In Florida, the police have a right to stop a person driving a vehicle if the driver commits a traffic violation and detain that driver for a relatively short period of time to write a traffic citation. If during that time the police officer develops reasonable suspicion that the driver is committing a crime, the police officer can detain the driver temporarily while the police officer investigates the criminal activity. This is how many driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (DUI) cases start. However, the right to detain a driver is limited. Once the traffic ticket is written, if there is no reason to further detain the driver, the driver is free to leave. If the police officer does not develops reasonable suspicion of criminal activity independent of the traffic violation, he/she must let the driver leave.
Does this same concept apply to a passenger in the vehicle in Florida? Passengers can obviously be stopped for traffic violations by virtue of being in the vehicle. But, is the passenger free to leave once the vehicle is stopped? In a recent possession of cocaine and tampering with evidence case just south of Jacksonville, Florida, a driver was stopped for having an improper tag and not wearing his seat belt. The passenger immediately exited the vehicle and tried to leave the scene. The police officer told him to get back in the vehicle. The police officer then saw a bag of cocaine in the passenger side of the vehicle, and the passenger was arrested for possession of cocaine.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the cocaine because the passenger was improperly detained when the police officer did not allow him to leave. Since the passenger did not violate a traffic law and there was no evidence he was involved in any criminal activity, he should have been free to leave. The court disagreed. Essentially, the court looked at the case from an officer safety perspective. The court weighed the passenger’s right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure with the concern for the safety of an officer. The court found that the officer safety issue prevailed. The court noted that a passenger fleeing or exiting a traffic stop could cause a risk of harm to a police officer who would have a difficult time focusing on multiple people doing different things. Due to the inherent risk in this scenario, the officer is allowed to detain the driver and any and all passengers in a vehicle during a traffic stop while legitimately writing the ticket and/or investigating criminal activity. Once the time for those activities is finished, everyone should be free to leave.
It is important to note that this decision was from a district outside of Jacksonville, Florida. The law in other districts in Florida is contrary to this decision. Therefore, it is not clear how this issue would be decided for a case occurring in Jacksonville. It may have to be something ultimately determined by the Florida Supreme Court.