Ohio, but given the Court's history of reexamining cases it has heard before (like Cone v. Bell) we hope, in good faith, that Brendlin provides such an opportunity.

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