California Supreme Court . Justices change precedent on warrantless searches for youths

DAVID KRAVETS  Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCOPolice may conduct warrantless searches of juveniles only if they know in advance that the youths are on probation or parole, according to a California Supreme Court ruling that reverses a 16-year precedent.
The 6-1 decision, mirroring a 2003 decision on warrantless searches of adults, is aimed at checking police misconduct.
Both rulings stop the practice of officers conducting illegal searches but getting the evidence admitted at trial because the police found out after the search that the defendant was on parole or probation. Youths and adults on parole or probation give up their Fourth Amendment right to be free of warrantless searches.
Thursday’s ruling, the justices reasoned, prevents authorities from conducting warrantless searches, especially in blighted or high-crime neighborhoods, in hopes that their targets were on parole or probation.
When the justices banned such searches targeting adults three years ago, the court let it continue for youths because the penal system’s goal for them is rehabilitation, not punishment.
But the high court changed course Thursday, overturning the gun possession conviction of a 17-year-old boy, identified only as Jaime P., because the loaded handgun found in his car should have been suppressed from trial. Admitting that evidence under the earlier precedent generated “legally unjustified results,” the court ruled.
Writing for the majority, Justice Ming Chin reiterated the court’s 2003 decision regarding adults, saying that determining whether a warrantless search is reasonable must be “based upon the circumstances known to the officer when the search is conducted.” Allowing a warrantless search when there was no valid probable cause, he wrote, “would legitimize unlawful police conduct.”
Jaime P. was pulled over in 2004 by a Fairfield police officer for failing to use his turn signals – which was not a traffic offense because there were no other moving vehicles nearby. The officer saw a box of ammunition in plain site and found a .44-caliber handgun underneath a seat after searching the vehicle.
The boy’s attorney moved to suppress the gun as evidence because it was discovered after an illegal traffic stop. The youth was on probation for a vandalism charge, so a Solano County judge upheld the search. The youth, a gang member, was convicted and spent eight months in juvenile hall and at a boys work ranch.
An appeals court said it wanted to reverse the conviction, but was bound by precedent.
In changing the precedent Thursday, the court said it re-examines an earlier decision when it is “unsound or has become ripe for reconsideration.” The justices noted that the precedent was under attack by legal scholars, and even by the state’s lower courts.
In a footnote to that 3-year-old opinion, the court said it was treating juveniles differently because the justice system “embraces a goal of rehabilitating youngsters who have transgressed the law, a goal that is arguably stronger than in the adult context.”
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office had urged the court not to change course, saying it was in the state’s interest to supervise and monitor juveniles offenders as much as possible. The justices ruled such a goal would “not be impaired by requiring that the officers conducting such searches be aware of the search condition.”
“It’s unfortunate that our California Supreme Court has taken this turn,” Deputy District Attorney Brentford Ferreira said Thursday.
In dissent, Justice Marvin Baxter voted to uphold the search.
“Despite the officer’s ignorance of the juvenile’s probation search condition,” he wrote, “I would find that the traffic stop and subsequent inventory search of the car did not violate the juvenile’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.”
The case is In re Jaime P., S135263.
 

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