In Florida, many criminal cases involving drugs and guns result from traffic stops. A police officer will conduct a traffic stop and become suspicious or allegedly discover evidence of illegal activity and search the vehicle. A search of the vehicle can be based on consent, which the driver or occupant never has to give. Or, sometimes the police officer will call a drug K-9 to the scene that alerts to the odor of narcotics. These searches can be questionable if the police officer keeps the vehicle and driver at the traffic stop for an unreasonable period of time while waiting for the drug dog. There are other methods the police use to search vehicles after a traffic stop, but requesting consent is a common one.
Not every traffic stop involves a vehicle. People in Florida need to be aware that the traffic laws apply to people on bicycles as well. The police can stop a bicycle for running a stop sign or a red light just like a vehicle. However, the initial stop of the vehicle, or bicycle, must be legally valid in order for any search or arrest thereafter to be valid.
In a recent possession of crack cocaine case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the suspect was riding his bike against traffic. Florida law says a bike must ride with traffic, just like a car must. Of course, people ride their bikes against traffic all of the time and the police ignore it, but in this case, they stopped the rider. While issuing the rider a citation, the police officer asked him if he had any drugs or guns in his possession. The rider admitted to having crack cocaine. The police officer searched him, found the cocaine and arrested him for possession of crack cocaine.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the cocaine arguing that the police officer did not have the right to stop the cyclist or keep him there to investigate the drug possession crime. The court denied the criminal defense attorney’s motion. First, because biking against traffic is illegal, the police officer had a right to stop the rider and write him a ticket for it. While the police officer is writing the ticket, he can ask the rider questions about guns or drugs in his possession. The police officer cannot keep the rider there to ask those questions or investigate those issues without specific evidence of wrongdoing, but while the rider must be there to get the traffic ticket anyway, the police officer can ask those questions. Once the rider admits to having cocaine in his possession, the case turns into a criminal case based on that evidence, and the police officer can search the rider for drugs. Once he finds the cocaine, he can effect an arrest.
Police officers cannot extend traffic citation encounters to search for evidence of criminal activity, but they can ask questions while they are writing the ticket. Police officers must let the person leave once the normal time for writing a ticket has passed if there is no specific evidence of criminal activity to prolong the encounter. As unfortunate as it was that this person was pulled over for riding a bike the wrong way on the road, this could have been avoided by refusing to answer questions unrelated to the traffic ticket and refusing consent to search him for any illegal contraband. Had he refused, it is unlikely the police officer would have had any evidence of a drug crime, and the police officer would not have been permitted to keep the rider at the scene after writing the ticket. A whole lot of people go to jail because they do not know their rights.