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Florida Police Officer’s traffic Stop Based on a Broken Tail Light Was Illegal

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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