Atascadero police accused of illegal searches

August 30, 2012


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.


Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

“Can I check what’s in your back pack?”

How a 14 year old responds to two guys standing over him/her with a hand on their side arm, and a badge on their shirt, is going to be different than how he/she responds to someone who is unarmed with no authority.

It would take a savvy and brave kid to say no … but then that might be considered probable cause by an over zealous officer. The Atascadero Police Chief should be rethinking how the City’s Officers are conducting their investigations at public parks.

How can groupthink rethink anything?

The proper response is, “I don’t consent to searches.”

Are we seriously supposed to believe that Atasca is suffering from too heavy a police presence?

Let’s just treat parks like stadiums or Disneyland. You can choose use them subject to facility rules intended to ensure enjoyment by all, including searches. Think about a municipal pool, lots of rules, you can’t just jump in. Post some signs and call it done.

Wow…sounds like 1930’s Berlin.

So the cops can just go up to anyone at a PUBLIC park and say “open your bag?” I don’t THINK so!

Private attractions like Disneyland or Dodgers Stadium can do almost whatever they want; I’m OK with that. But if my kids & I are sitting on a public bench in a public park, there’s no WAY I’m OK w/being subject to random searches.

Ya sure you got that analogy right?

It’s simple really, bad behavior and illegal activity draws the attention of law enforcement…

Gangs and drug dealers prey on the innocent, and just being in the sunken gardens does not an excuse make…

Amazing skills to be able to determine accurately everything that is or has occurred merely by looking at some photos. But hey, it’s a dog pile so just pile on with all your pent up frustrations over that last citation you got. Please don’t call the cops with your crying about not being able to enjoy a downtown park due to the overwhelming numbers of smart -aleced juveniles who already have been coached by their parent’s behavior on just how far they can push the limits. Oh and ditto for the vagrants sprawled out in their alcoholic stupors with their requisite dogs that use the grass for their toilet. I’m sure you won’t mind when your kids run through some dog poop or ask “why is that smelly man laying over there with all those bottles around him?” Just can’t make the folks happy can they?

Simmer down, Theo. No one wants drunken transients and their poopy-filled pups to take over the so-called Sunken Gardens. Hopefully they’ll remain in SLO’s parks, south of the Grade.

But this article raises some interesting issues about the police’s actions. I don’t see a time frame mentioned so I don’t know if these searches happened during school hours or not. I guess if a teen is lounging at the park at 11:30am, the cops may think he’s a truant and ask him what’s he’s doing instead of being in school. (Yeah, yeah, homeschoolers–I know he could be there on a field trip or something, but I doubt it.)

However, if it’s after school hours, I wouldn’t want the police questioning my kid or rummaging through his backpack without notifying ME first. If these allegations are indeed correct, the cops seem to be stepping over the line.

Don’t fret, I’m quite calm. I’m used to the sensationalistic “reporting’ on this site and the strange willingness of the readers to believe everything that is printed here.

Why exactly do you have a problem with police searching your child’s backpack? What’s in there?

I don’t live in Atascadero, I don’t have teen-age children (mine are all in their thirties and on their own); that said, I most certainly have a problem with the police searching a teenager’s backpack with no probable cause. I ask this next question without any knowledge about the Atascadero Police Department specifically; is it out of the question to think about the possibility of a police officer “planting” something illegal in a minor’s backpack in order to obtain an arrest? As a parent, I trusted my children while they were growing up and never had a suspicion that they were doing anything illegal and I never had a problem with them in that regard. Did they experiment with MJ or alcohol? I don’t know, but their behavior never gave reason to suspect it. Having them harassed by the police department would have been very upsetting, glad it never happened.

Agreed, bob. Due to past events over the last 2-3 years, I do not trust the A-town or Paso cops alone w/my kid. Period.

“What’s in there?” Is not a legal excuse to rummage through my child’s possessions. Besides, all the cop would find is some half-eaten Zone bars, a beat-up iPod, and some school books.

But again, that’s NOT the point. If a cop suspects something illegal is in my kid’s backpack, by all means, give ME a call and I’ll be there in a jiffy!

I have a problem with police disregarding the constitution. BTW, do you have a brother named top?

Looks like the Po Po got popped gathering some low hanging fruit.

Young people are easy prey for harassment, easy to intimidate, don’t know their rights, and sure not likely to get their parents involved.

Shame on the APD for using this type of tactic to run young people out of the park.

If you don’t want the young people “to emulate the Paso gangs,” perhaps the Atascadero PD should reconsider emulating the Paso PD.

Didn’t Albert Einstein say “The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

That being said a couple of weeks ago I saw a man obviously intoxicated or chemically impaired stumbling out of the park.

Simple police presence should be adequate to keep problems in check.

Wrong order, gangs come first, police response second, not the other way around. You are saying that police actions create gangs. At worst, police actions fail to address or curtail the problem to my satisfaction. “Simple police presence”? 168 hours a week/officer to drive the deals to the next park? I want my police tax dollar spent a little more efficiently, or if you concede defeat and decline, more proudly.

So this whole investigative “report” is based on some accusation by some “my kid is perfect” parent and a publicity hungry trial lawyer? Sheesh! Great journalism! I hear the National Enquirer is hiring. Oh and nice job of hanging your officers out to dry , Sgt. Meyer!

Refuse to ID police? Colonel Klink add gruppenfuhrers.

sarcasm starts:

Probable cause? We don’t need no stink’n PC.

We can tell just by looking at someone they are violating some law.

And yes, you are subject to my investigative questions until I say you are free to go.

sarcasm ends

It’s one thing and their duty for police to interact and get to know the people.

It’s a complete abuse of power and harassment to ask questions about unsubstantiated criminal activity and conduct searches looking for suspected criminal activity under the color or authority.

It’s a slippery slope to totalitarianism.

If people can ‘t meet and exchange ideas freely in a public park without harassment by law enforcement, where do you expect them to meet?

I have personally experienced these eggregious activities by APD, so I know first hand their tactics and felt violated and I was subject to their questions, but I learned now to just ignore them and if they start asking questions, I’ll ask what they are investigating and respond simply and direct without and will escalate it with asking for the supervisior while I ready my hand on my cell phone with the attorney on speed dial.

APD needs to quit acting like hall monitors thugs and more like professional law enforcement.

Hmmmmm! Why do you have your attorney on speed dial. Most law abiding people don’t have to do that. Good job PD, we don’t want to have the problems that our surrounding cities have.

Because I am businessman jack!

I’m your neighborhood capitalist creating ideas and trying to make a living, I just subscribe to fascism, police, corporate or government….

What’s your story Herr Holly.

correction: I don’t subscribe to fascism….

I’ve got my attorney on speed dial. And if you live in SLO county you should too!

Because it is his/her constitutional right to do so. Why does having an attorney automatically indicate wrongful behavior to you, Mr. Holly? Do you not believe in the constitution, or innocent until proven guilty. Sounds to me like you’re just fine with a police state because you believe it provides you some sort of safety.