People v. Woods

Citation88 Cal.Rptr.2d 88,981 P.2d 1019,21 Cal.4th 668
Decision Date26 August 1999
Docket NumberNo. S068741,S068741
Parties, 981 P.2d 1019, 99 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 6990, 1999 Daily Journal D.A.R. 8867 The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Cheryl WOODS et al., Defendants and Respondents
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)

Daniel E. Lungren and Bill Lockyer, Attorneys General, George Williamson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Ronald A. Bass, Assistant Attorney General, Peggy S. Ruffra, Laurence K. Sullivan and John H. Deist, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Carlton E. Lacy, under appointment by the Supreme Court, Walnut Creek, for Defendant and Respondent Cheryl Jeanene Woods.

L. Richard Braucher, San Francisco, under appointment by the Supreme Court, and David J. Briggs, Richmond, under appointment by the Court of Appeal, for Defendant and Respondent William B. Benson.

Jose R. Villarreal, Ronald A. Norman and Stephen B. Elrick, San Jose, for California Public Defenders Association and Alternate Defender Office, Santa Clara County as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Respondents.


Gayla Loza agreed, as a condition of felony probation, to submit her residence to warrantless searches. During a warrantless search of Loza's residence, police officers uncovered evidence of criminal activity (drugs and firearms) against Cheryl Woods and William Benson, who shared the residence with Loza. Woods and Benson successfully moved to suppress the evidence on the ground it had been obtained as the result of a pretextual probation search.

We granted review to consider whether a warrantless search of a probationer's house is constitutionally invalid when it is undertaken to discover incriminating evidence against a third party residing in the house. We conclude that, in this case, the officer's subjective intent did not invalidate the challenged search since the circumstances, viewed objectively, justified the officer's actions.


On the night of September 9, 1995, Police Officer Norm Wielsch was on routine patrol in Antioch when he saw Jason Mofield walking in front of a house at 615 West 9th Street. Mofield was carrying a long object covered with a cloth, which Wielsch suspected was a weapon. Wielsch followed Mofield for several blocks and observed him transfer the object from hand to hand and behind his back, as though he was attempting to conceal it. When Mofield saw Wielsch, he quickened his pace and turned into a driveway.

Wielsch called out to Mofield, who then stopped and turned around. Wielsch directed him to shake the cloth-covered object in his hand. As he did so, two plastic baggies fell to the ground. One baggie contained a white substance, the other what looked like marijuana. Wielsch immediately grabbed Mofield and pulled the long object from his hand. Mofield threw a glass pipe and several baggies into some nearby ivy. After handcuffing Mofield, Wielsch picked up the cloth-covered object and discovered it was a long fixed-blade knife.

Wielsch arrested Mofield. During booking, Mofield told Wielsch he lived with his girlfriend, Gayla Loza, at 615 West 9th Street. Wielsch was familiar with Loza and knew she had consented to warrantless searches as a condition of her felony probation. Wielsch had also received a tip three days earlier that someone was selling drugs at 615 West 9th Street, and a year before he had assisted in executing a search warrant for drugs at that location. Wielsch, believing Mofield might have other

Page 91

drugs stored at the house, decided to conduct a warrantless probation search of the house to look for drugs

Wielsch immediately drove back to 615 West 9th Street, where he saw Loza at the front door. When told by Wielsch that he was going to search her residence, Loza responded by saying no. Wielsch then said: "Well, you're on probation, and we're going to search it." Wielsch entered the house, ascertained from Loza that she was there alone, and walked down a hallway to the only bedroom in the house. Upon entering the bedroom, he found Woods and Benson (hereafter defendants), who lived at the house, and two others. Wielsch also found methamphetamine and marijuana in that room, as well as two guns and letters addressed to Loza, Woods and Benson. Defendants were indicted for possession of methamphetamine, possession of marijuana for sale, and related enhancements.

Defendants moved to suppress the evidence. At the hearing, the superior court stated that Wielsch, possessing information of drug dealings prior to the Mofield encounter, "certainly could have done a search on Ms. Loza earlier if he wanted to" and that he would have been acting lawfully "if in fact this was a proper probation search." It found, however, that Wielsch had used the probation search as a pretext to search the residence for evidence against Mofield. The court granted defendants' motion pursuant to People v. Pipitone (1977) 86 Cal.App.3d 681, 152 Cal.Rptr. 1 (Pipitone ), a decision that had upheld a suppression order based on a finding that officers had utilized a wife's probation search condition solely to collect evidence against her husband without first obtaining a warrant. (Id. at pp. 687-688, 152 Cal.Rptr. 1.) Thereafter the court granted defendants' motion to dismiss the charges against them.

