Denial of Motion to Suppress in California Felony DUI Case

In a recent California appellate decision, the appellate court considered the denial of a motion to suppress in a case involving felony DUI within 10 years of three prior DUI convictions in exchange for formal probation and dismissal of an enhancement and other charges. The DUI arose when a police officer saw the defendant’s vehicle travel into a field. He came up in his patrol car and directed his spotlight to the front of the defendant’s vehicle.

The defendant left his vehicle and tried to talk on a cell phone. The officer came up and asked what he was doing there. He smelled alcohol within moments of talking to the defendant and saw the defendant became nervous when providing responses to questions.

Later, the defendant identified himself, but the patrol officer suspected this identification was false and put him in handcuffs. The defendant gave his true name, and through a records check, the patrol officer learned his license had been suspended and he was on probation for prior DUIs. The defendant refused a chemical breath test, which was a condition of his probation. He refused a second time, and was then arrested and taken to the hospital for a blood draw, which revealed his blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was .093.

The prosecutor for the county charged him with four counts, including felony DUI within 10 years of 3 prior DUI convictions. The defendant moved to suppress the officer’s observations and evidence, including the blood alcohol test. This motion was denied, and the defendant, through a negotiated disposition, entered a plea of guilty with regard to count 1 of the information. Other enhancement allegations and counts were dismissed. He was put on formal supervised probation for five years, subject to various conditions and terms that included 180 days on home detention.

The defendant appealed. The appellate court considered whether the officer’s testimony and the results of the blood alcohol test should have been suppressed. The defendant claimed the evidence should be suppressed because he was illegally stopped as soon as the officer turned on the patrol car’s spotlight and came towards him. The government disagreed, claiming the incident began as a consensual encounter and the defendant wasn’t stopped prior to reasonable suspicion arising.

Under the Fourth Amendment, unreasonable governmental searches and seizures are prohibited. Police contacts are categorized in three groups ranging from least to most intrusive. Consensual encounters that cause no restraint of liberty at all, detentions that are seizures of a person that are strictly restricted in purpose, scope and how long they last and formal arrests. The court will not evaluate a consensual encounter according to Fourth Amendment rules. Detentions don’t happen if a police officer simply approaches and asks a couple of questions.

The totality of circumstances dictate whether a specific encounter should be considered a detention. The court looks at whether police actions would have communicated to someone reasonable that he or she could not turn down the officers’ requests or otherwise end the encounter. Circumstances that could indicate a person is not free to leave include physical touching, presence of multiple officers, an officer’s display of a weapon, or use of language.

In this case, the appellate court could not conclude the officer had used any show of authority or physical force to limit the defendant’s liberty. The officer did not use emergency lights or have other officers with him or draw a weapon or even make a verbal command.

The judgment was affirmed.

If you were charged with a felony DUI, your liberty is in jeopardy and you should retain a seasoned DUI attorney to formulate and present an aggressive defense. The Law Offices of Susan L. Hartman may be able to help. Call us for a free consultation at (619) 260-1122.