People v. Lee, 2018 IL App (3d) 160100 (August). Episode 529 (Duration 4:49)
The officer said the baggie looked like it had oatmeal in it, later testing revealed it to be cocaine.
Police seized cocaine from defendant’s home while executing a search warrant in an unrelated criminal investigation. He got six years in prison.
Defendant’s pretrial motion to suppress argued that the substance was the fruit of an improper search because it was outside the warrant’s scope and not in plain view.
Sterling police investigated defendant’s involvement in a shooting. A witness identified defendant as the shooter.
Police obtained a warrant to search defendant’s home for evidence related to the shooting.
A Detective found the drugs underneath defendant’s bed sheets after he pulled back defendant’s bed sheets. They found a knotted, plastic bags that contained a brown, powdery substance.
The bags were concealed in a larger plastic bag.
In officer’s experience, this packaging method suggested that the bags contained illicit drugs. He believed that the substance was either heroin or a “bad batch” of cocaine.
According to defendant, counsel should have renewed the motion after Chavira testified that he could not initially identify the substance with certainty; this testimony rendered the seizure improper.
In fact, he testified at the compulsory joinder hearing that the substance looked like oatmeal.
Plain View Doctrine
In Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 136-37 (1990), the Supreme Court officially adopted a long-recognized standard that, for police to properly seize evidence in plain view, its “incriminating character” must be immediately apparent.
Defendant claims that the substance’s incriminating character was not immediately apparent because Detective Chavira admittedly did not know that the substance contained cocaine.
Defendant relies heavily on People v. Humphrey, 361 Ill. App. 3d 947 (2005), where a police officer stopped a motorist for speeding. During the stop, the officer noticed a container holding hundreds of pills near the passenger’s feet.
The court held that the officer improperly seized the pills because he did not know that they contained pseudoephedrine or whether possessing the pills constituted a crime.
This court disagrees with People v. Humphrey, 361 Ill. App. 3d 947 (2005).
The Supreme Court has described “immediately apparent” as “an unhappy choice of words, since it can be taken to imply that an unduly high degree of certainty as to the incriminatory character of evidence is necessary.” Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730, 741 (1983).
Essentially, the “immediately apparent” element hinges on a probable cause determination; it does not require a law enforcement officer to know that an item is contraband or evidence of a crime. People v. Jones, 215 Ill. 2d 261, 277 (2005).
It’s A Probable Cause
Probable cause is not a high bar.
It exists if, from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable officer, the items or events at issue create a reasonable probability that defendant committed or is committing a crime.
It is an objective, not subjective, test.
Defendant Is Exaggerating What This Means
Defendant conjures a far-fetched story. He claims the police seriously entertained the possibility that these bags contained his breakfast. Apparently, forgotten in the bed-sheets, packed for his day.
Defendant leaps to the illogical and incorrect conclusion that the cocaine substance’s criminal character was not immediately apparent.
These Ain’t No Innocent Item
Some items that law enforcement officers might associate with “criminal character” do not always demonstrate a reasonable probability that the defendant committed or is committing a crime.
For example, it would be unreasonable in some cases to immediately assign criminal character to a firearm, knife, or baseball bat; people commonly use these items as legitimate tools rather than instruments of crime.
In this case, however, an objectively reasonable law enforcement officer could immediately infer a reasonable probability that defendant’s knotted bags contained illicit drugs, not oatmeal.
Although it is legal for people to apportion oatmeal in individual plastic bags and store them in bed sheets, this hypothetical possibility does not render the seizure unreasonable.
Detective Chavira testified that the substance’s packaging was consistent with that typically used to store illicit drugs. A substance or item’s packaging and/or location can legally justify a seizure.
Chavira had probable cause to seize the substance the moment he discovered it hidden beneath defendant’s bed sheets in packaging commonly used to store illicit drugs. It is irrelevant whether Chavira subjectively believed that the substance looked like oatmeal, heroin, or a “bad batch” of cocaine; an objectively reasonable law enforcement officer could properly infer that the suspiciously packaged powder in defendant’s bed sheets was probably evidence of a crime.
We affirm his conviction.