California Penal Code Section 1538.5 - Example Case

In People v. Hill (1974) 12 Cal.3d 731, the defendants pled guilty to murder after the trial court denied their motions to suppress evidence under Penal Code section 1538.5. The Supreme Court upheld the court's rulings in the main, but concluded that police officers exceeded the permissible scope of the search of a residence in seizing some tape recordings, two paper bags and a motel receipt as to which a sufficient "nexus" to criminal activity was not established. Although "the bulk of the evidence which defendants sought to suppress" was properly admissible, defendants' convictions were reversed since their guilty pleas made it impossible to assess the impact of the error as to the remainder. ( Id. , at pp. 767-769.) The Court held an erroneous ruling on a motion to suppress, followed by a guilty plea, precluded the appellate court from attempting to assess the prejudicial effect of the error. The Supreme Court stated (at p. 769): "In view of the magnitude of the consequences of a guilty plea and the lack of an adequate basis upon which an appellate court can evaluate the impact of a trial court's error, we conclude that the doctrine of harmless error is inapplicable in the context of an appeal under section 1538.5, subdivision (m). The accused must be afforded an opportunity to personally elect whether, contrary to the trial court's ruling, the suppression of certain items of evidence would alter the situation in a sufficiently favorable manner so as to render a plea of not guilty strategically preferable."