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Articles Posted in Search and Seizure

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That is kind of a convoluted title to the blog post, but essentially the police in this case tried to use the observation of a concealed handgun in the defendant’s vehicle as a legal basis to search the vehicle, find the concealed firearm and then charge the defendant with carrying a concealed firearm. It didn’t work. In Florida, it is a third degree felony to carry a concealed firearm on or about one’s person. That is a pretty general and somewhat vague law, but how this usually plays out is the police stop a vehicle, find some reason to search it and then find a gun that they say was not openly visible. This can also apply to a person carrying a firearm on his person that is not openly displayed and visible. In order for a person to carry a concealed firearm in his vehicle or otherwise, he would need to apply for and receive a concealed firearms permit from the state.

In this case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police officer approached a parked vehicle in a hotel parking lot that had a concealed license plate. When he approached the vehicle, he said he saw the defendant had the butt of a gun sticking out of his waistband. The police officer detained the defendant and then arrested him once it was determined that the defendant did not have a license to carry a concealed firearm. He was charged with carrying a concealed firearm.

The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the gun arguing that the police officer did not have a legal basis to detain the defendant and then search him. The police officer testified that he saw that the defendant was armed, but he could not articulate any evidence of criminal activity since the officer did not know whether or not the defendant had a concealed firearms permit at the time of the detention. The key here is that the police have to have some specific indication that the defendant is involved in criminal activity in order to detain and search a person. Having a gun is not necessarily a crime. Having a concealed firearm is not a crime unless the person does not have a license for it, which the police officer did not know at the time. Without some reason to believe the defendant was doing something illegal, there was no legal basis for the detention and search. What the police officer could have done, once he saw the concealed firearm, was ask the suspect if he had a license for it. If the defendant chose to answer and said no, then there would have been sufficient evidence to detain him and arrest him. Or, if the defendant had been doing something dangerous with the gun, like waving it at someone or threatening someone, that would have been sufficient to detain the person and possibly arrest him. However, the simple fact of having a gun may not be enough for a detention or arrest in Florida.

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In Florida, police officers are generally able to stop vehicles when those drivers commit traffic violations. This does not necessarily require a moving violation such as speeding or running a red light. It could also involve some problem with the vehicle itself. Once the police officer stops the driver for the traffic violation, the police officer may be able to investigate an alleged crime, if the officer finds specific evidence that a crime is being committed.  This is how many DUI and drug arrests start.

However, not all police stops based on traffic violations are legitimate. In a case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the suspect was driving with one of his tail lights broken. The covering to the light was broken so that the light was white when illuminated. When the police officer approached the vehicle, he smelled marijuana and ultimately arrested the driver for possession of cannabis/marijuana.

The criminal defense lawyer moved to suppress the evidence of the marijuana arguing that the initial stop was illegal. In Florida, the general rule is that traffic stops are valid when a driver is committing a traffic violation. In Florida, it is illegal to drive a vehicle that is in an unsafe condition or does not contain parts, such as lamps, in proper condition. In this case, the defendant argued that three of his four tail lights were working fine. So the question was whether the vehicle, with one broken tail light but others that worked, was in an unsafe condition. Since the stop happened in the morning during the daylight and the police officer could not specifically describe what was unsafe about the vehicle, the court ruled that the vehicle was not in an unsafe condition, therefore the stop was invalid. Since the stop was not legal, the search and seizure of the marijuana after the stop was also illegal. However, the court was clear that these cases would be decided on a case by case basis depending on the specific circumstances. A condition of the vehicle may be considered ok in one situation, while the same condition might be considered unsafe in other circumstances or based on the opinions of different judges.

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In Florida, when police search something, such as a vehicle, and find drugs or other evidence of illegal activity, the defendant can normally file a motion to suppress the evidence based on an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. However, not every defendant has a right to challenge every search by police that results in an arrest. A defendant must have standing to challenge a search by the police. In other words, the defendant must have some possessory or ownership interest in the thing that was searched to be able to challenge the search. More specifically, the defendant must have had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the thing that was searched to be lawfully permitted to challenge the search. That is the standard for standing to challenge an allegedly illegal search.

