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Illegal Search & Seizure Reversed

People v. Nunes Court: California Courts of Appeal, Docket: H046395 (Sixth Appellate District), Opinion Date: May 6, 2021. A Milpitas Fire Department captain responded to Nunes’s house one afternoon based on a report of a “whole structure fire.” He saw no fire and no smoke. Neighbors standing outside stated they had recently seen smoke coming from the backyard. A police officer “pounded” on the house’s door. No one answered. The fire captain opened a gate and entered the backyard, where he smelled smoke in the air. He found no active fire but saw test tubes, chemistry equipment, and a homemade toy rocket that looked burned on the ground. The captain noticed a closed shed. No smoke was coming from it, nor did the smell of smoke seem to originate there. He opened the shed “to make sure everything is clear,” and saw a metal cabinet. The captain admitted there was nothing specific about the cabinet that made him think he should look inside: He opened the cabinet, saw unfamiliar bottled chemicals, and called the hazardous materials team. The police ultimately obtained a search warrant, based in part on those chemicals. After the search warrant was executed, Nunes was charged with numerous offenses for possessing explosives and explosive materials. Denying Nunes's motion to suppress evidence, the trial court concluded that the search was valid under the exigent circumstances exception. The court of appeal reversed. Opening the cabinet inside the shed, however prudent and well-intentioned, was not an action necessary to prevent imminent danger.

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