Monday, March 9, 2015

Colorado Supreme Court People v. Munoz-Gutierrez 14SA187

Decision here.

   An officer working a drug interdiction assignment pulled Munoz-Gutierrez over for weaving across the fog line.  There was a bit of a language barrier, but they were able to communicate (especially after the arrival of another officer who spoke a little more Spanish, albeit not fluently).

   The cops did that thing where they give someone a warning, tell them they're free to go, and then ask them if they'd mind answering a few more questions.  They asked (in Spanish) if there was anything illegal in the car, and after Munoz-Gutierrez denied that they asked if they could search.  He gave consent (apparently through body language, the decision doesn't specify how).  They brought out a written consent form, but Munoz-Gutierrez's education wasn't really sufficient for him to understand it (although it was in Spanish), and he signed on the wrong line.

   They searched the car and found enough marijuana for it to be illegal even in Colorado.  Munoz-Gutierrez was arrested, but the trial court later found that his consent was invalid because the cops didn't explain to him beforehand that he had the right to refuse.  The people filed an interlocutory appeal.

   Before searching based solely on consent, C.R.S. 16-3-310 requires police officers in Colorado to explain to someone that they are being asked to voluntarily consent to a search and that they have the right to refuse.  It's not something we're required to recite verbatim, and failure to advise a person as required is only considered a factor in whether or not the consent was voluntary.

   In this case, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the trial court incorrectly treated the lack of required advisement as fatal to the voluntariness of a search.  As far as the courts are concerned, the real question is whether the consent is due to unduly coercive conduct by the police which overbears the defendant's will.  Factors which the courts consider include: the age, education, and intelligence of the defendant; the duration, location, and circumstances of the search; the consenting person's state of mind; and anything else that could have affected the defendant's free and unconstrained choice in consenting to the search.

   In this case, the court held that although the police didn't give the proper advisement of Munoz-Gutierrez's right to refuse, and although that factored against them, they still didn't overbear his will.  The order suppressing the search was reversed, and this case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.