In a recent felony driving with a suspended license case in Florida, the charge was thrown out because the court determined that the police officer illegally seized the defendant before he learned the defendant’s license was suspended. This is an important case because we see the same situation arise in DUI cases.
In this case, the police officer saw the defendant sleeping in the driver’s seat of his vehicle in a parking lot with the car running. It was early in the morning, and the parking lot was otherwise empty. The police officer approached the vehicle and saw the defendant apparently asleep in the car. The police officer knocked on the driver’s side window and woke him up. The police officer did not notice anything illegal going on or any cause to be concerned for the driver’s safety. After waking him up, the police officer ordered the driver to turn off the car. The police officer then asked the driver for his license and learned he had a suspended license. Because he had several prior driving with a suspended license convictions, the driver was charged with felony driving with a suspended license, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison in Florida.
The criminal defense attorney for the driver filed a motion alleging that the police officer illegally seized the driver before learning he had a suspended license. The police are not allowed to detain, or seize, a person so that he/she is under the impression that he/she cannot leave without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, or specific evidence that the person needs assistance. In this case, the police officer did not have any specific reason to believe the driver was committing a crime when he approached the vehicle. When the police officer ordered the driver to turn off his car, the driver was under the impression that he could not leave and was being detained. Because the police officer did not have any specific legal reason to make that demand of the driver, it was an illegal seizure. As a result, any evidence the police officer uncovered (such as the evidence that his driver’s license was suspended) was a result of an illegal search and seizure and was thrown out. The charge of driving with a suspended license was thrown out with that evidence.
As criminal defense lawyers in the Jacksonville, Florida area, we have seen several cases that start out this way. Many times, they are DUI cases that begin when a police officer sees someone resting or sleeping in his/her parked vehicle and approaches to investigate. There is nothing illegal about sleeping in one’s car parked in a parking lot. If the police officer does not have reasonable suspicion that the person is committing a crime, the police officer may not order the person to turn off the car, get out of the car or do anything else that constitutes a detention.