In a recent criminal case that occurred south of Jacksonville, Florida, the police stopped a vehicle for a traffic violation. The vehicle was occupied by a driver and a passenger. The police became suspicious of the two occupants and asked each of them if they could search the vehicle. Both occupants consented to the search. For some reason, although neither occupant had committed a crime, the police officer handcuffed the passenger and placed her in his patrol car for approximately 30 minutes while the police searched the vehicle. The police did not find any drugs in the vehicle and let the two occupants go with only a traffic ticket.
However, when the police officers returned to their car, they found a bag of cocaine where the passenger had been sitting in the patrol car during the search. The police officers then chased after the vehicle and arrested the passenger for possession of cocaine.
The criminal defense lawyer for the passenger filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the cocaine because the passenger was illegally detained while she was sitting in the police car. The court agreed and threw out the evidence of the cocaine. The possession of cocaine charge was then dropped.
When the police officers stopped the vehicle and found that the occupants were acting suspiciously, that was not a sufficient basis to search the vehicle nor the driver and passenger. However, the police officers can ask the vehicle owner if they can search the vehicle. If the owner consents, then a reasonable search of the vehicle is valid. Of course, the owner can decline to give consent, and a search would not have been justified. Likewise, the police officers had no legal bases to search the individuals, but they could always ask for consent which each individual can give or refuse. If the owner consents to a search of the vehicle or his/her person, that does not give the police officer the right to handcuff the person and keep him/her in the patrol car for any length of time. If that does happen, that is an illegal detention and any illegal drugs or other evidence that is obtained as a result of that detention should be thrown out, as in this case.
The police officers can always search their own vehicles after a suspect has been placed in the vehicle. However, if a person has been illegally detained in the police officer’s vehicle, or anywhere else, and drugs or other incriminating evidence is found as a result of that illegal detention, a criminal charge based on the discovery of the illegal drugs or other evidence will not stand.