A common situation that occurs in Jacksonville, Florida involves a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office officer responding to a crime and questioning people in the vicinity of the crime to learn who committed the crime. Let’s assume that the police suspect that a bystander committed the reported crime, approach him and ask him some general questions, such as his name and what he is doing. Let’s also assume the bystander gives the police officer the wrong name. When the police officer learns that the bystander gave the police the wrong name, the police officer arrests the bystander, searches him and finds drugs in his pocket. Is this a valid arrest and search?
This would most likely be ruled to be an invalid arrest, and the evidence (the drugs) that were found pursuant to that arrest would likely be thrown out of court. Giving a false name to police is not a crime unless that person gives the wrong name during a lawful detention or arrest. If the police officer did not have a sufficient basis to detain or arrest the bystander in the first place, the bystander did not commit a crime when he gave the officer the wrong name. If a police officer merely suspects that a person has committed a crime, without having any specific, concrete evidence, that is not a sufficient legal basis to detain or arrest a person. Additionally, if a police officer searches a person incident to an arrest and finds evidence, such as drugs or property belonging to another person, that evidence cannot be used against that person if the arrest was unlawful. The criminal defense attorney would get that evidence thrown out pursuant to a motion to suppress. Such tainted evidence is referred to as fruit of the poisonous tree, the poisonous tree being the unlawful arrest.
However, there is an exception to this fruit of the poisonous tree concept. If the police would have discovered the tainted evidence anyway based on some other lawful basis, the evidence could be used against that person. For instance, assume the police are responding to a burglary and suspect that the perpetrator ran into his friend’s house across the street from the victim’s house. The police go to that friend’s house and get consent to search the house from the owner/friend. The police officer finds the suspect sitting on a bed in one of the rooms and asks his name. The suspect gives a false name. The police arrest him, search the room and find some of the victim’s property that was stolen in the burglary under the bed in that room. The arrest for giving a false name is invalid, and any search incident to that arrest is also invalid. However, the property found under the bed could still be used against the suspect because while the police could not use the suspect’s arrest as a basis to search the area near him, they could use the friend/owner’s permission to search the house as a legal basis to search under the bed.