Articles Posted in Drug Crimes

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In Florida, one exception to a search warrant requirement is consent to search from the owner of the property or someone in possession of the property who appears to have authority to give consent.  Police can generally walk up to any person, vehicle or residence and ask to search without a warrant and without probable cause. If that property owner agrees, the police are free to search.  However, there are limitations, and people should always understand they have a constitutional right to refuse any police request to search one’s property.

In this case, police officers drove to the defendant’s property in a rural area south of Jacksonville, Florida. They went through an open fence and ignored the “No trespassing” signs.  They knocked on the front door, but no one answered.  The officers then got back into their vehicle and kept driving on the property to a barn where they found marijuana. They ultimately arrested the property owner for various marijuana charges.

The criminal defense attorney filed a motion to suppress all of the marijuana evidence because the police did not have a right to come onto their property and search it.  At the hearing, the police officers testified they previously had permission to enter the property. It was determined during the hearing that the permission was given three years earlier by the previous property owner.

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People ship drugs to other parts of the country.  They do it using the US Postal Service and Federal Express and UPS and any other delivery service. They do it by shipping to a location where nobody lives expecting someone on the other end to pick it up as soon as the package arrives. Other times, they ship it to a known address but address the package to a fake name so the person who receives it can claim ignorance if the police find out. And there are other methods people use to send illegal drugs to other people. The police catch many of these packages.  Many of these packages have similar appearances and methods of shipment.  Law enforcement also use drug dogs at the shipping facilities to smell packages (particularly those from states where marijuana is now legal). When they find a package that contains illegal drugs, they will attempt a controlled delivery which often consists of a police officer pretending to be a deliveryman and delivering the package to the listed address.  Once a person at the address accepts the package, police will come in and make arrests.

In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police discovered a suspicious package at UPS and decided to investigate. They learned that it was addressed to a fake person. They got a search warrant to open the package and found marijuana inside. One of the police officers disguised himself as a UPS driver and attempted to deliver the package, but no one answered the door. Later, the police knocked on the door to try and interview the resident.  As they did so, an individual drove up to the residence. The police detained that individual and asked him questions to see if he was involved with the marijuana package. The police brought a drug dog to the scene and had the dog walk around the person’s vehicle. After alerting to that vehicle, the police searched it and found marijuana and other drugs inside.

The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the drugs found in the vehicle because the police did not have a legal basis to detain and keep the defendant at the scene. While the defendant did ultimately consent to a search of his car, it was after the detention which the criminal defense attorney argued was illegal. Consent is not voluntary if it is the result of an illegal detention.

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In Florida, and other states based on certain United States Supreme Court cases,, the police used to have broad authority to search a person’s property after an arrest.  The police used to be able to search the person, a nearby vehicle, possibly the person’s residence and any items reasonably close a person who was arrested.  For instance, if a person was arrested after a traffic stop, the police could search the vehicle and any items in the vehicle such as purses, backpacks, luggage, etc.  These searches were called searches incident to a lawful arrest and essentially gave the police in Florida the right to search anything that might belong to the person who was arrested if that thing was near the person at the time of the arrest.

The legal theory for such broad search powers was that the police had a right to search the area near where a person was arrested to make sure there were no weapons that the arrestee could use to harm the police officer or evidence that the arrestee could destroy.  The obvious flaw in this legal analysis was that when a person is arrested, that person is handcuffed and placed in the police vehicle.  That person obviously has no ability to go to his car or into his backpack in his car and grab a weapon that could be used to harm the officer.  He also has no ability to destroy evidence while sitting handcuffed in the police car.  As a result, the law was changed by judicial decision several years ago.

Now, the law allows the police to search a person who is arrested since an arrestee does have access to potentially dangerous items in his pocket or elsewhere in his immediate possession.  But, that authority does not extend to items that are outside of the arrestee’s control or ability to access.  Therefore, once the suspect has been arrested and handcuffed, the police can only search things that the suspect might be able to access, which is essentially nothing other than what might be in his pockets.

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As many people know, the federal government classifies certain drugs according to a schedule.  In fact, the Drug Enforcement Agency is permitted by statute to make the rules which determine in which class a particular drug belongs.  Criminal statutes and penalties are enacted based on those classifications.   Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous and the most addictive.  Examples of Schedule I drugs are heroin and LSD.  Schedule V drugs are the least dangerous.  An example of a Schedule V drug is the cough medicine Robitussin.

Despite Schedule I including the most dangerous and addictive drugs and substances that have no accepted medical value, cannabis, or marijuana, is still considered a Schedule I drug.  Basically, the federal government is saying  marijuana is just as bad as heroin and bath salts.  Also, despite the fact that doctors all over the country, and all over Florida, are prescribing marijuana to patients to treat a variety of medical conditions, the federal government is saying that marijuana has no accepted medical use. By definition, in order to be a Schedule I drug, a substance must have no accepted medical value.

