In Florida, the police generally cannot search a person’s vehicle without consent, a search warrant or specific indications of illegal activity occurring within the vehicle. However, police can often come up with certain observations that allow them to search a person’s vehicle under certain circumstances.
In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police were executing a search warrant at the home of a suspected marijuana dealer. During the search, the suspect drove up to the house for a visit. He did not live there and had no apparent connection to the house. A police officer approached the suspect and started asking him questions about whether he had any weapons or drugs. The suspect did not answer so the police officer told him to get out of the vehicle. After some more questions, the suspect admitted to having some Oxycodone pills without a prescription, and his car was searched. He was then arrested for possession of pills without a prescription.
A police officer is free to ask anyone questions in that situation, but once the police officer tells the suspect to exit his vehicle, the encounter becomes a detention. The police officer is only justified to tell the suspect to exit the vehicle if there is some indication of illegal activity or there is a risk to the officer’s safety. In this case, the police officer relied on the officer safety risk angle. After the criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the drugs found in the car, he testified that the suspect was acting nervously, was not properly answering his questions and was hiding his hands. Based on that, he detained the suspect because he was worried about his safety. The court agreed and justified the search.
A police officer can detain a person and conduct a brief search of him if there is specific evidence that the suspect might be armed and there is a concern for the officer’s safety. In this case, it did not appear that the officer relied on anything other than vague generalities. However, the court allowed the detention. This appears to be an example of the police getting around the right to privacy protections in the Constitution based on vague generalizations and speculation, which is exactly what the Constitution is supposed to prevent.