*Case Law Ltd. Extern and Cornell Law School Student, Class of 2024
** Case Law Ltd. Extern and South Texas College of Law Student, Class of 2024
On March 28, 2022, the Court of Appeal of California reversed the denial of a Penal Code § 1538.5 (motion to suppress) filed in 2019 by Case Law Ltd.’s Jeffrey L. Mendelman on behalf of Andrew Holiman. (People v. Holiman (2022) 76 Cal.App.5th 825, 825 [291 Cal.Rptr.3d 840].)
This new published decision not only allows Holiman to be released from prison, but also allows other potential clients to benefit, especially motorists of color who are often targets for pre-textual stops by the police.
Background and Procedural History
Andrew Holiman was found in possession of illegal drugs and a handgun during a traffic stop based on his alleged failure to signal a right-hand turn early enough, namely, for the 100 feet he drove before stopping at a stop sign and then turning right. See People v. Holiman, No. A160142, 2022 Cal. App. LEXIS 250, at *1 (Ct. App. Mar. 28, 2022). The arresting officer – whose patrol car was stopped directly behind him – cited him for violation of Vehicle Code section 22108. See id.
Holiman moved to suppress the seized evidence, on the grounds that (1) the warrantless seizure of the evidence violated the Fourth Amendment because the police lacked an objectively reasonable suspicion that the manner in which he signaled his right-hand turn violated the Vehicle Code; and (2) even if he did violate the Vehicle Code, the police violated his rights to equal protection. See id. at *2, *5. The trial court denied his motion, following which he pled guilty to two felony drug charges and was sentenced to a prison term. Id. at *1. The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment, agreeing with Holiman’s first argument (the Fourth Amendment issue), without reaching the second argument (the Equal Protection issue). See id. at *2.
The Court of Appeal’s Analysis of the Fourth Amendment Violation
The Court of Appeals began by establishing the law: a defendant may move to suppress evidence on the ground that the warrantless search or seizure was unreasonable, and that with undisputed facts, the traffic stop’s reasonableness is a question of law. See id. at *7-8 (citing People v. Suff, 58 Cal.4th 1013, 1053 (2014)). Reasonable suspicion means “the detaining officer can point to specific articulable facts that, considered in light of the totality of the circumstances, provide some objective manifestation that the person detained may be involved in criminal activity.” Id. at *8. If the traffic stop is based on a mistake, then the resulting search or seizure is lawful as long as the officer’s mistake is objectively reasonable. Id. (citing Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 57 (2014)).
In this case, the People argued that there was no Fourth Amendment violation because Holiman did violate the Vehicle Code, and that even if he did not, the officer at worst made a reasonable mistake in thinking that the law required Holiman to signal his turn sooner than he did. Holiman argued that he did not violate the Vehicle Code, and that it was not objectively reasonable for the officer to think that he did. See id. at *9-10.
In agreeing with Holiman, the Court of Appeals analyzed the relevant sections of the Vehicle Code, and concluded that the requirement of signaling continuously for 100 feet before a turn is not a distinct traffic offense, and applies only if another driver would be affected by the turn. Id. at *11 (citing People v. Carmona, 195 Cal.App.4th 1385, 1394 (2011)). The Court thus framed the central question as whether the officer had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that another vehicle could be affected by Holiman’s right-hand turn. Id. at *12.
The People argued that the officer reasonably could have believed that her own patrol car could have been affected by the Holiman’s turn. However, the Court of Appeals rejected this theory because (1) it was never asserted in the trial court; (2) the People offered no evidence or explanation of how the officer’s patrol car, which would be also stopping at the stop sign, could have been affected by Holiman’s turn; and (3) the People presented no objectively reasonable basis for an officer in that position to think her car could have been affected, since there was no physical way for the two full-sized cars on a narrow one-lane street to collide during the turn. See id. at *13-15.
The Court acknowledged that in different circumstances, a vehicle (such as a motorcycle) could potentially be affected by the unsignaled turn of a car stopped ahead of it, but emphasized that this is a “fundamentally different” situation, and remarks that “it is unclear to us how any reasonable person reading [the statute’s] plain text could think there was even a potential hazard to a car in Officer Bellamy’s position.” See id. at *15-17. The Court of Appeal thus concluded that the trial court erred in denying Holiman’s motion to suppress the evidence seized in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Id. at *18.
Implications of the Court of Appeal’s Decision
To begin with, this decision fundamentally changes the practical standard being applied in determining whether there was reasonable suspicion to support an unwarranted search or seizure and, in the case of a mistake, whether the mistake was reasonable. While the law typically favors an objective standard in determining reasonableness on these issues, in practice, the officer’s intent still played a significant role prior to this case. The officer could claim that they thought the defendant violated the Code, and the court would then likely determine that a reasonable officer could think that the defendant violated the Code, thus constituting a reasonable suspicion or reasonable mistake.
Holiman’s case introduces stricter scrutiny by the court into the state of the law in determining reasonableness. It is no longer enough for the officer to think that he violated the Code; the thought must be objectively reasonable based on interpretation of the law – in this case, whether the turn could affect another vehicle on the road. This heightened level of judicial scrutiny is great news for motorists across California, since any police officers who want to conduct pretext traffic stops must now make sure that there is an objectively reasonable justification for the stop based on the law, in order for their search and seizure to be legal under the Fourth Amendment.
It is important to note two caveats, however. First of all, Holiman’s case is a landmark case because its circumstances are particularly sympathetic and straightforward: the officer joined the police force only a month prior and was still in training; she persistently followed Holiman for nearly a mile to in search of a pretext to stop him, ignoring multitudes of traffic infractions by other motorists along the way; and most importantly, the unique fact that it was two full-sized cars on a one-lane street made it physically impossible for Holiman’s turn to affect the officer’s car, and serves as the backbone of the argument that the officer’s mistake was not objectively reasonable. However, if the circumstances are different, such as if the officer is highly experienced and reputable, or if there were no traffic infractions by other motorists along the way, or if the officer was on a motorcycle, or if it was a multi-lane street, the result might be different. The Court of Appeals opinion in fact acknowledges this – that such determinations are much dependent on circumstances. See id. at *15. In a way, Holiman’s case is a relatively easy case for the Court of Appeals to achieve the right result. That does not mean that this case is not reassuring and groundbreaking good news, but simply that the fight against arbitrary policing and racial profiling is still ongoing.
Relatedly, it is worth noting that while the Court of Appeals righted the wrong, it did so by (rightfully) addressing the Fourth Amendment issue but skipping over the Equal Protection issue, even though in fact both of these arguments raised by Holiman have merit. The evidence in this case, such as that the officer did not stop any of other motorists who committed traffic infractions in plain view, clearly speaks to discriminatory enforcement. However, given the extreme racial disparity in drug-related arrests in California and in the United States in general, for the Court to address the Equal Protection claim would necessitate a more systematic reform with regard to mass incarceration and the racial biases in law enforcement. And that is what we are striving towards. Indeed, in recognizing racial disparity within the criminal justice system, California’s legislature passed the California Racial Justice Act (“RJA”) in 2020. Due to lack of retroactivity, however, such was not available as a defense in Mr. Holiman’s case.