In a case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was stopped in a vehicle for running a red light. The police ultimately searched the vehicle and found oxycodone, cocaine and other drugs inside. The defendant was arrested for possession of various drugs. The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of all of the drugs arguing that the search was illegal. The state responded by arguing the defendant had no legal right to challenge the search because the vehicle was a rental car, and the defendant was not listed as an authorized driver on the rental car contract nor had he paid for the rental car.

The trial court agreed with the state based on a Florida case which said the driver of a rental car does not have standing to challenge the search of that rental car if he is not authorized to drive the car by the owner, the rental car company, even if the person who did properly rent the car gave the driver permission to drive the rental car. However, several years later, the United States Supreme Court decided the issue differently. The United States Supreme Court is controlling. The Supreme Court ruled that a person in lawful possession of a rental car does have standing to challenge a search of the rental car even if he isn’t listed as an authorized driver on the rental car contract. Just because a person is not listed as an authorized driver does not mean it is unlawful for him to drive it. It may be a violation of the rental car agreement and might have implications for insurance if there is an accident, but being an unauthorized driver according to the rental car agreement does not make a person an illegal driver. However, if a person steals a car and is stopped by the police who search the vehicle and find drugs or evidence of the theft, that defendant would not have standing to challenge the search of the vehicle as he would not be in lawful possession of the vehicle.

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In Florida, when the police search a person or any location and find drugs or other evidence of illegal activity, the defendant can challenge the search as illegal under the Fourth Amendment which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. However, not every defendant can challenge every search. There is a concept in search and seizure law called standing, which means that a defendant must have some possessory or ownership interest in the thing that was searched to be allowed to challenge the search in court. For instance, if the police search your house that you own, you are going to have standing to challenge that search because you have an obvious interest in your home. On the other hand, if you leave something on the bus and the police search that bus and find incriminatory evidence against you, you probably cannot challenge the search of that bus because you have no interest in the bus. And then there is a lot of situations in between that implicate the standing issue that will depend on the circumstances and the case law.

In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police were looking for a suspect due to an active arrest warrant. They went to a hotel room and found the subject and arrested him. After the arrest, the police saw what they considered suspicious activity in the nearby hotel room, entered the room, found cocaine and marijuana inside and arrested the occupant of that room for possession of illegal drugs as well. The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the drugs arguing that the police did not have a legal right to enter and search the hotel room without a warrant.

The state presented evidence that the occupant of the hotel room had rented the room as a juvenile and by using a false name so he had not validly rented the room. Since it was not his room, he had no standing to challenge the search of that room.  The court disagreed with the state. The issue is not who rented or paid for the room. The issue is whether the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the room or whatever is searched. Hotel guests, whether they paid for the room or are just staying in the room, have an expectation of privacy in those hotel rooms. This is fairly obvious as if you are sharing a hotel room with a friend who paid for them hotel room, you would expect that room to be private from intrusion from others. The state also argued that the defendant lost his expectation of privacy in the room because he occupied it illegally because he was a minor and gave a false name to rent the room. However, the state could not provide any law that says it is illegal to rent a hotel room as a minor. Nor is it illegal to rent a hotel room under a false name. The state was correct that the defendant would have no expectation of privacy in a hotel room that was occupied illegally, but being a juvenile or using a false name was not illegal. If the hotel had learned that the defendant used a false name or was a juvenile and then told the defendant to leave the room, then the defendant would have been a trespasser if he stayed. Under those circumstances, he would no longer have a reasonable expectation of privacy and would lose his standing. But, as long as he was a legal occupant, he had standing and could challenge the search of the hotel room.

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One reason police are often against the full legalization of marijuana is that marijuana illegality gives police officer perhaps the easiest excuse to search people and vehicles. Likewise, marijuana arrests are about as easy as it gets for police officers. They smell marijuana, they search and they arrest. No real work, thought, diligence or investigation required. And while marijuana arrests obviously do nothing to make anyone safer and needlessly cost time, money and resources, they count as arrests on the stat sheet all the same. And I suppose it beats having to investigate real crimes that actually have real victims.

