People v. Celis

Decision Date26 July 2004
Docket NumberNo. S107885.,S107885.
Citation33 Cal.4th 667,16 Cal.Rptr.3d 85,93 P.3d 1027
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
PartiesThe PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Renato CELIS, Defendant and Appellant.

Nicholas DePento, San Diego, for Defendant and Appellant.

Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, Robert R. Anderson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Gary W. Schons, Assistant Attorney General, Steven T. Oetting, Rhonda L. Cartwright-Ladendorf and Sabrina Y. Lane-Erwin, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.


Suspecting defendant of drug trafficking, police officers stopped him at gunpoint behind his house, handcuffed him, and made him sit on the ground. The officers then entered defendant's house to determine whether there was anyone inside who might endanger their safety. They did not find anyone, but they did see a large box with uniformly sized, wrapped packages that, after a search, proved to contain cocaine.

We address two issues. Was the officers' initial seizure of defendant an arrest requiring probable cause, or was it merely a detention requiring only a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity? And was the officers' entry into and inspection of defendant's house permissible as a "protective sweep" under the United States Supreme Court's decision in Maryland v. Buie (1990) 494 U.S. 325, 110 S.Ct. 1093, 108 L.Ed.2d 276 (Buie)? We conclude that defendant was initially detained, not arrested, and that the facts known to the officers fell short of those necessary to justify a Buie protective sweep.


Defendant was charged in San Diego County with conspiracy (Pen.Code, § 182, subd. (a)(1)) and possession of more than 20 kilograms of cocaine for sale (Health & Saf.Code, §§ 11351, 11370.4, subd. (a)(4)). He moved to suppress the evidence. (Pen. Code, § 1538.5.)

At the hearing on the suppression motion, the prosecution presented testimony by Detective John Strain of the Tustin Police Department in Orange County. Strain was a member of a task force investigating state-wide drug trafficking by a group suspected of concealing and transporting drugs inside large truck tires. In December 1999, task force members saw a small red pickup truck deliver one such tire to a residence in Los Angeles County. Suspecting that the tire would be used to transport drugs, police executed a search warrant at that site and seized $400,000 in cash and the tire, which had been slit open. Later, California Highway Patrol officers stopped the red pickup truck in San Diego County. Hidden in a false compartment in the truck was $50,000 in cash. In January 2000, task force members found another cut-open truck tire together with drug packaging materials in an abandoned house in Los Angeles County. In none of these incidents did police recover drugs or weapons.

Task force members later learned that the red pickup truck involved in the truck tire delivery in Los Angeles County was registered to someone with an address on Concepcion Street in the City of San Diego. During surveillance at that location, they saw a car parked outside; they traced its registration to a San Diego house on A Street, defendant's residence. They then put defendant's house under surveillance.

On April 26, 2000, Detective Strain saw defendant leave his home in a minivan and drive to a tire store in San Diego. There, defendant put an air pressurizing tank into his van and drove home. Later that same day, he drove to the Mexican border with the tank still in his minivan. He parked his car and walked across the border, where the undercover officers lost sight of him.

The next day, task force members followed defendant as he drove around San Diego with his wife. Defendant engaged in "evasive driving," such as making abrupt lane changes, which to Detective Strain indicated that defendant knew he was being followed. Later that day, defendant drove from his home to the same tire store he had visited the previous day. He left the store with a deflated tire. The tire was too big for defendant's minivan, but Detective Strain thought it would fit a one-ton pickup truck. That same day, defendant returned to the tire store, this time accompanied by a man, who was later identified as Luis Ordaz. They took an air pressurizing tank into the tire shop. After a while, they returned with the tank to defendant's house and took it inside.

Some 40 minutes later, defendant came through the back door of his house, rolling a large inflated truck tire toward the alley. It appeared to Detective Strain to be the same tire defendant had brought back from the tire shop. About the same time, Ordaz arrived in the alley driving a full-sized green pickup truck. Suspecting that the tire defendant was rolling toward the alley contained either money or narcotics, Detective Strain pulled out his gun and ordered defendant and Ordaz to stop. Defendant was handcuffed and made to sit down against the wall of the house. Because Detective Strain had noticed that defendant's wife and "possibly a male juvenile" lived with him, Strain together with other officers entered the house to determine if there was anyone inside who might endanger their safety. It took less than two minutes to walk through the 500-square-foot house. The officers did not find anyone inside, but did see a wooden box large enough to conceal a person. Inside the box were several uniformly sized, wrapped packages. Some 20 minutes later, the officers obtained defendant's consent to search the packages, which proved to contain 16 kilograms of cocaine. They also searched the large truck tire, which contained 25 kilograms of cocaine.

