People v. Espino

by Charles Gillingham

On August 2, our local court of appeal issued a decision in People v. Espino 2016 WL 2993994. The Court addressed a couple of issues in the case: first whether a detention in a car stop was illegally prolonged and second whether Espino was under an illegal arrest when he consented to a search of his car.

SHORT ANSWER

The Court held that the detention was not unduly prolonged but that the suspect was subject to an illegal arrest and thus suppressed the evidence. The problem with this case and the decision is the continuing tension between officer safety and the liberty interest of the suspect. There isn't much to fault the officer with here - one judge saw it for law enforcement and three didn't.


FACTS


Sergeant Joe Deras of the Gilroy Police Department stopped defendant Freddy Espino for speeding. Deras ran Espino and while there were no wants or warrants, the search revealed Espino was a sexual registrant. Deras attempted to confirm the address Espino listed as his residence. Deras called another officer for information about where Espino lived but was unable to reach that officer. Based on an informant's tip about Espino selling narcotics and firearms the police extended the stop for further investigation. Deras wanted to wait for other officers before he searched the vehicle because he was concerned Espino had firearms in the car. Espino was ordered out of his car. During a conversation on the street Espino repeatedly put his hands in his pockets. The officers asked for consent to search his pockets.

The defendant consented to a search of his person, whereupon officers found an object in his pocket. Thinking the object was crack cocaine, the officers handcuffed defendant. But after examining the object, the police determined it was not crack cocaine, but a diamond. Without removing the handcuffs, police continued to question defendant and requested consent to search his car. After some hesitation, defendant gave consent for the car search, whereupon the police found several grams of methamphetamine in defendant's car. The defendant had been handcuffed by this time for two to three minutes and a total of approximately 13 minutes had elapsed between the stop and search of the car. Officers obtained a search warrant for defendant's residence where they found a safe containing a .22 and ammunition. Espino moved to suppress the evidence and the trial court denied the motion. Espino plead guilty and appealed.

HOLDING

The length of the detention was a total of 13 minutes. The court reaffirmed that an officer may prolong the detention to complete ordinary inquiries incident to the detention; such as running wants and warrants, checking insurance etc. If officers develop reasonable suspicion of some other criminal activity the officers may expand the scope of the detention to investigate that activity. The officers were justified in prolonging the detention to investigate Espino's 290 status. Further, they had information from a reliable informant that he was selling guns and drugs.

Handcuffs

Espino argued that his detention became and arrest when he was handcuffed. Remember, just handcuffing a suspect does not turn a detention into an arrest if the officers had reasonable belief that the precaution was necessary. Here is where things became a problem for the case. The court held that Espino was "peaceful and compliant," that he was outnumbered by the officers three-to-one, and that they had information he was selling narcotics. These facts suggested the officers had cause to arrest Espino and handcuff him. However, while the officers believed they felt crack cocaine in his pocket, a diamond was recovered instead. The court believed that probable cause to arrest dissipated at that point and that the officers had a duty to remove the handcuffs. Because they didn't the detention became and illegal arrest and all items found in the car based upon Espino's consent were suppressed.

Certainly officers can see the flaw in this logic. Espino was handcuffed for less than the entire detention, and was asked for consent during the short duration he was handcuffed after the determination that the object in his pocket was a diamond. The court looked to other jurisdictions and determined the suspect must immediately be let go. The problem with this analysis was that the 290 question had not been resolved to that point. Certainly, this decision does nothing to clear up the conflict between officer safety and detentions.