A recent encounter between a suspect and a police officer near Jacksonville, Florida illustrates that police do not have free reign to question suspects and detain them based on mere suspicions or the fact that they do not like a person’s answers. In light of recent police shootings and some people’s automatic defense of police regardless of the facts or the relevant law, it seems as if some people believe that it is the obligation of citizens to comply with police no matter how unlawful the police conduct might be.
In a recent cocaine possession case, a police officer observed the suspect standing next to a car in the middle of the road. When the police officer approached, the car fled but the suspect remained on foot. The police officer asked the suspect his name, and he gave a name that the police officer later determined was a false name. Once the police officer ran the name and checked with another individual nearby who knew the suspect, he determined that the name was false. He arrested the suspect at that time. After the arrest, the police officer searched the suspect and found that he was in possession of cocaine. After arresting the suspect for possession of cocaine, he got the suspect’s true name and learned that he had a separate felony warrant outstanding.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the cocaine based on the fact that the defendant was illegally detained and illegally arrested. The appellate court agreed. The defendant was not breaking the law when the police officer approached him. The police officer is permitted to ask questions of anyone, but when the defendant gave a false name, that was not against the law either. Giving a false name can be a misdemeanor crime in Florida, but only if the defendant was lawfully detained or arrested at the time. At the time the defendant gave the false name, the police officer did not have any legal reason to detain or arrest him. Therefore, giving a false name at that time was not a crime under Florida law.
The prosecutor made the argument that the police officer would have been able to search the defendant incident to an arrest based on the outstanding warrant, and he would have found the cocaine that way anyway. However, the problem with this argument is that the police officer never would have found out about the outstanding warrant had he not illegally detained and arrested the defendant to begin with. Because the initial illegal detention and arrest led to this information, it could not be used as a basis for a legal search and seizure of the cocaine. The possession charges were dismissed as the cocaine evidence was suppressed. However, the charge for which the defendant had an outstanding warrant remained as that had nothing to do with this particular constitutional violation.