The Court of Appeal affirmed. As an initial matter, it found "substantial evidence to support the superior court's factual finding that, subjectively, Officer Wielsch's sole reason for searching the residence was to discover evidence against Mofield." While expressing doubts about the continuing validity of Pipitone, supra, 86 Cal.App.3d 681, 152 Cal.Rptr. 1, the Court of Appeal noted that Pipitone was tacitly approved in People v. Bravo (1987) 43 Cal.3d 600, 610-611, 238 Cal.Rptr. 282, 738 P.2d 336 (Bravo ) and was not clearly overruled by Whren v. United States (1996) 517 U.S. 806, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (Whren ). We granted the People's petition for review.


As the finder of fact in a proceeding to suppress evidence (Pen.Code, § 1538.5), the superior court is vested with the power to judge the credibility of the witnesses, resolve any conflicts in the testimony, weigh the evidence and draw factual inferences in deciding whether a search is constitutionally unreasonable. (People v. Lawler (1973) 9 Cal.3d 156, 160, 107 Cal.Rptr. 13, 507 P.2d 621.) Accordingly, in reviewing the instant suppression order, we consider the record in the light most favorable to defendants as respondents since "all factual conflicts must be resolved in the manner most favorable to the [superior] court's disposition on the [suppression] motion." (People v. Martin (1973) 9 Cal.3d 687, 692, 108 Cal.Rptr. 809, 511 P.2d 1161.) But while we defer to the superior court's express and implied factual findings if they are supported by substantial evidence, we exercise our independent judgment in determining the legality of a search on the facts so found. (People v. Glaser (1995) 11 Cal.4th 354, 362, 45 Cal.Rptr.2d 425, 902 P.2d 729; People v. Lawler, supra, 9 Cal.3d at p. 160, 107 Cal.Rptr. 13, 507 P.2d 621.)

Applying the foregoing standard of review, we agree with the Court of Appeal that "although we might have reached a different conclusion had we been the fact finders in this case, there is substantial

evidence to support the superior court's factual finding that, subjectively, Officer Wielsch's sole reason for searching the residence was to discover evidence against Mofield" and not to investigate whether Loza had violated her probation. Like the Court of Appeal, then, we consider ourselves bound by this finding of fact, even though we do not necessarily agree with it

We now consider the constitutional significance of that factual finding. (People v. Glaser, supra, 11 Cal.4th at p. 362, 45 Cal.Rptr.2d 425, 902 P.2d 729; People v. Lawler, supra, 9 Cal.3d at p. 160, 107 Cal.Rptr. 13, 507 P.2d 621.)


Pursuant to California Constitution, article I, section 28, subdivision (d), we review challenges to the admissibility of evidence obtained by police searches and seizures under federal constitutional standards. (People v. Bradford (1997) 15 Cal.4th 1229, 1291, 65 Cal.Rptr.2d 145, 939 P.2d 259; In re Tyrell J. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 68, 76, 32 Cal.Rptr.2d 33, 876 P.2d 519.)

The Fourth Amendment guarantees "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures" and provides that "no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." (U.S. Const., Amend. IV.) A search conducted without a warrant is unreasonable per se under the Fourth Amendment unless it falls within one of the "specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." (Katz v. United States (1967) 389 U.S. 347, 357, 88 S.Ct. 507, 19 L.Ed.2d 576; Bravo, supra, 43 Cal.3d at p. 609, 238 Cal.Rptr. 282, 738 P.2d 336.) It is "well settled that one of the specifically established exceptions to the requirements of both a warrant and probable cause is a search that is conducted pursuant to consent." (Schneckloth v. Bustamonte (1973) 412 U.S. 218, 219, 93 S.Ct. 2041, 36 L.Ed.2d 854; Bravo, supra, 43 Cal.3d at p. 605, 238 Cal.Rptr. 282, 738 P.2d 336.)

In California, probationers may validly consent in advance to warrantless searches in exchange for the opportunity to avoid service of a state prison term. (Bravo, supra, 43 Cal.3d at p. 608, 238 Cal.Rptr. 282, 738 P.2d 336; accord, Zap v. United States (1946) 328 U.S. 624, 628-629, 66 S.Ct. 1277, 90 L.Ed. 1477, vacated (1947) 330 U.S. 800, 67 S.Ct. 857, 91 L.Ed. 1259. 1 ) For nearly three decades, this court has upheld the legality of searches authorized by probation terms that require probationers to submit to searches of their residences at any time of the day or night by any law enforcement officer with or without a...

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