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One reason police are often against the full legalization of marijuana is that marijuana illegality gives police officer perhaps the easiest excuse to search people and vehicles. Likewise, marijuana arrests are about as easy as it gets for police officers. They smell marijuana, they search and they arrest. No real work, thought, diligence or investigation required. And while marijuana arrests obviously do nothing to make anyone safer and needlessly cost time, money and resources, they count as arrests on the stat sheet all the same. And I suppose it beats having to investigate real crimes that actually have real victims.

Florida has been slow to work its way into the 21st century and legalize marijuana, but at least medical marijuana is legal. Now, some people (those with a valid medical marijuana card) whose vehicle or other property may smell like marijuana may not be doing anything illegal.  Since that is the case, should police still be allowed to stop and search people based on the odor of marijuana when marijuana is not necessarily illegal depending on who has it?

In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, police officers stopped a vehicle at night for a headlight violation. They approached the vehicle and smelled burnt marijuana. They searched the vehicle and arrested the suspect for possession of cannabis. The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of marijuana arguing that the police unlawfully searched the vehicle because the odor of marijuana does not necessarily indicate illegal activity.

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In Florida, the Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures from law enforcement. This means the police cannot just stop, detain or search a person based on speculative reasons or for no reason at all. Depending on the circumstances and the nature of the intrusion into a person’s privacy, the police must have some level of specific proof that a person is, or may become, involved in criminal activity. For an initial detention where the police stop a person to briefly investigate possible criminal activity, the police must have reasonable suspicion of a danger or criminal activity. This suspicion must be based on specific facts, not a hunch.

In a recent case just south of Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was at a private church function uninvited and wearing a bulletproof vest. The police were called, and when they arrived, the defendant walked away. The police officers asked the defendant some questions and then detained him to investigate further. As the police were detaining and questioning the defendant, they noticed a bulge in his pocket. They patted the defendant down and found a gun. The defendant was arrested.

The criminal defense lawyer argued that the police unlawfully detained the defendant because there was no reasonable basis to believe that he had committed, or was about to commit, a crime. It is not illegal to wear a bulletproof vest in public, and the defendant did not give any indication that he was involved in criminal activity.

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When a defendant in Florida pleads guilty or no contest to a crime, or goes to trial and is convicted by a jury, the next step is for the judge to sentence that defendant. Most sentences for crimes other than minor misdemeanors involve incarceration, probation or both. When a defendant is placed on probation, the judge will normally require the defendant to complete certain conditions while on probation, such as community service, paying restitution, some type of treatment, etc. The judge also has the authority to require more unorthodox conditions when the facts of the case make such requirements appropriate.

For instance, in a recent sexual battery case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was placed on probation for 10 years, and one of the conditions prohibited the defendant from accessing the internet except for work and shopping, but no access to social media sites in any case. The criminal defense lawyer objected to that condition and ultimately appealed the sentence to the appellate court. The criminal defense attorney argued that the condition forbidding internet use violated the defendant’s First Amendment rights. The legal analysis for such a First Amendment issue looks at whether the judge’s condition is narrowly tailored to protect a compelling government interest. In other words, the state or the judge can infringe upon a person’s First Amendment rights, but the particular condition that does so must be designed to protect a significant interest and it must not be overbroad in doing so. The criminal defense lawyer conceded that protecting children from a convicted sex offender was certainly a compelling interest. However, the criminal defense attorney argued that such a broad internet restriction was not narrowly tailored to protect that interest.

The criminal defense lawyer cited a United States Supreme Court case which held that a North Carolina statute was unconstitutional as it created a felony crime for any sex offender to access certain websites, including general social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. The Florida appellate court distinguished that case because the North Carolina case involved a statute that limited sex offenders from accessing the internet even after their sentences were completed. So, even after they had successfully completed probation, those sex offenders were still restricted from accessing the internet and risked committing a new felony crime for a violation. That statute did violate the First Amendment as it was prospective and indefinite.

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In DUI cases, once the police arrest a person suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, that person is taken to jail and booked. Only after the arrest and booking is that person taken to a room in the jail and asked to submit to a breathalyzer test. Some people might think the breathalyzer test is part of the DUI investigation such that if a person has a low breathalyzer reading, the police officer will let that person go without an arrest. That is not how it works. The sole purpose of the breathalyzer test is for the state to acquire more evidence to prosecute people for DUI. In other words, if a person has a low breathalyzer reading, that person is still going to jail.

Normally, the police will request the breathalyzer at the jail after arrest. This measures the person’s blood alcohol level. However, if the police officer suspects a person is driving under the influence of drugs, he might request a urine sample instead. Or, if the breathalyzer reading is low, or 0.00, the police officer might assume the issue is drugs rather than alcohol and request a urine sample after the breathalyzer test. The breathalyzer only tests for alcohol, not drugs.