Florida has been slow to work its way into the 21st century and legalize marijuana, but at least medical marijuana is legal. Now, some people (those with a valid medical marijuana card) whose vehicle or other property may smell like marijuana may not be doing anything illegal.  Since that is the case, should police still be allowed to stop and search people based on the odor of marijuana when marijuana is not necessarily illegal depending on who has it?

In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, police officers stopped a vehicle at night for a headlight violation. They approached the vehicle and smelled burnt marijuana. They searched the vehicle and arrested the suspect for possession of cannabis. The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of marijuana arguing that the police unlawfully searched the vehicle because the odor of marijuana does not necessarily indicate illegal activity.

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We wrote a blog post several months ago about a case where a police officer in Florida stopped a driver because some of the unnecessary letters on the license plate were obscured. In other words, the letters and numbers that make up the unique information on a license plate that identified the vehicle and owner were perfectly visible. However, in Florida, there is often other wording on the license plate. It might say “Sunshine State” or provide the website “MyFlorida.com” on the plate. Obviously, these words/letters are irrelevant to the purpose and requirement of a license plate. In the prior case, the driver had a border around his license plate that obscured some of this other wording, and the police officer pulled the driver over as a result and arrested him for an unrelated crime. The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress claiming the stop was illegal, and kind of ridiculous, but the defendant lost because the Florida statute said none of the wording can be concealed on a license plate.

It looks like there has been a new case on the matter. This is an important issue because a lot of people have license plates where some of the letters are concealed. Many people have license plate frames that are advertisements or display their favorite sports teams. These often conceal part of the license plate in Florida. This may give the police free reign to pull the driver over, which often gives the police reign to search the vehicle. Remember, if the police want to search your vehicle, that is probably what they are going to do regardless of whether they are permitted to do so under the Fourth Amendment.

This new case occurred south of Jacksonville, Florida. A police officer stopped a driver who had a border around his license plate that was an advertisement for the place where he purchased the vehicle. It partially obscured the words “Sunshine State”. The important letters and numbers of the license plate were perfectly visible. The police officer found cocaine in the vehicle and arrested the driver for possession of cocaine. The criminal defense attorney moved to suppress the evidence of the cocaine arguing that the stop was invalid. The question comes down to whether these license plate frames or borders are illegal and a basis for the police to make a traffic stop when they conceal superfluous wording on the license plate.

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In Florida, many criminal arrests begin as traffic stops.  Most DUI’s begin this way along with other, more serious charges. As a result, a criminal defense lawyer should always look at the initial stop and how it occurred to see if there might be a search and seizure issue that could be the basis of a motion to suppress.  Police can normally stop a driver for violating a traffic law such as speeding or running a red light. However, it is not uncommon for the police to stop a driver for more vague traffic infractions like the failure to maintain the lane, particularly in driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (DUI) cases.

In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was pulled over for failure to maintain her lane on two occasions. The police officer ultimately searched the vehicle and found marijuana inside. The defendant was arrested for possession of marijuana. The criminal defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the marijuana based on the argument that the police officer did not have a legal basis to pull the defendant over.

The court agreed with the criminal defense lawyer. At the motion to suppress hearing, the police officer testified that the defendant did not impact any other vehicles, pedestrians or anyone else when she veered out of her lane two times. The relevant Florida statute says that when a roadway has been divided into two or more marked lanes, the driver should drive entirely within a single lane as nearly as practicable and shall not move from that lane unless it is clear such movement can be made safely. The courts in Florida do not find that a driver has violated this statute unless there was evidence that the driver or any other person was endangered. Therefore, if a driver crosses over a solid white or yellow line periodically but no other driver or person was impacted, it would not likely be a violation that would warrant a traffic stop. The police must establish some sort of safety concern caused by the driver crossing the solid line.

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In Florida, the criminal laws are created by the state legislature. They are laws that prohibit certain conduct, and a violation of those laws can result in an arrest and jail time. Police are allowed to search a person after an arrest for a state crime. If the police find other or additional evidence of criminal activity during that search incident to an arrest, they can likely use that evidence against the defendant to support the arrest and/or add additional criminal charges. Cities in Florida can also enact laws that address certain conduct.  These laws can also come with penalties that include relatively short periods of time in jail.  For instance, fighting and loitering  are municipal ordinances in Jacksonville, and a violation of either ordinance can result in some jail time.

