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Defendant Cannot Challenge Illegal Search of Stolen Vehicle

Normally, a person in Florida has a privacy right attached to the vehicle he/she is driving and as a result, a police officer is not allowed to search that vehicle for illegal drugs or other evidence without permission, a search warrant or probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle. The driver does not have to be the owner of the vehicle to maintain this privacy protection. If the driver has borrowed the vehicle or is just renting the vehicle, that driver still has a privacy right to that vehicle and its contents that protects him/her from unreasonable searches and seizures by police. However, a person does not maintain the same privacy protection in a stolen vehicle.

In a recent criminal case just south of Jacksonville, Florida, the police stopped a vehicle due to a traffic violation and then arrested the driver because he did not have a valid driver’s license. After arresting the driver and placing him handcuffed in the patrol car, the police officer searched the vehicle and found illegal pills and drugs inside. The driver was then charged with possession of a controlled substance. The police later learned the vehicle had been reported stolen.

Normally, this would not be a legal search. A police officer is not allowed to search someone’s vehicle under those circumstances unless the police officer has permission, a search warrant or a reasonable belief based on specific facts that there is evidence of drugs or other criminal activity in the vehicle. The police officer in this case apparently did not have any legal basis to search the vehicle and seize the drugs. However, the driver was not allowed to challenge the search because he did not have a privacy right in the stolen vehicle. In legal terminology, the defendant did not have standing to challenge the search. Standing is a threshold matter that needs to be established before a person can challenge an illegal search and seizure. If standing does not exist, the defendant will not be able to prevail on a motion to suppress evidence even if the search and the seizure were illegal.