Can the police request a urine sample after, or instead of, a breathalyzer test? And if so, do they need a search warrant? Blood tests generally require a search warrant in a standard DUI case, but urine tests are considered less intrusive. Urine tests do not require physical intrusion into the body. Also, the FDLE, which tests the urine, only test for drugs and do not keep the sample or maintain any information other than the test results. Finally, the courts look at the fact that there is little embarrassment or invasion of privacy involved with a urine test. The suspect goes into the bathroom and urinates into a cup with his/her back to an officer of the same gender. Therefore, the police can request a urine test as part of a valid arrest for DUI in Florida.

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Over the last several years, there has been a lot of litigation over whether, how and to what extend the police and prosecutors can access a person’s cell phone data. As everyone is aware, cell phones can contain a wealth of information about a person, his/her activities and the people with whom he/she associates. This can provide the state with a lot of incriminating information that can be used to successfully prosecute defendant in a wide variety of cases. But because cell phones contain so much private information, courts in Florida have recognized a right of privacy with cell phone information such that the police cannot normally just take a person’s cell phone and search it for whatever they want.

Let’s say the state did obtain a defendant’s cell phone or similar electronic device. Can the state force the defendant to provide the passcode to the state so they can access and search it?

In a recent robbery case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police seized a passcode protected Iphone from the defendant when he was arrested. The state later filed a motion to compel the passcode from the defendant. In the motion, the state said it was looking for all communication information and photographs for a seven day period prior to the arrest. The motion did not reference any specific information the state believed was on the phone that was relevant to the case. The state just believed the defendant communicated with his co-defendant prior to the robbery and was looking for evidence of that. The criminal defense attorney objected based on the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The Fifth Amendment forbids the government from compelling testimonial communications or acts that might incriminate a suspect or defendant. Whether something is testimonial depends on whether the request requires the person to use the contents of his own mind to communicate some statement of fact. This court determine that disclosing a passcode known in the defendant’s mind would be a testimonial act.

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We wrote a blog post several months ago about a case where a police officer in Florida stopped a driver because some of the unnecessary letters on the license plate were obscured. In other words, the letters and numbers that make up the unique information on a license plate that identified the vehicle and owner were perfectly visible. However, in Florida, there is often other wording on the license plate. It might say “Sunshine State” or provide the website “MyFlorida.com” on the plate. Obviously, these words/letters are irrelevant to the purpose and requirement of a license plate. In the prior case, the driver had a border around his license plate that obscured some of this other wording, and the police officer pulled the driver over as a result and arrested him for an unrelated crime. The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress claiming the stop was illegal, and kind of ridiculous, but the defendant lost because the Florida statute said none of the wording can be concealed on a license plate.

It looks like there has been a new case on the matter. This is an important issue because a lot of people have license plates where some of the letters are concealed. Many people have license plate frames that are advertisements or display their favorite sports teams. These often conceal part of the license plate in Florida. This may give the police free reign to pull the driver over, which often gives the police reign to search the vehicle. Remember, if the police want to search your vehicle, that is probably what they are going to do regardless of whether they are permitted to do so under the Fourth Amendment.

This new case occurred south of Jacksonville, Florida. A police officer stopped a driver who had a border around his license plate that was an advertisement for the place where he purchased the vehicle. It partially obscured the words “Sunshine State”. The important letters and numbers of the license plate were perfectly visible. The police officer found cocaine in the vehicle and arrested the driver for possession of cocaine. The criminal defense attorney moved to suppress the evidence of the cocaine arguing that the stop was invalid. The question comes down to whether these license plate frames or borders are illegal and a basis for the police to make a traffic stop when they conceal superfluous wording on the license plate.

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In Florida, most people are arrested for DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs) after a police officer observes them driving a vehicle while allegedly impaired. While the DUI crime is called “driving” under the influence, a person in Florida does not actually have to be driving to be arrested and convicted of a DUI charge. There are two ways to be guilty of DUI. Driving, of course, is one way. The statue provides for another method. If a person is in actual, physical control of the vehicle while impaired from alcohol or drugs, that person can be arrested and convicted of DUI even if the police officer, or anyone else, never sees that person driving. So, what does actual, physical control of a vehicle mean in Florida? There have been numerous cases that have discussed situations where a DUI suspect was found in or near his car and whether that constituted actual, physical control sufficient for a DUI conviction. Some of the factors include how close the suspect is to the driver’s seat, where the keys are located and whether the vehicle is operable.

