Police Permitted to Search Defendant’s Purse Based on Boyfriend’s Probation Search Terms

police standingCan the police search your personal belongings pursuant to someone else’s probation or parole search terms?  According to the California Court of Appeals for the Second District, sometimes the answer is yes.

The defendant in this case shared an apartment with her boyfriend who was on probation.  Her boyfriend’s probation included search terms, commonly referred to as a Fourth Amendment Waiver, which permitted law enforcement to search his property without a warrant or probable cause.  These types of search terms are very often part of a person’s release from custody on probation or parole.

On August 1, 2011, an Oxnard Police officer showed up at the defendant’s door to conduct a probation search of the apartment.  Both the defendant in this case and her probationer boyfriend were at home.  The defendant answered the door and allowed the officer into the apartment.  The officer saw the defendant’s boyfriend walk out of the bedroom as he entered.  The officer ultimately searched that bedroom, which was cluttered with bags, boxes, and other items.  In the middle of the room, the officer found a purse sitting on a chair.  The defendant identified the purse as belonging to her and asked if she could retrieve her medication from the purse.  The officer offered to retrieve the medication for her because he did not intend to allow her to access the purse during his search.

Inside the purse, the officer found a make-up bag which contained methamphetamine and paraphernalia commonly used for smoking methamphetamine.  Although the defendant claimed the make-up bag inside her purse didn’t belong to her, she was arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine.  During a continued search of the room, the officer found more methamphetamine, a scale, and more drug paraphernalia.

Prior to trial, the defense filed a motion to suppress the evidence discovered in the defendant’s purse, arguing the purse belonged to the defendant who did not have search terms and should not have been searched.  The trial court denied the motion, reasoning that the probationer had at least joint control over the bedroom and all the items inside it.  The defense appealed.

It has been long established that a probationer’s search terms allow for the search of common areas shared by a probationer and a non-probationer, such as the living room or kitchen in a residence.  However, the defense in this case argued that the purse was a distinctly female item which the officer had no reason to believe belonged to the probationer.  They also relied on a prior case in which police were not permitted to search the purse of a female passenger in a car when the purse was on the floorboard at her feet.  People v. Baker, (2008) 164 Cal.App.4th 1152.  The court in Baker reasoned that there could be “no reasonable suspicion that the purse belonged to the [male] driver.”  The defense’s contention was that the officer in this case could likewise have no reasonable suspicion that the purse belonged to the probationer and was therefore not subject to his search terms.

The Court of Appeals disagreed.  They considered the facts that the defendant shared the bedroom with her probationer boyfriend and that her boyfriend was seen by the officer coming out of the bedroom.  The Court agreed with the trial court in holding that the probationer had at least joint control and access to the purse, explaining that to rule otherwise would allow a probationer to “flout a probation search condition by hiding drugs in a cohabitant’s purse.”  While combining this case with the previous holding in Baker certainly does not provide a bright line rule for the limitations of a probationer’s search terms, it does provide a little insight into what the courts are likely to allow.

People v. Ermi – Certified for Publication

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