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Duval County, Florida Criminal Case Illustrates Different Levels of Police Encounters

Criminal defense lawyers often file what are called Motions to Suppress to try and keep out evidence that the prosecution is attempting to use against a defendant in a criminal case when the criminal defense attorney believes the police were not justified in stopping the defendant and/or seizing the evidence. The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures and can be used to prevent the prosecution from using evidence against a defendant in a criminal case if the court finds that a search or seizure was unlawful.

A recent criminal case out of Jacksonville, (Duval County) Florida does a good job of explaining the difference among the three categories of encounters with police. The first level of police encounter is a consensual encounter that involves minimal police contact and where the other person is free to comply with police or leave the encounter at any time. The second level of police encounter is often referred to as an investigatory stop where a police officer can detain a person temporarily if the police officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime. The police officer must be able to point to specific facts that are the basis for this reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The third level of police encounter is an actual arrest where the person is detained and removed from the scene. This level of police encounter requires the higher standard of probable cause that a person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime.

In the recent case, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) officers were called to investigate a burglary of a vehicle. When the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office officers arrived, one of them heard a possible witness say the suspect was a white male who ran into the woods. No other description was given. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office officers searched the woods and found a CD player that may have been taken in the burglary and then some distance away found the defendant lying on the ground. The defendant was handcuffed, placed in a patrol car and driven back to the scene of the crime where he was identified by a witness.

Clearly, this encounter was a third level encounter since the defendant was handcuffed and moved from the location where the JSO officers found him. The court found that the officers had a reasonable suspicion to briefly detain the defendant and investigate the burglary further, but with only a vague, general description of the suspect, the JSO officers did not have probable cause to execute a full arrest of the suspect. As a result of the finding that the arrest was not legal, the subsequent identification of the defendant was thrown out and could not be used against the defendant in court.