Can a Police Officer in Florida Make a Valid Drug Arrest Based on Inaccurate Information From His Computer?

In a marijuana and drug paraphernalia case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was driving when a police officer decided to run his tag on the officer’s computer. The computer showed that the defendant’s tag was registered to a different vehicle. As a result, the police officer stopped the defendant and found marijuana and drug paraphernalia in his vehicle. The defendant was arrested. It later turned out that the DMV had incorrect information and there was nothing wrong with the defendant’s tag.

The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the drug evidence found in the vehicle. In Florida, if the initial stop of a defendant is not valid, the general rule is that any evidence found as a result of that illegal initial stop cannot be used against the defendant in a criminal case. In this case, the criminal defense attorney argued that because the defendant’s tag was valid and he was not violating any traffic laws, the police officer did not have a legal basis to stop him. Therefore, the drugs and drug paraphernalia the police officer found as a result of the illegal stop should be suppressed. The state, on the other hand, argued that the police officer was merely using the information he had and did not know it was inaccurate so the stop was valid.

The case has not been finally decided yet. There is a case that suggests the stop could be valid if the incorrect information came from an agency that is not considered a “law enforcement agency.” In other words, since the incorrect information came from the DMV, which may not be considered a “law enforcement agency” under the Fourth Amendment, the defendant may not be able to claim he was unreasonably stopped by law enforcement. However, a later case seems to suggest that the DMV is considered a “law enforcement agency”, and therefore the Fourth Amendment could be used to invalidate this unreasonable stop. In that case, the criminal defense lawyer’s motion to suppress would prevail to throw out the evidence of the drugs and drug paraphernalia.

It seems like this case should be as simple as understanding that the police cannot stop a law abiding citizen who is not violating any traffic laws, especially when any misunderstanding was caused by either the police officer or another state agency. However, whether the initial stop is considered legal and the defendant can be convicted of marijuana and drug paraphernalia charges may depend on whether the DMV is interpreted to be a “law enforcement agency” or not.

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