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Assumptions and Police Officer’s Super Human Eyesight Are not Sufficient for a Search and Seizure in Florida

In Florida, the police are not allowed to stop a person for a drug or other criminal investigation without reasonable suspicion that the person is engaging, just engaged or is about to engage in criminal activity. This reasonable suspicion standard requires more than just assumptions. There must be some specific evidence that reasonably leads a police officer to believe there is criminal activity afoot.

In a recent case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the police officer was at a gas station in the evening as it was getting dark and observed the suspect enter into a hand to hand transaction with another person in the parking lot. The police officer was about 30 feet away, but he said he could see the suspect give the other person a rolled up baggie. The police officer assumed it was marijuana based on the neighborhood and the nature and short duration of the transaction. As a result, the police officer stopped the suspect, searched him and found marijuana in his pocket. He was arrested for possession of marijuana.

The criminal defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the marijuana evidence arguing that the police officer did not have a reasonable basis to stop the defendant. The judge agreed. While the police officer was correct that the transaction did involve marijuana, learning this after the fact cannot be a basis for a prior search. The police officer must be able to point to specific facts indicating criminal activity before he/she stops a suspect. In this case, the police officer was too far away to see or smell marijuana. He was just relying on assumptions based on limited information. Short, hand to hand transactions in questionable neighborhoods may mean drug deals, but they also might mean something else. That alone is not sufficient to permit a search and seizure. Because the police officer did not rely on sufficient facts indicating criminal activity, the stop was unlawful, and the resulting search was unlawful. As a result, the marijuana charge was thrown out.