However, the same search and seizure rules do not apply to municipal ordinances as for state and federal crimes. In a recent case south of Jacksonville, Florida, police found the suspect in a city park after it closed at 11:00 p.m. The police officer arrested the suspect for being in the park after hours. This was not a state crime but a municipal ordinance violation. After the arrest, as they always do, the police officer searched the suspect. The police officer found a concealed handgun, cocaine and marijuana. The suspect was then charged with felony and misdemeanor crimes based on the evidence found after the municipal ordinance arrest.

The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress all of the evidence based on the search incident to a municipal ordinance arrest. The court noted that the police are not allowed to go through a full custodial arrest and search for a violation of a municipal ordinance, like they can for actual criminal law violations. They can “arrest” or detain a suspect for a brief period of time in order to write a ticket or issue a notice to appear in court at a later date. However, the suspect is not taken to jail. As a result, the police are not permitted to conduct a search incident to an arrest in these cases. Therefore, the search of the defendant was unreasonable, and the charges related to the gun, marijuana and cocaine were thrown out.

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In Florida and elsewhere, people have a constitutional right to privacy, and this protection is greatest in one’s home. As a result, the police generally cannot search a person’s residence without consent from someone with authorization or a valid search warrant. If the police do get a valid search warrant signed by a judge, that does not give them free rein to search anything and everything belonging to the suspect. The search is limited to what is reasonable and the area identified in the search warrant.

In a recent drug possession case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the police obtained evidence that the defendant had illegal drugs in his home. The police went to a judge and obtained a search warrant for the residence. The address of the residence was listed on the search warrant, and it was described as a single story residence. The search warrant authorized the police to search the residence, the curtilage of the residence (the area surrounding the home), any vehicles on the premises and any people at the premises. That is fairly common for search warrants. When the police arrived to the property, the saw an RV on the property and searched it. They found illegal drugs inside.

The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in the RV arguing that police did not have authority to search the RV based on a search warrant of the permanent residence that did not mention the RV. The state pointed out that a search warrant of a residence and its curtilage often allows police to search enclosed areas around the house, such as a shed or a vehicle on the property. However, search warrants are limited to the place described in the search warrant. Police officers are not authorized to search separate dwelling units on the property that are not listed in the search warrant. So, the question becomes whether the RV is apparently being used as a separate dwelling. The court looked at where it was located, who owned it, whether it was affixed to the ground, whether there was a utility hookup, whether it was occupied and other factors. If it was reasonable to believe the RV was being used as a separate residence, the police could not search it since it was not mentioned in the search warrant. However, if it appeared reasonable to believe the RV was being used as a vehicle and was on the property mentioned in the search warrant, then the police probably would have been authorized to search it. In this case, the evidence indicated the RV was a residence so the search was unlawful, and the evidence found in the RV was suppressed.

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In a murder case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the police identified a suspect and learned that he had multiple cell phones. They tried to use this cell phone information to determine the location of the defendant at the time of the murder. When people use their cell phones, the phones communicate with a tower.  Cell phone companies record this cell site location information on a mapping program that shows the locations of those towers. If the police are able to obtain this cell site information from cell phone companies, they can determine an approximate location of a person at a certain time based on cell phone usage. In this murder case, the police did obtain this cell phone information from the cell phone provider without a search warrant, and discovered that the suspect was near the site of the murder at the time. With this information and other evidence, the defendant was arrested for murder.

The criminal defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the cell site information because the police did not obtain a search warrant to get it. In 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States addressed this issue and ruled that this historical cell site information is protected by the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. In other words, the police cannot just obtain this information without probable cause and a search warrant. Because they did so, the murder case was reversed.  That opinion noted that cell phone providers maintain this information on all cell phone users. If the police did not need a search warrant to obtain this information, the police would basically be permitted to run location surveillance on just about everyone with a simple request. People increasingly rely on portable electronic devices for work and many other aspects of life. Doing so and the fact that providers of these devices record information about the user does not mean the user relinquishes his/her private data to the government without oversight.

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