Legal marijuana results in illegal search

Judge Geoffrey A. Goodman (upper left) swears in Officer Mustafa Mohammad (bottom right) of the Sacramento Police Department via Zoom.

Sacramento officers needed more than defendant’s admission he possessed cannabis to search car for gun, judge rules

A Sacramento County judge ruled Friday that two Sacramento Police gang officers lacked the legal justification to search the car of a Black man last year, after he admitted to possessing marijuana and was arrested when officers found a loaded firearm inside the car.

“Admitting that you may possess something that’s legal to possess doesn’t allow, I think, a search of the vehicle,” Sacramento Superior Court Judge Geoffrey A. Goodman said in making his decision.

The judge’s ruling essentially ends the prosecution of Traydeon Holmes, who told officers he had just purchased the car and didn’t know about the handgun in the center console. As much as one ounce of cannabis for personal use is legal for adults to possess in California.

The June 19 hearing that suppressed officers’ discovery also provided a glimpse into what Sacramento Police Department’s ShotSpotter Team does when it isn’t using acoustic censors to investigate suspected gun activity. The ShotSpotter program has come under increased scrutiny, with local Black leaders saying the money being used to sustain and expand the program should instead be invested in the neighborhoods where the sensors are placed.

Officer Mustafa Mohammad testified that he and his partner patrol South Sacramento “proactively making stops” when they’re not receiving notifications of suspected gunfire on their cellphones and in-car computers.

On June 4, 2019, Mohammad and his partner pulled their unmarked vehicle into an AM/PM gas station on the 6000 block of Mack Road a little after 2 a.m. Mohammad testified that he saw a man pumping gas into a black Mercedes that didn’t have a front license plate and pulled his vehicle behind it. While his partner ran the license plate, Mohammad testified that he asked the driver for his license and asked if there was anything illegal in the car.

Mohammad testified that Holmes said he had some marijuana in the car. The officers detained Holmes, handcuffing him and seating him on the ground while they searched his car. In the center console, they found a pink-and-black handgun with six rounds in the clip and none in the chamber, Mohammad testified.

Mohammad testified that they found no sales record for the gun and arrested Holmes for illegally possessing it. After reading Holmes his Miranda rights, Mohammad said Holmes told him the gun belonged to his cousin and that he didn’t know it was in his vehicle.

“He said her didn’t know anything about the firearm in the vehicle,” Mohammad testified. “He did not know that his cousin had it.”

Jesse Ortiz, Holmes’ defense attorney, questioned the officers’ grounds for searching his client’s car.

“Was there anything that he did or said that made you think he might be armed?” Ortiz asked.

“He had a sweater on,” Mohammad said. “A lot can be concealed under a sweater, but nothing he said … or did.”

Mohammad, who testified that he also belonged to his department’s South Gang Enforcement Team, went on to say that the specific sweater that Holmes wore the night of his arrest indicated he might belong to a gang.

“Plus he had Germ Season Clothing,” Mohammad said. “Germ Season Clothing is well known—as the sweater Mr. Holmes has on right now—is known gang members of the southern portion of Sacramento dress in that type of clothing.”

“But that’s not illegal, right?” Ortiz said. “He can wear that type of clothing if he wants, right?”

“It is not illegal, however certain gangs only dress in that brand,” Mohammad said.

Germ Season Clothing describes itself as an urban clothing brand and is based in Sacramento. It has fewer than 900 followers on its Facebook page.

Ortiz also questioned why Mohammad and his partner didn’t obtain a warrant to search the car.

“Because I had probable cause to make sure that Mr. Holmes was transporting marijuana legally,” Mohammad testified.

Mohammad likened the situation to making sure someone who admitted to having alcohol in the car wasn’t driving with an open container, an analogy that Holmes’ defense attorney later pounced on in arguments before the judge.

“Based on his argument or his reasoning, if he pulls someone over and they say there’s a beer in my car, that doesn’t give him the right to search the car,” said attorney Jesse Ortiz. “It’s only if there’s reason to think that it’s an open container. Same thing with the marijuana.

“On his own, he decided based on his training—improper, I would submit to the court—that this was an appropriate search. And it was not.”

Aaron Cadiz, representing the people as a certified legal intern, argued that it was inevitable that the pistol would be found because the expired registration allowed officers to impound and inventory the vehicle. He also cited an Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling allowing officers to search the vehicles of motorists who possess marijuana, which the judge rejected because it concerned states where marijuana isn’t legal.

The judge agreed with Ortiz that the reason for the search came down to the defendant admitting he possessed marijuana, which wasn’t enough.

“I just don’t think there’s any basis for the defendant admitting he had a small amount of marijuana in the car, which is legal in the state, for them to search the interior of the car,” Goodman said in granting defense’s motion to suppress the gun.

According to online court records, the court previously dropped felony counts of second-degree robbery and assault against Holmes in November.

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1 Comment on "Legal marijuana results in illegal search"

  1. It’s not widely known that “gang designations” are unilateral opinions of police, made without any due process requirement for any court hearing or other rebuttal. So calling someone a gang member is often a waste of our time.

    Several years ago I was invited to an evening meeting for a police presentation about the terrible dangers of gangs. After a short talk, and a promise that there would be time for Q&A after, we watched a video about gang behavior that consisted of a mix of video apparently shot by the teens themselves for their own amusement and consisted of standard rebellious teen behavior like smoking weed and cussing, altho at one point one kid did pull out a gun and show it around. And oops, turned out there was actually no time for a real conversation.
    I hope cops can start doing better than this, such as declaring a truce in the war on drug users. Reading “Punishment Without Crime” would be some good remedial education:

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