Even before today’s decision, the “warrant requirement” had become so riddled with exceptions that it was basically unrecognizable.

California v. Acevedo

500 U.S. 565 (1991)

U.S. Supreme Court

On Wednesday October 28, 1987, Officer Coleman of the Santa Ana, Cal., Police Department received a telephone call from a Drug Enforcement Agent in Hawaii. The agent informed Officer Coleman that he had seized a cooler containing nine clear packages of marijuana each weighing approximately two pounds.  It was to have been delivered to the Federal Express Office in Santa Ana, California.  It was addressed to J. R. Daza at 805 West Stevens Avenue, Santa Ana, California. The agent arranged to send the package to Officer Coleman instead. Officer Coleman was to then take the package to the Federal Express office as a ‘controlled delivery’ and arrest the person who arrived to claim it.

Officer Coleman received the package on October 29, 1987 verified its contents, and took it to the Senior Operations Manager at the Federal Express office. At about 10:30 a.m. on October 30, a man, who identified himself as Mr. Jamie Daza, arrived to claim the package. He accepted it and drove to an apartment complex at 805 West Stevens. He carried the package into the apartment.

At 11:45 a.m., officers observed Mr. Daza leave the apartment and drop the box and paper that had contained the marijuana into a trash bin. Officer Coleman left the scene to get a search warrant. About 12:05 p.m., the officers saw Richard St. George leave the apartment carrying a blue knapsack which appeared to be half full. The officers stopped him as he was driving off, searched the knapsack, and found one and a half pounds of marijuana.

At 12:30 p.m., Mr. Charles Steven Acevedo arrived. He entered Mr. Daza’s apartment, stayed for about ten minutes, and reappeared carrying a brown paper bag that looked full. The officers noticed that the bag was the size of one of the wrapped marijuana packages sent from Hawaii. Mr. Acevedo walked to a silver Honda in the parking lot. He placed the bag in the trunk of the car and started to drive away. Fearing the loss of evidence, officers in a marked police car stopped him in the apartment complex parking lot. They opened the trunk and the bag, and found 3/8th’s of one pound of marijuana. At 12:40 p.m. a magistrate signed the search warrant for Mr. Daza’s apartment. The search of the apartment by the other Santa Ana police officers discovered several bags of marijuana.

Mr. Jamie Daza lived in an apartment here at 805 West Stevens, Santa Ana, California, which is today called the Park Plaza Apartments.  Officer Coleman wrote and served a searched warrant at Mr. Daza’s apartment which led to a cache of marijuana.

Mr. Acevedo was charged in state court with Possession of Marijuana for Sale.  He moved to suppress the marijuana found in the car. The motion was denied. He then pleaded guilty but appealed the denial of the suppression motion.

The California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, concluded that the marijuana found in the paper bag in the car’s trunk should have been suppressed.  The court concluded that the officers had probable cause to believe that the paper bag contained drugs but lacked probable cause to suspect that Mr. Acevedo’s car, itself, otherwise contained contraband.

The Supreme Court of California denied the State’s appeal, which is tantamount to upholding the California’s Fourth District opinion.  The State of California appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which overturned the suppression of marijuana, as it held “The police may search an automobile and the containers within it where they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is contained.” Id at 580.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Prior to the S. v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982) see What is in Bandits Paper Bag? the U.S. Supreme Court provided mixed direction to law enforcement and those engaged in criminal activity on the legal requirements to search a vehicle. In some cases, a warrant was required; see U.S. v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1 (1977) and Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753 (1979) in some cases a warrant was not required, see Carroll v. U.S., 267 U.S. 132 (1925).  The Ross case in 1982 eliminated the need for a warrant to search a vehicle if law enforcement had probable cause, which was supported by California v. Acevedo evaluated herein. This led U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to opine in his concurring opinion in this decision “Even before today’s decision, the “warrant requirement” had become so riddled with exceptions that it was basically unrecognizable.” Id at 582.  Law enforcement officers must know all of these exceptions if s/he wants to remain effective and efficient.
  1. Law enforcement IS the Hardest Job in America! This is underscored by Justice Scalia who stated in his concurring opinion “[O]ur jurisprudence lurched back and forth between imposing a categorical warrant requirement and looking to reasonableness alone.”.  Id at 582.  If the U.S. Supreme court is vacillating on the requirement for warrants and when probable cause alone is sufficient for a search, how is law enforcement supposed to know when to apply which doctrine?  Keep that in mind if the U.S. Supreme Court justices along with dozens of law clerks, support staff and administrative assistants lurches back and forth on the warrant requirement.  The justices are making these decisions inside of an office with fluorescent lighting in a temperature-controlled environment, while the law enforcement officer must make the warrant decision at roadside under sunlight, moonlight, streetlights or no light at all!
  1. Now after Ross, Acevedo and Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295 (1999) once law enforcement establishes probable cause that a package inside of a vehicle contains contraband there is no need to obtain a warrant. As always, if law enforcement is unsure if probable cause exists, the officer should slow down and obtain a search warrant for the contraband.

Information for this article was obtained from California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991) and California v. Acevedo: The Ominous March of a Loyal Foot Soldier, Louisiana Law Review, Volume 52, Number 5, May 1992.

Does your agency train on the doctrine of Vehicle Searches?

Don’t fail your training – don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.