Cal.3d: When stopping a car and a second one stops, too, it was reasonable to order occupants out of second car

One vehicle was being stopped in a driveway, but another was between the police car and the target car. The officers could reasonably get the occupants out of the car in between so they could know what they were dealing with. People v. Steele, 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 325 (3d Dist. April 25, 2016):

Here, as in Glaser, supra, 11 Cal.4th 354, Maryland v. Wilson, supra, 519 U.S. 408, and Taylor, supra, 41 P.3d 681, the initial approach of the deputies to defendant’s vehicle was not for the purpose of arresting defendant or for an investigation directed at him. The deputies stopped the lead vehicle for an expired registration and a felony arrest warrant. (People v. Saunders (2006) 38 Cal.4th 1129, 1135 [officer may stop a vehicle and detain a driver when there is articulable and reasonable suspicion that an automobile is not registered].) They did not have any information that defendant’s vehicle violated the Vehicle Code. However, while attempting to complete a lawful detention of the lead vehicle, the deputies were forced to either contact defendant because his vehicle was parked directly behind the lead vehicle or walk past defendant’s vehicle without knowing whether the occupants of that vehicle might pose a danger to the deputies.

The circumstances warranted caution by the deputies. It was dark. The deputies were at the end of a driveway, not visible from the highway. The lead and second vehicles appeared to be travelling together and the deputies did not know the identities of the drivers. There was a risk defendant could come up behind the deputies while they contacted the lead vehicle. As the United States Supreme Court has recognized, “traffic stops are ‘especially fraught with danger to police officers.’ [Citation.] ‘”The risk of harm to both the police and the occupants [of a stopped vehicle] is minimized,”‘ … ‘”if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation.”‘” (Arizona v. Johnson (2009) 555 U.S. 323, 330-331 [172 L.Ed.2d 694, 702] [also stating an officer is not constitutionally required to give the passenger of a stopped vehicle an opportunity to depart the scene after exiting a vehicle without first ensuring that, in so doing, she was not permitting a dangerous person to get behind her]; see Brendlin v. California (2007) 551 U.S. 249, 258 [168 L.Ed.2d 132, 140] [it is reasonable for passengers to expect that a police officer at the scene of a crime, arrest, or investigation will not let people move around in ways that could jeopardize the officer's safety].) Officer safety is a weighty public interest warranting a brief detention of defendant to assure that defendant did not present a danger to the deputies while they approached and investigated the lead vehicle and its occupants.

Additionally, the initial police encounter with defendant was a minimal intrusion upon defendant’s privacy and security interests. Defendant was already parking his vehicle. It does not appear that the initial detention of defendant was prolonged. Deputy Fernandez testified that Deputy Bliss activated the emergency lights, the deputies exited the vehicle, Deputy Bliss made the initial contact with defendant, Deputy Fernandez was one or two seconds behind Deputy Bliss, and he smelled the odor of marijuana during his initial contact with defendant’s vehicle. There is no evidence that other people (except perhaps the driver of the lead vehicle) witnessed defendant’s detention. Defendant was not detained for an independent investigatory purpose, and the initial contact between Deputy Bliss and defendant appears limited to the purpose of ensuring the deputies’ safety.

Viewing the totality of the circumstances and weighing the interests of the government and defendant, we conclude the initial detention was justified for the limited purpose of protecting the deputies’ safety. Contrary to defendant’s claim, the prosecutor raised the officer safety justification in the trial court. After smelling the odor of marijuana coming from defendant’s car and seeing marijuana in plain sight on the backseat, Deputy Fernandez could then prolong the detention to investigate and could lawfully search defendant’s car. (People v. Waxler (2014) 224 Cal.App.4th 712, 719-721; People v. Strasburg (2007) 148 Cal.App.4th 1052, 1059-1060; People v. Perez (1989) 211 Cal.App.3d 1492, 1496.)

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