Atascadero police accused of illegal searches
August 30, 2012
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
Atascadero police are routinely rooting through backpacks and belongings of youngsters in the city park, often without permission, in what officials describe as an attempt to staunch gang and criminal activity.
A parent who witnessed officers’ contact with juveniles and other people in the park last week said the searches appeared to be random, and often involved young teenagers from the nearby Atascadero Junior High School campus. Plainclothes and uniformed officers also approached, questioned, and searched picnickers and others in the park, and rousted a few homeless from a nearby creek. CalCoastNews obtained photographs of some of the police actions, but Atascadero police officials declined to identify any of the officers in the photos.
Sgt. Gregg Meyer, public information officer for the Atascadero Police Department, said his department “doesn’t have a specific policy about searching these backpacks. We follow the law. If there is suspicion or probable cause, then we will do it (search). But even juveniles have rights. If they (field officers) are going to search a backpack, they are either going to have a reason to do it, or they will get permission from the student to do that. If there’s a crime, there will be an arrest. If no crime, then everyone walks away happy.”
San Luis Obispo attorney Louis Koory said he doubts the searches are always appropriate. After viewing one photo of officers examining the contents of a young teen’s backpack, Koory said, “This sure looks like a detention and an illegal search.”
“What would have happened to this juvenile if he walked away from the police or refused to let them search his backpack?” asked Koory, the 2009-2011 San Luis Obispo County Trial Lawyer of the Year.
Meyer said there are efforts on the part of some “to emulate the Paso gangs.”
“We have had an increase of criminal activity in the park,” Meyer said. “We have a group of kids who claim to be part of a gang. They are not into drugs, they just like to dress differently.”
Meyer acknowledged that “minors are being contacted in the park, and I think those contacts have been, over all, good. We have made some arrests of juveniles, for possessing dangerous weapons such as a knife. We have arrested adults for lying. That’s what’s been going on down there. We don’t just go up randomly and say, ‘Hey, I’m searching your bag.’”
Koory suggested there are different levels of contact between police and citizens in a public place. One type is consensual, and another type is a detention.
“A detention occurs when a reasonable person would not feel free to leave. A detention is a restraint on liberty and is governed by the Fourth Amendment,” Koory said. “Street detentions of juveniles by police are still governed by the Fourth Amendment. There must be some suspicion of criminal conduct to justify such a detention.”
Meyer contends the officers “always” get permission from subjects of field searches if there is no apparent reasonable suspicion.
“But if we get information that drugs might be involved, or a weapon, we do not need permission,” Meyer said.
Attorney Koory said that such “permission” granted by minors under duress might be inadequate.
“In the absence of valid consent from the juvenile — questionable here given his age and the display of authority — the backpack search is illegal and is arguably an abuse of authority,” Koory said. “Police are limited in a street detention to conducting a pat down search only — and only — if the officer believes the person is armed and dangerous. An officer who has no right to conduct a pat search cannot search the citizen’s belongings, such as the backpack in the photo.”
Meyer said he shares concerns about the legality of officer searches.
“If what you are saying is true, then I have a problem with that,” he said. “I am very concerned about it, and it is something I need to investigate. If we have rogue cops, then we will deal with it.” But he said he would need a formal complaint from a parent to proceed.