This kind of government ignorance and corruption would be silly if it wasn’t resulting in people going to prison for having marijuana.  In some marijuana cases, criminal defense lawyers are making the legal argument that it is not constitutional to punish a person for having a Schedule I drug that has no medical use when we are dealing with a substance that medical doctors all over Florida and the country (and all over the world) are prescribing to patients for medicinal purposes.  That seems like an obvious and logical argument that cannot lose in any tribunal where logic and reason are considered useful tools for decision making.  However, anyone who believes logic should win the day underestimates just how backwards our government is, and just how addicted government officials are on campaign donations from billion dollar pharmaceutical companies.  Financial influence is a formidable opponent of reason and justice.

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In Florida, the police are generally not allowed to enter a person’s home to search or investigate a crime without permission from the homeowner or a valid search warrant.  In some cases, the police cannot even go onto your property to search or investigate if the property is properly fenced and it is clear people are not welcome on the property.  The right to privacy in one’s home is one of the strongest constitutional protections.

However, for homes that are not adequately fenced in, the police are normally allowed to go up to anyone’s door, knock and ask questions.  As long as it appears that the general public would be allowed to go up to a door and knock, the police can too.  The residents can refuse to answer the door or they can refuse to answer any questions if they do open the door, but the police are welcome to try and knock and see if they can get someone to talk or even let them in.  If the residents do not cooperate, the police are not allowed to take the encounter any further, at least according to the law.  In practice, the police do not like to take no for an answer and may act accordingly.

In any case, if homeowners or other residents do not want the public or the police to be able to just walk up to their doors, knock and try to get information, they need to make it clear that their property is not open to the general public.  Fences and gates work well to do this.  Signs can as well, but the sign needs to be clear.  There was a case in Jacksonville, Florida where a person growing marijuana in his house had a “No Solicitors” sign on his door.  He had no gate or fence and no other signs.  The police walked up to his front door, knocked, smelled marijuana when the door was opened and subsequently obtained a search warrant.  The homeowner was arrested for growing marijuana.

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In a recent DUI case in Massachusetts, the state sought to prove that the defendant was impaired from marijuana while driving, thereby rendering him guilty of driving under the influence under that state’s DUI laws.  At the trial, the prosecutor had the arresting police officer testify that based on his observations of the defendant and the field sobriety exercises, the defendant was high on marijuana.  The defendant was convicted of DUI, and the criminal defense lawyer appealed.

The appeal was successful, and the DUI conviction was reversed.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a police officer cannot legally testify that a defendant was high on marijuana based on observations and a field sobriety test.  The court noted that marijuana can have different effects on different people.  Also, the police officer was not an expert on marijuana and its varying effects on people (very few, if any, are; most seem to think they are).  As a result, the police officer’s testimony on that issue was improper to support a DUI conviction.

In just about every DUI case, the police officer is going to ask the suspect to submit to field sobriety exercises.  These are difficult balancing and related exercises performed under adverse circumstances.  The directions for each test can be confusing, and if a suspect says he/she does not understand them or needs for them to be repeated, the police officer will likely suggest that is evidence of impairment rather than the officer’s poor communication or explanation.  The tests are completely subjective, and the judge is a police officer who likely already believes the suspect is impaired, otherwise that judge would not have asked the suspect to perform them in the first place.  Sometimes the suspect’s performance is recorded on a police officer’s camera in his/her vehicle, but often it is not because many police officers do not have video cameras in their vehicles.  If the arrest is not recorded, whether the defendant did well on the field sobriety exercises or completely failed them is a matter of the police officer’s word against the defendant’s word.  However, because the effects of excessive alcohol intake are well known and fairly consistent among different people, police officers are allowed to testify that a defendant who allegedly failed the field sobriety tests was too impaired from alcohol to drive.  That is not the case with regard to marijuana, according to this recent Massachusetts case.

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The War on Drugs may be the most counter-productive, fiscally wasteful policy in the history of humankind.  Yet, it forges ahead, as it does little to effect any change other than to redirect taxpayer money away from beneficial programs and increase the size of government.  With regard to marijuana, it is difficult to understand why any police officer would support the War on Drugs.  Any encounter with a “suspect” has inherent risks to a police officer.  Why would any officer want to risk his/her well-being to determine whether or not someone has a plant, or the flower from a plant?

