On November 23, 2010, our client Ms. Johnson was stopped by the San Bernardino Police Department (SBPD”) while driving a car borrowed from a friend. The arresting officer claimed he stopped Ms. Johnson for having illegally tinted car windows. In fact, the stop was a pretext and done at the request of a multi-agency task force comprised of federal and local law enforcement agents investigating drug trafficking in the San Bernardino area. The task force, headed by former FBI agent Scott Bowman (now under indictment on various federal charges), suspected the car had drugs in it but lacked a search warrant. So they requested that a San Bernardino police officer basically find a reason to stop the car in the hopes of creating a reason to search inside. This tactic is commonly known as a “Wall Stop,” because the goal is to stop and search the car without alerting the driver to the fact they were actually being targeted as part of an independent investigation, and that the traffic stop was a ruse to keep the investigation secret or behind the wall. According to the SBPD officer, Ms. Johnson gave oral consent to search the car following the traffic stop.
The search yielded one pound of methamphetamine. That subjected Ms. Johnson to 10-years in federal prison. Nearly five years later, Ms. Johnson along with 51 other defendants was charged in a federal indictment (United States v. Bustamante et al, ED CR 14-00107-VAP) with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A)(viii) and 21 U.S.C. §846. The charges against her stemmed from the incident on November 23, 2010, and the one pound of methamphetamine. On her behalf, last June we filed a motion with the federal district court in Riverside, California to suppress the drug evidence on a number of grounds, including the fact that Ms. Johnson did not give consent for the vehicle search. On November 16, 2015, the Honorable Virginia A. Phillips held a suppression hearing that lasted the entire day, and included testimony from four law enforcement agents including the lead FBI agent, as well as our private investigator. We also put Ms. Johnson on the stand to testify regarding the consent issue and the traffic stop.
Today, Judge Phillips issued her decision granting the motion to suppress, on the grounds that the Government did not meet its burden of proving Ms. Johnson consented to the search. The burden is on the Government to justify a warrantless search. The decision (attached) emphasizes the fact that SBPD Officer Heilman, who made the traffic stop and claimed oral consent to search, had not followed SBPD policy which all-but requires that consent to a vehicle search be evidenced in a written form signed by the driver, and could not explain this failure. We were able to establish this point only after issuing a number of subpoenas to the SBPD seeking information concerning its policies and procedures, as well as prior incidents involving Officer Heilman. It was tedious work but ultimately paid dividends. Ms. Johnson is only 25 years of age and barely 20 when the underlying incident took place. It is expected that this motion win will lead to the dismissal of all charges against her.