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Florida Court Rules Police Can Order Driver Out of Vehicle During Traffic Stop

In Florida, the police can stop a driver if that officer observes the driver commit a traffic violation.  This is a detention under search and seizure law, but it is justified based on the fact that the driver apparently committed a traffic violation.  Many DUI cases start this way in Florida.  However, if the violation is merely a traffic violation, the police officer can generally only keep the driver for the purpose and only as long as it takes to write a traffic ticket.  If the police officer keeps the driver for an extended period of time without specific evidence of criminal activity, it is likely a violation of search and seizure law.

Another detention occurs when the police officer asks a driver or other occupant of the vehicle to exit the vehicle.  A criminal defense lawyer would argue that pulling a person out of a vehicle during a routine stop is an illegal detention.  If so, that criminal defense attorney could have any evidence seized thereafter suppressed due to the illegal seizure.

In a recent gun case just south of Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was stopped for having an illegally tinted window.  The police officer ordered the defendant out of the vehicle while they had a drug dog sniff the vehicle.  When he opened the door to exit the vehicle, the police saw that he had a handgun under his seat.  Since the defendant was a convicted felon, he was arrested for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

The criminal defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the gun arguing that the police had no legal basis to order the defendant out of his vehicle. Since that detention resulted in the police officer finding the firearm, the evidence of the gun should be suppressed.

The state argued that the police department’s policy was to order people out of their vehicles in those circumstances for officer safety.  They do this regardless of whether there is any evidence of criminal activity.  The appellate court agreed this was appropriate.  They held that the law allows police to order occupants out of the vehicle during a lawful stop.  The police may not hold the driver or other occupants there for longer than necessary to write a ticket or investigate specific evidence of criminal activity, but there is apparently nothing wrong with extending a detention to remove people from the vehicle.