After denial of his motion to suppress evidence, defendant pled guilty and received a 12-year prison sentence. The Court of Appeal rejected defendant's challenge to the trial court's denial of his suppression motion, and it affirmed the judgment of conviction. We granted defendant's petition for review.


The federal Constitution's Fourth Amendment, made applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits unreasonable seizures. Our state Constitution includes a similar prohibition. (Cal. Const., art. I, § 13.) "A seizure occurs whenever a police officer `by means of physical force or show of authority' restrains the liberty of a person to walk away." (People v. Souza (1994) 9 Cal.4th 224, 229, 36 Cal.Rptr.2d 569, 885 P.2d 982, quoting Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1, 19, fn. 16, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889.) Whether a seizure has taken place is to be determined by an objective test, which asks "not whether the citizen perceived that he was being ordered to restrict his movement, but whether the officer's words and actions would have conveyed that to a reasonable person." (California v. Hodari D. (1999) 499 U.S. 621, 628, 111 S.Ct. 1547, 113 L.Ed.2d 690.) Thus, when police engage in conduct that would "communicate[] to a reasonable person that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business," there has been a seizure. (Kaupp v. Texas (2003) 538 U.S. 626, 629, 123 S.Ct. 1843, 155 L.Ed.2d 814; Florida v. Bostick (1991) 501 U.S. 429, 437, 111 S.Ct. 2382, 115 L.Ed.2d 389.)

When the seizure of a person amounts to an arrest, it must be supported by an arrest warrant or by probable cause. (Kaupp v. Texas, supra, 538 U.S. at p. 630, 123 S.Ct. 1843.) Probable cause exists when the facts known to the arresting officer would persuade someone of "reasonable caution" that the person to be arrested has committed a crime. (Dunaway v. New York (1979) 442 U.S. 200, 208, fn. 9, 99 S.Ct. 2248, 60 L.Ed.2d 824.) "[P]robable cause is a fluid concept — turning on the assessment of probabilities in particular factual contexts." (Illinois v. Gates (1983) 462 U.S. 213, 232, 103 S.Ct. 2317, 76 L.Ed.2d 527.) It is incapable of precise definition. (Maryland v. Pringle (2003) 540 U.S. 366, 371, 124 S.Ct. 795, 800, 157 L.Ed.2d 769.) "`The substance of all the definitions of probable cause is a reasonable ground for belief of guilt,'" and that belief must be "particularized with respect to the person to be ... seized." (Ibid.)

But "not all seizures of the person must be justified by probable cause to arrest for a crime." (Florida v. Royer (1983) 460 U.S. 491, 498, 103 S.Ct. 1319, 75 L.Ed.2d 229 (plur.opn. of White, J.).) In Terry v. Ohio, supra, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889, the United States Supreme Court created a limited exception that allows police officers to "stop and . . . frisk for weapons" when they have an "articulable suspicion [the] person has committed or is about to commit a crime." (Florida v. Royer, supra, at p. 498.) Thus, an officer who lacks probable cause to arrest can conduct a brief investigative detention when there is "`some objective manifestation' that criminal activity is afoot and that the person to be stopped is engaged in that activity." (People v. Souza, supra, 9 Cal.4th at p. 230, 36 Cal. Rptr.2d 569, 885 P.2d 982; see also United States v. Cortez (1981) 449 U.S. 411, 417, 101 S.Ct. 690, 66 L.Ed.2d 621.) Because an investigative detention allows the police to ascertain whether suspicious conduct is criminal activity, such a detention "must be temporary and last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop." (Florida v. Royer, supra, at p. 500; see also Wilson v. Superior Court (1983) 34 Cal.3d 777, 784, 195 Cal.Rptr. 671, 670 P.2d 325 [describing a detention as limited in "duration, scope and purpose"].)

The distinction between a detention and an arrest "may in some instances create difficult line-drawing problems." (United States v. Sharpe (1985) 470 U.S. 675, 685, 105 S.Ct. 1568, 84 L.Ed.2d 605; see also United States v. Torres-Sanchez (9th Cir.1996) 83 F.3d 1123, 1127 [there is no "`bright-line for determining when an investigatory stop crosses the line and becomes an arrest'"].) This much is clear: A brief stop and patdown of someone suspected of criminal activity is merely an investigative detention...

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