Court Dismisses Drug Charges: Detained for Resembling the Suspect in Another Case

English: Silhouette of a train to the right

The California Court of Appeals for the Sixth District ordered drug and other charges dismissed against a San Jose suspect who was detained by police because he resembled the physical description of a sexual assault suspect.

In November of 2010, a sexual assault occurred at the light rail station in downtown San Jose.  The suspects were two Black males who had not been identified.  Evidence for that case included the physical descriptions of the two suspects from witnesses and some grainy footage from a surveillance camera at the rail station.  A detective from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office prepared and distributed an e-mail regarding the incident which contained the physical description of the suspects and photographs taken from the grainy video.  One of the suspects was described as a “Black male adult, approximately in his 20′s, approximately six-one, 195, short afro, clean shaven, light complected, appeared unkempt, wearing a backpack.”

Deputy Thrall was on duty the same evening that e-mail had been distributed, and he was working at the light rail station where the sexual assault had occurred.  Having reviewed the suspect information earlier, Deputy Thrall saw a subject disembarking from the train at about 10:15 pm who he believed resembled one of the suspects described in the detective’s e-mail.  Deputy Thrall described the subject as “19 years old; five feet 10 inches tall; weighed approximately 180 pounds; had short black hair; was of medium to dark complexion; had a mustache and a slight goatee; was well groomed; and was wearing a gray sweatshirt, blue jeans, and blue and white shoes.”  Deputy Thrall contacted and detained the subject, and he asked him if he had proof of fare.  The subject asked why he had been singled out, and Deputy Thrall told him he had the right to ask him for proof of fare and that he resembled the suspect in a sexual assault.  Deputy Thrall asked the subject for identification, but the subject denied having identification.  A few minutes later, after additional deputies arrived, Deputy Thrall instructed the subject to sit on a bench and he again asked for identification.  This time, the subject presented a San Jose State University student identification card.  A subsequent records check revealed the subject who was detained was not the person whose name appeared on the identification card, and the subject was arrested for providing a false name to a peace officer.  During a search incident to the arrest, deputies found marijuana and cocaine base in the subject’s possession.  He was ultimately charged with providing false identification to a peace officer, possession of cocaine base for sale, and possession of marijuana.

Before trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence claiming Deputy Thrall did not have reasonable suspicion to detain him.  The trial court denied the motion, and the defendant pled guilty and appealed.  On appeal, the defendant again argued that Deputy Thrall did not have reasonable suspicion to detain him.  The prosecution claimed Deputy Thrall had the right to detain the defendant, both to check for proof of fare and because the defendant matched the description of the sexual assault suspect.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the prosecution on both points.  Regarding the proof of fare, the Court specifically took notice of the fact that Deputy Thrall did not request proof of fare from any other passengers and did not even have his citation book with him when he detained the defendant.  Noting that the proof of fare was purely pretextual, and Deputy Thrall’s true purpose was to detain the defendant to investigate the sexual assault, the Court decided to determine the legality of the stop based on the reasonable suspicion that the defendant was involved in the previous sexual assault.

Deputy Thrall supported his reasonable suspicion to detain the defendant by citing the defendant’s resemblance to the sexual assault suspect, the fact that the defendant was at the train station where the sexual assault had occurred, and the fact that the train station was in a high crime area known for narcotics activity.  The court recognized Deputy Thrall’s belief that the defendant resembled the sexual assault suspect as the primary factor in determining his reasonable suspicion.  The Court first dismissed any match between the defendant and the sexual assault suspect based on the grainy photographs.  They found the pictures were of such poor quality that they would have been of little use in identifying a suspect.  In comparing the physical descriptions between the sexual assault suspect and the defendant, the Court determined that there was little similarity beyond age and race.  The Court concluded that such a loose match between the sexual assault suspect and the defendant did not justify his detention.  Citing a previous court’s decision, they held that allowing such a detention would be “socially intolerable and constitutionally impermissible.”  The Court also held that the defendant being at the same train station where a sexual assault had occurred a week earlier, and being in what law enforcement described as a high crime area, were of little to no consequence in justifying the defendant’s detention.

Since the Court determined that insufficient reasonable suspicion existed for Deputy Thrall to detain the defendant, none of the evidence resulting from the detention was admissible.  The Court of Appeals ordered the case remanded back to the trial court with an order the case be dismissed.

People v. Walker, 210 Cal.App.4th 1372 (2012)






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