In Florida, a person enjoys special protection from illegal searches and seizures in his/her home or other residence. At a minimum, this means that police officers and other agents of the state cannot just come into a person’s residence looking for evidence of criminal activity without a search warrant or valid consent from someone who is authorized to provide consent. However, there are exceptions to this rule that would allow a police officer or other state agent to come into a person’s home. If they find illegal items such as guns or drugs once they are legally inside the residence, a criminal investigation can initiate.
In a recent case south of Jacksonville, Florida, firefighters and police officers responded to a fire in the suspect’s residence. Police and firefighters are permitted to enter someone’s home without consent or a search warrant to deal with an emergency health or hazard issue like a fire. Of course, they must do so only for the purpose of assisting with the emergency and not for the purpose of looking for evidence of a crime. However, if they see evidence of a crime while in one’s home for other purposes, they are not required to ignore it. In this case, the firefighters entered and exited the house through the garage. While doing so, they saw drug paraphernalia on a table in plain view in the garage. After seeing the drug paraphernalia, the firefighters went back inside to make sure there was no additional fire threat and saw marijuana in a closet. They informed the police who detained the defendant. The police officers requested consent to search the house from the defendant. When the police searched the house, they found more marijuana, guns and drug paraphernalia. The defendant was arrested for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the marijuana, guns and drug paraphernalia arguing that the police did not have a legal basis (a search warrant or valid consent before the defendant was detained) to search the house. The court found that the search and seizure related to the marijuana and drug paraphernalia were legitimate. The firefighters had a legal basis to be inside the house putting out the fire, and they saw the marijuana and drug paraphernalia in plain view while legally in the house. They had a right to inform the police about those items. On the other hand, the guns and items found after the defendant was detained and the police searched the house were suppressed. At that point, the police were obligated to get a search warrant to search the house for additional evidence. They never attempted to do so. As a result, the defendant could be charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of drug paraphernalia, but the state could not go forward with any charges related to the guns due to the illegal search.