In a recent DUI case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the suspect was involved in a minor auto accident, and the police were called. When the police officer arrived, he saw the suspect outside the vehicle leaning against the car on the driver’s side and another person was leaning against the passenger side of the vehicle. The keys were in the ignition.  The officer assumed the suspect on the driver’s side, who was the owner of the vehicle, was the driver of the vehicle and arrested her for DUI after determining that he was impaired from alcohol. At the trial, the criminal defense lawyer moved for a judgment of acquittal because there was no evidence that the defendant was driving the vehicle and insufficient evidence that she was in actual, physical control of the vehicle. The Florida law says the suspect must be in or at the vehicle and have the capability to operate the vehicle. The state must also show the keys were either in the ignition or close enough to the defendant to allow her to start the vehicle and drive away.

In this case, the keys were in the ignition and the suspect was close enough to the vehicle to be in actual, physical control. However, the DUI conviction was reversed because both the defendant and the person leaning against the passenger side were jointly in control of the vehicle, and both of them had the same capability to operate the vehicle. In a case where more than one person has actual, physical control of the vehicle (i.e. joint occupation or control), the state must provide independent proof to establish the defendant was in constructive possession of the vehicle. The fact that she was the owner of the vehicle and on the driver’s side was not sufficient. Without independent proof that the suspect was driving or had control of the vehicle to the exclusion of the other party, the state could not meet its burden of a conviction for DUI.

 

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Florida, like other states, has a forfeiture law that allows the state to take ownership of people’s property when those people are suspected of committing certain crimes. The forfeiture laws are brutal because the state does not need to prove the suspect committed a crime to take that person’s property. In fact, the state does not even need to make an arrest or file charges, let alone win the criminal case, to take people’s property. Alternatively, the state can proceed to forfeit a person’s property even if the crime committed was minor, and the property has significant value. Additionally, the procedure effectively allows the state to take property and then force the owner of the property to prove the state acted improperly.

In a forfeiture case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was charged and convicted of two counts of registering a vehicle under a false name. This is a minor misdemeanor charge that almost never comes with jail time. However, because the police really liked the car she registered (a Cadillac Escalade), the state attempted to forfeit the vehicle. That is how forfeiture in Florida often works. The issue really is not enforcing the law or protecting the community or punishment so much as it is a person has property the state wants so the state is going to try to take it.

In this case, the defendant used a false name to buy and register the vehicle. The state took the vehicle and said it was contraband that could be forfeited under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act. The court ruled that the state could take and forfeit her vehicle without the case ever going to a jury.

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In Florida and other states, a person has a right to privacy in his home, automobile, personal effects and other property. This means that the police cannot just search a person or his/her property based on suspicion or because they feel like it. However, the rules are different for people on probation.  If a person is arrested and charged with a crime, pleads guilty or is convicted at trial and is then put on probation, the state has much greater access to that person and his/her property than a regular person.

In a case just south of Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was on probation for attempted sexual battery on a child. He was put on probation after he served time in prison. While on probation, he was required to fulfill certain conditions, and he had a probation officer who supervised him. While on probation, his probation officer came into his home and downloaded his cell phone data without a search warrant or consent.

Obviously, a police officer or anyone from the state cannot enter a person’s home and/or search his cell phone without a search warrant or specific consent under normal circumstances. However, this involved a person on probation for a serious crime.  Upon searching his phone, the probation officer found information that indicated the defendant had violated his probation. A warrant was issued for the violation of probation.

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In Florida, the state constitution provides that medical records are private and protected from discovery by the state. In order to obtain a defendant’s medical records, the state must prove that the records are relevant to the case. The state is not permitted to subpoena a defendant’s medical records at its own discretion.

In a case near Jacksonville, Florida, there was a motor vehicle crash, and the driver of the vehicle that caused the crash fled the scene. The police developed evidence that the defendant was the driver who caused the crash and fled the scene. They determined he had a suspended license. He was charged with felonies for hit and run and driving with a suspended license and causing a serious injury. The state learned that the defendant went to the hospital after the crash. The state tried to get the defendant’s medical records from the hospital to determine if he was impaired at the time of the crash. Toxicology records would likely indicate whether the defendant had alcohol or drugs in his system.

The criminal defense lawyer objected to the request for the defendant’s medical records arguing that medical records are private under the Florida constitution, and they were irrelevant to the pending charges as the defendant was not charged with DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs). Initially, the court ruled that the state could get the defendant’s medical records because they could be used to impeach the defendant. The criminal defense attorney appealed and won. The appellate court ruled that to overcome the right to privacy, the state must prove the medical records are relevant to an ongoing investigation or case. The state must show a nexus between the records and a material issue in the case. Because the state did not have evidence of a DUI, and the defendant was not charged with DUI, his medical records were not relevant to the case and could not be subpoenaed by the state.