On the other hand, marijuana cases are easy.  A police officer smells the distinctive odor of cannabis, searches a person or a vehicle, finds the marijuana and makes an arrest.  No thought, no investigative skills, no legwork required.  And it counts as an arrest like any other for statistical purposes.  It is so much easier and quicker than tracking down reluctant witnesses in a shooting or figuring out where the money went in a fraud case.

A recent case out of Colorado will make it a little more difficult for the police to make the easy, simple marijuana arrests that do nothing to benefit the public despite political claims that more arrests translate to a safer community.  Many marijuana arrests are the result of a trained K-9 walking around a vehicle after a traffic stop and alerting to the odor of marijuana or some other illegal drug which then gives the police officer probable cause to search the vehicle.  If the police officer finds illegal drugs in the vehicle, the officer will likely arrest one or more of the occupants in the vehicle.  The entire case can be wrapped up in a matter of minutes.

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Pursuant to both the United States and the Florida Constitutions, people have a right to privacy in their homes.  This means that the police normally cannot come into a person’s home and search for drugs or other evidence of criminal activity without a valid search warrant or consent from someone who lives there.  This right to privacy protection applies to homeowners, people who rent apartments and other residents.  It also applies to less traditional residences like rooming houses.

In a recent possession of cocaine case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was staying at a rooming house along with many other people.  The defendant had a room there and a key to the room.  He kept his belongings there.  The police showed up to the area while responding to an unrelated call.  The defendant had a pill bottle that he placed under the rooming house when he saw the police.  The police officer became suspicious, walked onto the property, reached under the house and pulled out the pill bottle.  He opened it and found cocaine inside.  The defendant was arrested for possession of cocaine.

The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the pill bottle and the cocaine.  He argued that the police officer did not have a search warrant or consent to come onto the property and take a pill bottle that was under the house.  The issue became whether the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rooming house in which he was staying.  If he did, a police officer cannot come onto the property and take a pill bottle from underneath it that belonged to the defendant.

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In Florida, where marijuana remains illegal for now, the odor of marijuana is a fairly common basis that police use to further investigate or search a suspect.  It is also a basis that is often used to conduct a DUI investigation and make DUI arrests.  The odor of marijuana obviously gives police officers reason to believe that marijuana is present.  Under some circumstances, the police can use that information to search items or people.  However, it is not a blanket excuse to conduct a search or “pat down” in every situation.

In a possession of marijuana case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police received a tip that certain individuals were involved in drug activity at a warehouse.  The police responded and saw several individuals at the warehouse.  The police officer indicated he smelled a strong odor of marijuana coming from the group.  However, the police officer did not see any marijuana and did not see anyone smoking anything.  Based on the odor of marijuana, the police officer asked one of the individuals to come forward.  The suspect approached the police officer.  This led to a pat down of the suspect and ultimately a search during which the police officer found marijuana.  The suspect was arrested for possession of marijuana.

The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the marijuana arguing that the police officer illegally searched the defendant.  The appellate court agreed.  A general odor of marijuana coming from a group of people was not sufficient evidence to pat down one of the individuals or search him.  The police officer could have investigated with questions or requests for consent to search but was not yet legally authorized to pat down or search anyone without more specific evidence as to who was actually smoking the marijuana or had marijuana in his possession, if anyone.  Because the police officer went straight to a pat down and then a search without trying to get more specific evidence to identify the source of the odor, the marijuana evidence was suppressed and the possession of marijuana charge was later dismissed.

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More and more states are legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes.  Of course, some states are also legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes.  It seems likely that marijuana will eventually become legal recreationally and medicinally everywhere, but it is going to be a long process.  In the meantime, people with medical problems can get help from marijuana only in the states that allow it.  Likewise, those people can only get a prescription or medical authorization for certain medical conditions.  In other words, where medical marijuana is legal, it is not just a matter of going to any doctor and asking for a prescription.  For instance, in Florida, a doctor has to successfully complete the required course and examination to be allowed to recommend marijuana to patients.  Additionally, only certain medical conditions legally qualify as medical conditions for which medical marijuana can be used as a treatment.

In Florida, there are eleven qualifying conditions for which medical marijuana can be recommended by a doctor.  These are all very serious medical conditions.  There is also a catchall category if a person has a medical condition that is serious and the doctor thinks the use of marijuana will do more good than harm.  This is somewhat of a ridiculous standard since marijuana does little, if any, harm while there are numerous medical conditions for which it can help.  But, we are still a long way from even a basic, unbiased collective understanding of marijuana so laws are written this way for now.

States with medical marijuana laws have different rules, but they are generally similar in that there are restrictions covering who can recommend marijuana and for what it can be recommended.  Fortunately, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is one of the medical conditions for which people can use medical marijuana in Florida.  However, it is not properly recognized as a qualifying condition in all medical marijuana states.